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Seattle Grace

What would happen if teachers refused to do things that harmed their students?

Actually, it's a common occurrence. Ms. Smith decides making her students write their spelling words ten times each is unproductive make-work, and finds a better routine. Mr. Jones stops his embarrassing (but time-saving) habit of exchange-papers-and-correct. Mrs. Johnson realizes that reflexively assigning kids to all-day detention is counterproductive and substitutes real, difficult one-to-one conversations instead.

This dust-up at Garfield High in Seattle is no more than an inflated and super-heated version of teachers deciding to jettison a practice (computer-adaptive MAP testing) that's been tried and found unproductive for their students--albeit a battle with national policy implications.

In an ideal ed-world, of course, whether to submit students to regular computer-adaptive testing would be a negotiable question. When I was part of my local union's leadership, we called these "high road issues"--items like class size, maintaining popular after-school programs, setting a calendar that acknowledges family plans, providing teachers time to update and improve curriculum. Things parents supported wholeheartedly--unlike the salary schedule or benefit packages, where parents were happy to turn the wrangling over to their elected boards.

It's worth pointing out here that resisting the MAP test is more work and stress for the Garfield teachers: Lesson planning and prep for the do-nothing days when MAP testing would otherwise suck up huge chunks of time, for example. That's not including the extra meetings, crafting statements, making phone calls and risking their paychecks that the refusal entails. It's a high road issue all the way.

How does taking computer-adaptive tests harm children? Besides wasting their precious face-to-face learning time? Computer tests are easily gamed, and can even be psychologically damaging to children who perceive that their early wrong answers cause the computer to label them inferior. Computer-adaptive tests squander scarce district resources--time, money and access to technology. They tacitly imply that technologies are more useful and reliable than human teachers. MAP tests don't give students useful feedback, and the information they provide to teachers isn't necessarily aligned with what teachers are trying to teach.

A letter signed by supportive educators around the country (full disclosure: I'm one of them) explains the Garfield teachers' rationale best.

So what happens when teachers join forces and make a carefully considered--and, importantly, collective--decision about what their students need? In a country in thrall to standardization, competition and hierarchies, the answer is pretty predictable--a power struggle. The immediate response from the press? Teachers need to follow the rules. Immediate response from the new Superintendent? Follow the rules or I'll punish you.

Sometimes, as the saying goes, ya do what ya gotta do. You may not get the immediate response you desire, but moving the needle is never a function of a single act of civil disobedience. The best we can hope for is a little grace--a national awareness that it is fit and proper for teachers to stand up for their students, a generous disposition toward those who care about doing what's right. Goodwill. A pause or reprieve from the power struggle, a chance to sit down and discuss best use of time and resources in learning. As professionals.

Thanks, Garfield teachers. Know that your courage isn't wasted on your colleagues around the nation.

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