By Anthony Cody and Susan DuFresne.
Four Seattle area teachers who got to know one another in 2011, when they all attended the Save Our Schools march in Washington, DC, stood before the Renton Board of Education and read “statements of professional conscience” in which they pledged their refusal to administer standardized tests to their students. Their names are Julianna Krueger Dauble, Judy Dotson, Susan DuFresne and Becca Ritchie.
Renton, Washington, is just south of Seattle. The Renton School District has 15,000 students and a five member elected school board. The board met on the evening of Wednesday, Jan. 28, in the Sierra Heights Elementary School cafeteria. Teacher Susan DuFresne provided me with a firsthand description of the night’s events.
The process began with a simple group post on Facebook started by Becca Ritchie, saying that she wanted to write a letter and wanted feedback. That spark inspired all of us to organize around this issue.
We arrived at Sierra Heights Elementary School early after three of us had been collaborating working on her speech is over the course of two weeks. Julianna teaches there, so we gathered in her classroom to practice. Jeb Binns, president of the Rainier UniServ Council, joined us to time us and offer feedback. Judy Dotson decided to join us just a few days before the board meeting so she worked on her speech for a very short time. We lined up other teachers at Julianna’s school to read from the list of objections that went beyond the boards’ three-minute allocation for each of us to speak. We also had other teachers who though they did not submit of letters a professional conscience, spoke passionately about toxic testing right after we spoke.
We entered the cafeteria at Sierra Heights elementary, which is Julianas school where the school board meeting was being held last night. We signed up as a group so that our names would be called in a stacked order after strategizing how we wanted to deliver our speeches.
The gym was packed full as there were teachers there being honored for receiving their national board certification, and students who were going to deliver speeches about studying Martin Luther King, which framed our entire message for us by serendipity. This also meant that there were parents in the crowd ready to hear their children, but who also ended up hearing our speeches.
As we were waiting for our place on the agenda when it was time allotted for the public to share comments to the board our friends from the Washington Badass Teachers Association began filing in in solidarity. Other teachers from Julianna’s school were present for solidarity purposes as well. Teachers from Renton school district, Highline school district, Bellevue school district, Shoreline school district, Seattle school district, and Mukiltio were present in solidarity.
It was difficult to sit and listen to the beginning of the board meeting awaiting our turns to speak. We knew the seriousness of what we were about to do, but we were fully committed and a sense of empowerment as the solidarity of our friends arriving began to overtake some of the fear. We were resigned to take this important step. All of our school district administration was in the crowd as well, including the assistant superintendent, my principal’s supervisor, and my former assistant principal, and the principal of the school.
When the children read their speeches about Dr. King and said that we need more heroes to risk and stand up for what is right, we all knew for sure we were doing the right thing.
Finally, the board began the public comment section of the agenda and first stop was David Spring, who read a report about the recent vote by the Democratic party in Washington state to join the state Republican party in opposing the Common Core. He gave a solid rationale for why the standards should be eliminated. (see David Spring’s full statement here.)
Teacher Judy Dotson addresses the Renton School Board.
Next the president of the school board called Becca Ritchie to speak.We had strategized that she would deliver the framing for all of us. Becca reworded Dr. Martin Luther King’s Vietnam speech, changing only a few words to read teachers and high-stakes testing. The speech was perfect to frame our Letters of Professional Conscience, because as you know, this is a war on public education.
Becca delivered her speech despite the nerves that gripped all of us as we stood behind her in solidarity in the aisle behind the podium as she was speaking.
We had decided that I would start the narrative, because I teach kindergarten. We wanted to show how testing has moved down to the preschool and kindergarten level and how disturbing the impacts of increasing toxic testing are on young children.
Judy Dotson read her speech next as a third-grade teacher framing what it feels like to be labeled a “1” – not college ready. Next up was Julianna, who, as a fifth-grade teacher began to read additional framing about corporate education reform, the profit involved, further impacts on our children, and then finally began reading our objections.
We knew because we had timed our speeches that the objections around young children, students with special needs, and our ELLs were over the 12 minutes it would take for the four of us to get through our speeches. At the last minute before the meeting and before we turned in our stack to order our speeches, 2 brave teachers from Sierra Heights agreed to sign up to read our final objections.
The whole time that we were speaking, our brothers and sisters from WA BATs stood behind us in solidarity.
Next several other teachers approach the podium as they were called to discuss the impossible workload on teachers and the terrible impacts of toxic testing on children and teachers. They were able to frame the impact on children and teachers from the high school point of view. Becca’s letter to the board frames the middle school perspective. We had all of our bases covered.
All in all, I believe there were about eight or nine teachers who came to the podium last night. The crowd applauded after each speech was given and in some cases gave standing ovations.
Although when we had practiced our speeches they were under three minutes, when we were delivering our words for real, nerves and the eye contact we gave to the board slowed us down slightly. As a result, the timer that the board uses could be heard going off before most of our speeches were completed. Nonetheless, our school board president graciously allowed us to complete our speeches without any verbal interruption or demand for us to stop speaking.
As we were speaking, our superintendent and board members seemed to be listening intently. We observed several of the board members stopping to take notes during our speeches, and at some points in our speeches we observed our superintendent to quietly smile, and sometimes even shake her head in agreement.
I think one of the most important statements made by one of the teachers was that this year’s toxic testing has made her the worst teacher she has ever been. In high school, our students must be prepared for more than one test as we roll out Common Core. (Please listen to her speech as she outlines what that is like for teacher and student in Washington state this year.)
At some point in the lineup, Jeb Binns, president of the Uniserv Council that includes Renton, Highline and another district got up to speak to invite the board to our opt out rally on February 16 in Olympia. He emplored the school board to listen to us brave teachers who had spoken before him. He spoke eloquently as a parent about the impacts of testing on his children. In fact Julianna in her speech stated that she will be opting her children out of the SBA this year, telling the crowd that this is a parents’ right.
When the school board asked if anyone else would like to speak, a parent who had not been planning to speak stood up spontaneously. She spoke about being a parent of a seventh grade son who does not fit in the box and how a teacher who recognize that when he was a third-grader had made a difference in his life. She announced on the spot that she would be opting her seventh grade son out of the state testing this year.
Cami Kiel, our local union president was there, and spoke last, speaking out on behalf of teachers and the workload, and against the toxic testing. Cami told us later that we will likely not lose our jobs, but that we may lose 10 days of pay – we may be suspended for 10 days without pay as discipline for refusing to administer the mandated test.
The WA BATS all met in the foyer to debrief. Several are planning to use the video captured from the event to start a movement like this in their districts. The sense of empowerment that we gave other teachers was palpable. Then Becca, Julianna, and I returned to listen to the final section of the board meeting. When the board meeting was over, the three of us began helping the custodian & the Sierra Heights’ administration put away the chairs. The superintendent came up to us and warmly shook her hands and thanked us for our speeches. The board went to another room for their executive meeting. After they adjourned they had to leave walking by the three of us.
As the board members walked by, each of them thanked us and the board president stopped by to tell me a story about visiting a kindergarten classroom earlier that day. She related the story of a kindergarten student sharing a time about when he was little. He used the phrase “when I was young,” to describe the childhood school had forced him to leave behind. Her eyes filled with tears as I saw her reflect on the words that I had spoken about the damage of toxic testing to these very little children.
Julianna Krueger Dauble shared that she was asked by the Renton reporter reporter what she wants the board to do. She told the reporter,
Allow me to opt out of administering SBAC) without retribution (my printed letter makes this request very clear.) And inform all Renton School District parents about their fundamental and legal right to opt out. I don’t want to get my hopes up, but… You can’t create a reality unless you envision it. Both actions are possible.
David Spring also spoke, and shared some of what he saw.
One teacher at a local Renton High School said that at a recent faculty meeting nearly half of the teachers indicated that they are so upset about the chaos created by Common Core standards and tests this year, they are considering dropping out of teaching altogether. These are high school teachers who have been teaching for an average of 10 years or more who simply feel that Common Core and Common Core tests are harming their kids and destroying their profession.
[note: a portion of this has been removed, as the person who was described felt it was inaccurate.]
Here is a statement made by a parent, in support of the value of teachers, expressing her intent to opt her children out of the tests. (added to the post on Jan. 31)
Here are the statements made by two of the four teachers.
Becca Ritchie, 6th grade teacher at Nelson Middle School:
When I feel so passionate about the children I teach sometimes my own words fail me and therefore I reached out to the words of Dr. King.
We come to this meeting tonight because our conscience leaves us no other choice. We found ourselves in full accord with the saying: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to high stakes standardized testing.
The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, teachers do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own conscience. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of dreadful policy, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.
Some of us who have already begun to break the silence have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our vision, but we must speak.
For we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems to perpetuate the message that our schools are failing.
Over the past five years, we have moved to break the betrayal of our own silences and to speak from the burnings of our hearts, as we have called for radical departures from education policies.
Many persons have questioned us about the wisdom of our path. At the heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud: “Why are you speaking about the high stakes testing?” Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which our students live.
Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to us that the testing is doing something even more unconscionable. It is devastating the joy of learning and dashing the dreams of our students.
We knew that we could never again raise our voices for our students without having first spoken clearly to those who set education policies that position students for failure. For the sake of these students, we cannot be silent.
And as we ponder the madness of high stakes testing and search within ourselves for ways to understand and respond in compassion, our minds go constantly to our students. We speak now simply of the children who have been living under the curse of high stakes testing for over decade now. We think of them, because it is clear to us that there will be no meaningful solution until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries and respond by ending the high stakes testing.
Susan DuFresne, Kindergarten teacher, said this:
As a kindergarten teacher, I am responsible for five year olds first experience in our schools working with a group larger than their own family. I take the responsibility for making that initial experience in school positive – one where children feel safe and loved, where their individual curiosity, talents, and potential are nurtured – where each child develops a love of learning. I learned this gift is what parents value in me as their child’s first teacher. If our parents knew how toxic testing impacts their children, I think they would be alarmed.
I love finding each child’s strengths and unlocking the key to their challenges, helping them grow socially and academically as whole children. From gifted students who read at a 4th grade level in kindergarten to those who will not learn their letters by the end of the year due to neurological issues that impact their ability to learn – I know they all come to learn something new. Children are neither standard nor common. Each child comes to me with an empty rice bowl hungry for new and different knowledge. Feeding them all the same standardized diet does harm. Why are we taught to differentiate our instruction, yet forced to administer standardized tests? This doesn’t make any sense and isn’t best practice.
I work to give my students joy every day and know that research shows ALL children learn how to learn through play, a well-rounded curriculum with art, music, theater, movement, and games that provide a varied diet for multiple intelligences rather than one-size-fits-all. But now, the agony of this increasing testing has for the first time, moved down to pre-school and kindergarten. Instead of joy and a love for learning, our 5 year olds experience test anxiety and are labeled as failures. How can a 5 year old be labeled as a failure already? Building, district, and state mandated testing strip our children of the exact experiences they need.
In kindergarten almost all testing is done one-on-one, losing valuable instructional time while expecting 5 year olds to work independently and quietly for hours. WA Kids takes hours at the beginning of the year when it is important to develop relationships and establish routines. This is not best practice. Nor are the bubble tests for kindergartners. I was mandated to administer a WELPA bubble test lasting an hour and ½ last year to children just learning English. Several students cried, begging me to stop, saying “Mrs. DuFresne, this is too hard. I want to go home.” I wanted to go home too.
For these reasons, I cannot remain silent and I must join my colleagues in their objections.