Opting In

Katy BurkeUncategorized

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About this time last year I was free falling. I had refused to proctor the state mandated PARCC assessment and stood to lose my job as a NJ public school teacher of 13 years. In the words of my union lawyer whose counsel I desperately sought, I was “putting myself in front of a buzzsaw.” I remember how rattled I felt hearing that. I understood he was only trying to protect me, which was his job. However, self-protection wasn’t my aim. I was told that I was throwing away my entire career because no one would hire a teacher who was fired for insubordination. In fact, I was accruing quite a file. As a result of my refusal to proctor, I received multiple write-ups for every day of the three-week March testing period in the areas of instructional planning, instructional delivery, assessment and professionalism. Because the test was delivered over the course of several days, it was regarded as many singular acts of insubordination, which carried a much greater penalty. I had never been insubordinate before; getting in trouble made me feel sick. The second round of tests was soon approaching. I had already lost my salary increment for next year, and I knew that at any time I could be suspended without pay. I was well aware that if I continued on the path I was on, it meant certain termination. The only question was when. Yet, despite my fear of the consequences, I’ve never felt more secure in a decision in all my life because I knew that this time I was doing the right thing.

There are many reasons to stand against these tests. One is that their aim is not aligned with our understanding of the purpose of education, which according to NJ lawyer and parent Sarah Blaine is to “function politically, socially, and economically in a democratic society.” Another is that these tests do not actually measure that which they claim nor is it possible to measure what we hold truly valuable, such as creative and critical thought (Why Critical Thinking Will Never Be on the Test, Huffington Post). I have these criticisms and more, but for me, it boils down to this: as educators, we are exasperating children, and they are losing heart. People like to learn. It’s intriguing, it’s empowering, it’s exhilarating. It’s like falling in love. The standardized testing movement takes all the humanity out of learning. In response, I’ve seen kids become resentful, numb, or generally anxious. I no longer feel that the emphasis on these tests is merely a waste of time; it is destructive to the very fabric of education. And that hurts people. It hurts our schools. It hurts our communities. 

Refusing to proctor the PARCC test was like jumping off a ship.  I was opting out of a movement that renders education flat, lifeless, synthetic.  But it didn’t feel that way. It felt more like I was opting in. There were questions rising within me. Are you for authentic learning? Are you for human connection and personal relationships? What about learning by experience? Intrinsic curiosity? Deep thought? Divergent thought? Creative thought??? Yes, yes, yes I’m in. I’m all in.