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Peter Rothberg | The Nation

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Peter Rothberg

Peter Rothberg

Opposing war, racism, sexism, climate change, economic injustice and high-stakes testing.

Brooklyn Teachers Push Back Against High-Stakes Testing

PS 29 Art

High-stakes test prep leaves less time for projects like the one above, created by students at PS 29. (PS 29 Brooklyn/Facebook)

This post requires full disclosure: I could hardly be more involved in what I’m writing about here. Not only do my two children attend PS 29, one of the main teachers involved in the story teaches my son’s class, I’ve personally worked with the teachers and parents trying to organize resistance to high-stakes testing, I know a number of the Teachers Resolution’s signatories and I’m totally biased in their favor.

Now, on to our story: this past week, third through eighth graders in New York State public schools took the English Language Arts standardized tests. In New York City, the tests have an unusually high-stakes dimension absent in most of the rest of the state (and the country) in that students’ scores can play a significant role in their admission to middle school.

There’s a growing nationwide movement opposing these tests as the result of a corporate-driven agenda that has distorted real learning, widened the achievement gap, increased financial strain on schools and parents, unfairly stigmatized teachers and introduced unnecessary stress into the lives of young people. There’s a litany of grievances cited by critics and the opposition comes from both the left and the right.

In many places, activists have encouraged parents to opt out of the tests, which is legally allowed in all states. The most dramatic example of a successful opt out movement took place in January 2013, when teachers led a test boycott at Seattle’s Garfield High School. Teachers refused to administer and students refused to take the state test, which organizers argued wasn’t aligned to curriculum and provided statistically unreliable results. After a months-long standoff with the district, which saw teachers threatened with suspension, the district relented and allowed the high school to forgo the test.

Nothing has gone that far in New York City. Yet. But three Brooklyn schools did have significant opt-out numbers this past week and there’s a huge undercurrent of resentment building to what even many school administrators are calling unreliable, unfair, unintelligible and unnecessary tests.

Liz Phillips, the highly respected veteran principal of Park Slope’s PS 321, was so aghast at the muddle that was apparently this year’s ELA that she issued a strongly worded statement on behalf of her administration and faculty, telling parents, “There was inappropriate content, many highly ambiguous questions, and a focus on structure rather than meaning of passages.” She added that she was “devastated” at having had to administer the tests and underscored that “our teachers and administrators feel that this test is an insult to the profession of teaching and that students’ scores on it will not correlate with their reading ability. ”

Phillips followed up by quickly organizing a protest at her school on April 4, the morning after the ELAs were complete, and reaching out to Dr. Rebecca Fagin, the principal of fellow Brownstone Brooklyn Public School 29 (where my children are in third and first grades currently) encouraging her to do the same.

Fagin, in her second year at the helm and already on record as opposing the high-stakes nature of the test along with 545 fellow New York State principals who co-signed this letter last November, was receptive to Phillips’s suggestion. She also had the strong backing of a growing group of the school’s teachers, a small number of whom had previously collaborated on a teachers’ resolution opposing the tests which was subsequently signed by about three-quarters of the school’s faculty and released at the April 4 protests.

I’ve heard moving emotional appeals making the case against high-stakes testing. I’ve read heavily reported books. I’ve sat through well-informed data-driven presentations. But I had not read something like the PS 29 Teachers Resolution, which combines the intellectual clarity of the deeply informed with the urgency that only profound personal involvement can incite.

These teachers are on the front lines—they truly care and they really know the deal. Let’s honor their commitment by listening to them.

PS 29 Teachers Resolution

April 4, 2014

Over the past decade, standardized tests have taken on greater importance in New York’s public schools. New York City’s students now take state ELA and math exams in grades 3 through 8, and their performance on these tests is linked to promotion, middle- and high-school admissions, teacher evaluations and school progress reports.

Because the tests are now aligned with the Common Core State Standards, they have become more difficult, resulting in much lower passing rates across New York City and State. The tests have also become longer: elementary school students will spend between seven and nine hours taking the state tests this month and next, and students with testing accommodations may have to sit for as many as eighteen hours of testing this spring. Moreover, during March and April, students in testing-grade classrooms can spend up to three hours per day preparing for the state tests.

As teachers, we feel the impact of these changes in our classrooms. In testing grades, the anxiety that students and teachers have about the state exams is palpable. Some students break down in tears during testing and related test-prep sessions, knowing that their performance impacts not only their promotion to the next grade, but also their chances of getting into choice middle and high schools.

Compounding the emotional turmoil, teachers in testing grades must narrow their otherwise rich curricula in order to make room for test prep. Subjects like social studies, word study and read aloud are cast aside, and valuable social-emotional learning and exploration must be limited in order to make sure that students are ready for the exams come spring.

High-stakes tests require that teachers narrow not only their curricula but also the skills they emphasize. As teachers in testing grades prepare students for the state exams, they must often put aside their emphasis on skills like elaboration and creative thinking in order to teach kids to write formulaic responses and find the one right answer.

Even the lower grades have been affected by these high-stakes tests. The pressure to prepare students for their upcoming years of testing has cut time for exploration and play. Additionally, that pressure has increased the need for students to meet, at times, developmentally inappropriate milestones in reading and writing.

Beyond the scope of individual classrooms, high-stakes tests have significant consequences for a school as a whole. As teachers are pulled from their programs to accommodate the proctoring and scoring of exams, a number of critical support services, ESL periods, ICT classrooms and specialty programs are disrupted for nearly a month.

When used correctly, we believe that assessment is a powerful tool. At PS 29, we constantly assess our students, collecting meaningful data that informs our day-to-day instruction. Unlike the high-stakes tests, our assessments improve the education we provide.

Across grades, we feel with great certainty that the rise of standardized testing—and most specifically, its high-stakes nature—has eroded real student learning time, narrowed the curriculum and jeopardized the rich, meaningful education our students need and deserve.

As such, we, the undersigned, believe that it is crucial for teachers to raise our voices on these issues, and we resolve to stand together to advocate for the elimination of the high-stakes nature of standardized tests.

Sincerely,
Kim Van Duzer
Leah Brunski
Rachel Knight
Peter Cipparone
Sara Thorne
Susannah Sperry
Liz Sturges Cosentino
Carolyn Rivas
Sophia Soto
Kristen Adamczyk
Sarah McCaffrey
Mollie Lief
Chantelle Luk
Melissa Bandes Golden
Frank Thomas
Jackie Lichter
Tristram Carver
Jessica Albizu
Hana Pardon
Lisa Cohen
Dan Turret
Lauren McGivney
Adam Gerloff
Bradley Frome
Izzi Kane
Molly Dubow
Kathy Nobles
January Mark
Jasmine Junsay
Nadira Udairam
Aaron Berns
Monica Salazar-Austin
Rachel Certner
Alice Pack
Marisa Noiseux

Why Are Students Protesting Wendy’s and Publix?

Immokalee tour

Immokalee "Now is the Time" tour (Photo credit: Forest Woodward)

The indefatigable Coalition of Immokalee Workers recently wrapped up its "Now is the Time” Tour—a ten-day, ten-city tour designed to pressure Wendy’s and Publix supermarkets—two of the remaining hold-out retailers—to embrace the highest standard of farm labor protections and increased pay in US agriculture, the Fair Food Program.

Wendy’s now stands alone as the only major fast-food brand that has refused to join the FFP, a unique farmworker-driven initiative consisting of a wage increase supported by a price premium paid by corporate purchasers of Florida tomatoes, and a human-rights-based Code of Conduct, applicable throughout the Florida tomato industry.

More than 800 consumers marched on Wendy’s headquarters in Columbus, OH, and over 1,000 faith, student and community supporters joined farmworkers on March 14 for a 24-hour vigil and march in Publix’s hometown of Lakeland, FL.

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Another big step in the direction of equity and justice is National Farmworker Awareness Week. Five days of action for students and community members to raise awareness about farmworker issues, the annual event is currently marking its 15th anniversary in 2014. Honor the occasion by learning how you can help advance the cause of farmworker justice and equity by calling Wendy’s management, delivering info to Wendy’s franchises, educating your community about the issues and helping spread the word about the campaign.

The Fight Against Mass Surveillance

Fight Against Mass Surveillance

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Today more than 5,000 organizations, including The Nation, are participating in “The Day We Fight Back” a worldwide day of activism in opposition to the NSA’s mass spying. The coalition is asking Americans to support the USA Freedom Act, a bipartisan effort to rein in the worst abuses of the NSA. Write to your representative and senators now and tell them to support the USA Freedom Act. To amplify your voice, call the congressional switchboard at 202-224-3121 or tweet using the hashtag #StoptheNSA.

Read Next: additional actions you can take to rein in the NSA.

Youth Plan Mass Civil Disobedience to Protest Keystone XL

Keystone XL Protest

A protester holds up a sign in front of the White House. (Emma Cassidy, tarsandsaction/Flickr)

Here we go again. With President Obama on the cusp of a decision on whether to approve the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, on March 2, hundreds of students and young people are expected to risk arrest in an act of civil disobedience at the White House to pressure President Obama to reject the project.

The sit-in is expected to be the largest act of civil disobedience by young people in the recent history of the environmental movement and it will be led by just the demographic that helped propel Obama to the presidency. The protest, known as “XL Dissent,” is meant to send a clear signal to President Obama that the base that helped elect him sees Keystone XL as a decision that will define his entire legacy.

“Obama was the first president I voted for, and I want real climate action and a rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline,” said Nick Stracco, a senior at Tulane University. “The people that voted him into office have made it absolutely clear what we want, and that’s to reject Keystone XL.”

The tar sands, also known as the oil sands, are one of the largest remaining deposits of oil in the world, and efforts to extract the resource from a mix of clay and other materials underneath Canada’s Boreal forest have created the biggest, and by the accounts of numerous scientists and environmental groups, one of the most environmentally devastating energy projects on earth. For details and background, the Natural Resources Defense Council has compiled an extensive document.

The Keystone XL fight has become an iconic issue for environmentally minded young people across the country, many of whom are involved in local campaigns to help stop the pipeline or the broader fossil fuel divestment campaign, which has spread to over 300 universities across the United States.

As 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben aptly puts it:

As the fight to stop KXL enters its final stages, it’s truly inspiring to see young people at the forefront. This pipeline is scheduled to last 40 years—right through the prime of their lives. President Obama needs to look them in the face.

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The “XL Dissent” protest on March 2 will begin with a march from Georgetown University to the White House. After a rally in Lafayette Square, hundreds of students and young people are expected to risk arrest at the White House fence. The day before the protest, students will meet for a nonviolent direct action training and fossil fuel divestment conference.

Get more info and sign up for the march; find out exactly what’s being planned and see how you can help the cause, whether you can be in DC on March 2 or not.

Read Next: Wen Stephenson on voices from Keystone XL’s front lines

Pete Seeger’s Top Ten Songs

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger performs in 2013. (wfuv/Flickr)

The first concert I ever saw was Pete Seeger playing Carnegie Hall in 1970 when I was a toddler. (“What took your parents so long?” my friend John Nichols asks.) Since then, I was privileged to see him sing at numerous shows, labor rallies, anti-apartheid protests, annual Clearwater Festivals, an environmental fundraiser, an early Farm-Aid benefit, after breakfast at my lefty summer camp and, most recently, on the streets of the Upper West Side of Manhattan at an Occupy rally in the fall of 2011.

Seeger, who died on January 27 at the too-young age of 94, was everywhere. It’s a cliché, but wherever people were struggling for their rights and their dignity, Seeger was there. He spearheaded an American folk revival while championing a long litany of social justice causes and lived an extraordinary life marked by hard work, skilled musicianship and kindness,

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Musically, Seeger was both a songwriter and, like his idol Woody Guthrie, a great interpreter of America’s deepest folk traditions. He didn’t write “We Shall Overcome,” the iconic anthem of the civil rights revolution, but no one played a greater role in popularizing the song. His most famous original compositions, “If I Had a Hammer,” an immortal tale of perserverance and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” a haunting lament over the absurdity of war, are now and forever a core part of the culture of protest in the United States and around the world.

Seeger’s life and legacy resonated deeply with generations of artists and activists of all stripes and inspired considerable musical tribute; this list is meant simply as a starting point for discussion (and listening!) Please use the comments field below to let me what I missed.

Pete Seeger’s Top Ten Songs

1. If I Had a Hammer

2. Where Have All the Flowers Gone

3. Midnight Special with Arlo Guthrie

4. What Did You Learn in School Today

5. Little Boxes

6. Turn, Turn

7. Guantanamera

8. This Land is Your Land with Bruce Springsteen

9. We Shall Overcome

10a. Worried Man Blues with Johnny and June Cash

10b. Kisses Sweeter than Wine

Read Next: Pete Seeger moves the crowd at Vietnam Moratorium Day

Top Ten Civil Rights Songs

In honor of today's national holiday marking the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., I embarked on the impossible task of selecting a top ten list of songs about civil rights. The theme has resonated deeply with generations of artists of all stripes and inspired considerable musical tribute; this list is meant simply as a starting point for discussion (and listening!) Please use the comments field below to let me what I missed.

In Fairly Random Order:

1. Mavis Staples, We Shall Not Be Moved

2 The Impressions, People Get Ready

3. Sam Cooke, A Change is Gonna Come

5. Phil Ochs, Here's to the State of Mississippi

6. Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A Changin'

7. Sweet Honey in the Rock, Eyes on the Prize

8. Gil Scott-Heron, 95 South (All of the Places We've Been)

9. The Roots, Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round

10. The Staple Singers, Freedom Highway

Top Ten Songs About Nelson Mandela

Few, if any, of the towering figures of the twentieth century inspired as many people, or as many songs, as Nelson Mandela. Artists of all genres and stripes found different ways to pay tribute to Mandela, the architect of the ANC’s resistance strategy, as he served twenty-seven years in prison before emerging to lead his country into a peaceful transition to majority rule. As the world mourns the loss of Mandela, 95, here are ten of my favorites presented in tribute. Please use the comments field below to let me know what I missed. RIP.

1. Free Nelson Mandela, The Specials

2. Mandela (Bring Him Back Home), Hugh Masekela

3. Asimbonanga, Johnny Clegg

4. When You Come Back, Vusi Mahlasela

5. Nelson Mandela Song, Nomfusi & The Lucky Charms

6. Give Me Hope Joanna, Eddy Grant

7. Black President, Brenda Fassie

8. House of Exile, Lucky Dube

9. Sooner Than Later, Kent O’Shea

10. Number 46664, Bono, Joe Strummer and Dave Stewart

This Commercial Should Make Every Parent Vow to Never Shop at Toys“R”Us

Toys“R”Us Ad

This one commercial should be enough to make every parent vow to never ever again shop at Toys“R”Us. The spot, airing in numerous markets coast to coast, suggests that trees are boring and nature sucks while a stroll through the plastic corridors of Toys“R”Us is just what young minds need to stimulate their inner creativity and happiness. It views like satire but it’s no joke. Join Climate Parents in telling Toys“R”Us to stop pushing anti-environmental messages on our kids.

How to Help in the Philippines

Wreckage left by Typhoon Haiyan

Typhoon Haiyan, the Category 5 mega-storm that pounded the eastern Philippines on November 8, has left at least 10,000 people dead and many more injured while destroying critical water, electricity and transportation infrastructure. Towns and villages are leveled in an already impoverished region. There’s little water to drink or food to eat. According to all accounts, the need for outside assistance is urgent.

Here’s an incomplete list of groups on the ground working to immediately aid the victims. Please use the comments field to let me know what other relief groups deserve support.

If you’re looking or have information on a missing person, Google Person Finder has launched a Typhoon Yolanda page. A Google crisis map is also available for evacuation and relief information.

Oxfam’s work combines immediate, practical assistance post-disasters with an intelligent, tough-minded approach to the longer-term needs for development, justice and sustainability. Oxfam aid teams are on the ground in the Philippines and reporting urgent needs of food, clean water, medicine and shelter. Communication lines between some provinces are cut and many areas are experiencing total black outs. Oxfam teams are assessing the extent of the damage now and are ready to deploy water and sanitation materials to those affected but urgently need help to scale up.

The National Alliance for Filipino Concerns (NAFCON) has created a disaster relief fund for victims in the Philippines.

The American Jewish World Service, which has worked extensively in the Philippines, is collecting funds to provide urgent aid to local groups in the country that know their communities and what they need to help survivors.

Shelterbox is providing tents, kitchen equipment, blankets, water purification systems and classroom supplies to refugee families in the Philippines. You can help with an online donation or by using one of these methods.

The UN’s World Food Program has allocated an immediate $2 million for Haiyan relief, with a greater appeal pending. The organization is also sending 40 metric tons of fortified biscuits in the immediate aftermath, as well as working with the government to restore emergency telecommunications. Americans can text the word AID to 27722 to donate $10 or give online. Learn more here.

World Vision has a long history of relief and anti-poverty work in the Philippines and is mobilizing nearly 500 staff around the country to respond to the disaster. Donations are accepted online and the organization also lets you sponsor a child in the Philippines.

Join the Largest Privacy Protest Ever This Weekend

Daniel Ellsberg

US Representative John Conyers Jr., Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and actor Maggie Gyllenhaal join a chorus of prominent voices calling for an end to mass suspicionless surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) in a new short video released by the StopWatching.us coalition.

The video is a call to action released in support of the Stop Watching Us: Rally Against Mass Surveillance being held in Washington, DC, on Saturday, October 26, the twelfth anniversary of the Patriot Act. Formed in June 2013, the StopWatching.us coalition comprises more than 100 public advocacy organizations from across the political spectrum demanding that Congress investigate the full extent of the NSA’s spying programs.

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The protest should be the largest privacy protest in the history of the republic. The demand is for a full congressional investigation of America’s surveillance programs, reform to federal surveillance law and accountability from public officials responsible for hiding this surveillance from lawmakers and the public. Sign the coalition’s petition and find out how you can support the campaign, whether or not you can get to DC on October 26.

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