A Note To California Resisters About the Big Tests, School, and Social Justice

Rich Gibson, San Diego State, January 2001

There are several interconnected threads going on and I want to try to respond: 

In an increasingly inequitable and undemocratic, authoritarian and irrational society, to accept and promote curriculum standards is to create the scaffolding for the unreasonable high-stakes standardized tests that will invariably be imposed from the top in partisan fashion. The standards and the tests that are born within them will necessarily increase inequality and attack democracy, in the interest of elites. This is the social context of the tests and the specious, twisted, efforts to score them "fairly"--or to accuse the victims of this counterfeit project of cheating.

Outside this social context, nothing happens. That the government is not neutral, but a weapon of the wealthy, should be fairly obvious by now. What is developing before us is not a matter of which millionaire is in the White House, but the required maneuvers of a system that functions in the name of greed and fear, beyond human control. There is no significant difference between Gore and Clinton-or liberal and conservative leaders. Both are only personifications of competing elite interests within the processes of capital, and neither they nor their liberal or conservative allies have anything in common with most educators, students, or the mass of people who work or live in poverty-nothing in common but opposition. To descend from lesser evil to lesser evil in the political world is simply to feed the system, giving blood to the sharks, and to ratify evil in a more dangerous way-by supporting it, and stripping working people of the knowledge of the horrors ahead. 

To address school reform without addressing, primarily, social and economic reform of the society that school is nested in, is like washing the air on one side of a screen door (Anyon). Today, to criticize standardized exams is to criticize, at some point, the processes of capital, its need for segregation, alienation, and profits. To stop short of that is to deal with only a small part of what is up, and to miss the reason for the standards and exams: to divide people and to regulate the substance of knowledge as well as the way people develop understanding. To stop short of a critique of capital is to assist in the construction of oppression. 

There is considerable criticism of the standards and testing that wants to address this as a matter of bad teaching methods, and nothing else. This is a dead end. It will eventually ratify the desires of elites, deepening segregation and promoting capital's needs, by using the modest power of some slightly more privileged districts to have standards and tests written more for their advantage-briefly. Once a lower rung on the social ladder is completely decimated, however, a higher rung is simply next. The lessons of the last century demonstrate rather clearly that an injury to one only goes before an injury to all. 

To simplify, first poor and working class black people were hit-especially those in need of social services. Then the industrial working class as a whole was ripped apart. Now, school workers alone are centrally positioned to mount a serious resistance that can reverberate back into communities and the working class-which holds, at the end of the day, more power. This means school workers need, on the one hand, to address questions of what people know and how they come to know it--resistance around curriculum and instruction which would include matters of supplies, class size, and the tax structure-and to organize in new ways. To duplicate old methods of organizing will only lead us to where the working class is today-essentially defenseless, without a strategy or tactics that can win reforms or more fundamental change. 

It is one thing to work within existing organizations like the NEA or AFT to try get the rank and file to take action for school/social change and to fight the standardization of the curriculum and tests. It is another thing to expect those organizations to adopt the fight as their own, rather than to try to divert it.

The top leaders of the teachers unions and the top leaders of their large locals are committed to preserving things as they are, for the most part, with few reforms here and there to make things a little better for themselves (many make more than $300,000 a year now) and their constituents (teachers on the one hand, and elites--who can offer them better jobs and prestige--on the other hand). Kids are rarely in this relationship, especially not poor and working class kids. This is why both unions are still taking out full page ads in the NY Times demanding grade retention and more testing--in conjunction with the US Chamber of Commerce. Despite limited statements opposing the tests, what is true of the NEA and the AFT is also true of most of the professional organizations. And the structures of all of these organizations are set up to ensure that they cannot be fundamentally changed-tho they can be used as bases for making change.

Teachers in the US are better positioned to make social change than any other organized group. The teachers unions are the largest unions in the country, and unlike the other unions, they are growing. The reason the AFL is so eager for an NEA merger is, in part, because the AFL bosses desperately need NEA dues income (2 ½ million members). They also want to wipe out the few remaining democratic protections that exist only for NEA members (NEA is not part of the AFL) and to get the entire NEA to adopt the position of national unity, the unity of labor/business/government, that is a centerpiece of the AFL outlook--and the corporate state. It is difficult to discuss the developing social situation, and the tests, without mentioning fascism.

Teachers, for the time being, not the industrial working class, represent the hope people might have to struggle for a civilized democratic society, both in theory and practice. Teachers not only are well positioned structurally, but they are also in a remarkably strategic position to understand what enslavement is, and ways out.

However, partially because of the makeup of the work force, partially because of the vetting process which seeks to eliminate the troublesome, but primarily because of their class position, most teachers will probably not take part in the fight for democracy and equality-in school or out. Teachers see themselves, not necessarily incorrectly, as in the middle, and they vacillate between elites and the working class, usually tilting toward elites. At some point, vacillation becomes choosing sides, and those who make the choice to be missionaries for the privileged earn their own slavish fate. 

There is no history that I know about of any majorities of the teaching force leading social change toward democracy and equality. There is plenty of history of teachers doing otherwise. In 1930's Germany, most teachers, overwhelmingly most, became Nazis--voluntarily.

Even so, some teachers, perhaps even many, will take up the task of fighting on the side of their kids, particularly the poorest and most labeled among them. There is plenty of history of some teachers playing leading roles in social change, in school and out, in organizations that sweep aside, go beyond, the traditional organizations that are designed to maintain injustice, not fight it. Still, one does not need the permission of the unions to go act in their names. But an organization that operates both outside and inside the unions, that seeks to unite people in the communities, students, and school workers in an internally democratic yet action-oriented way, is key to building a social movement. That is why the Rouge Forum was founded. Organizing is just about everything. 

Of course, there is an element of confrontation in this. There is violence in the tests and the standards. They are written to promote racism, the imperial gaze, and the practice that follows. The story of the History Standards should be enough evidence. The fellow who wrote them did so, he claims, because he was afraid a right-winger would do it. Then, the right-wing congress told him to go rewrite them. He did, took his millions, and complained about being abused. 

Kicking the labeled kids out of school to set up high test scores is a form of violence. Demeaning children for failing to perform on tests that are written to ensure class differentials is violent. The tests are written in part to prepare the unthinking soldiers for the next oil war, who elites hope will not desert and shoot their officers, as they did the last time the enemy fought back--in Vietnam. Stripping people of the critique of tyranny is violence. Responding to that is self-defense, which I am not suggesting should be done whimsically. 

As capital grows more desperate in its search for cheap labor, markets, raw material, and Quislings; schools everywhere are likely to get worse, more regimented, segregated, irrational, not better. The ANC had a response to this: first make the schools ungovernable, then shut them down, replacing them where possible with Freedom Schools. One model of Freedom Schools they used was the schooling in Mississippi during the Civil Rights struggle. There are areas in the US where this possibility is becoming 'thinkable', if not likely. 

If economic and social reform must accompany school reform, and if school reform not only addresses economic change but what people must know to forge a more democratic society, as well as how they need to come to know it; it follows that school reform can, at least temporarily, spark larger social reforms. This happened in France in 1968, but the links between students and the working class communities were weak, the leadership of the movement was immature, unable to grasp the need to carry reform to thorough-going democratic and egalitarian solutions. 

Why the people who write and promote these exams would feel they can go home and not see pickets in their driveways, go to church and not have people rise up to denounce them, go to academic conferences and preside as if they are civilized people without facing rowdy disruption, go shopping and park their cars without discovering leaflets urging their children to censure them, why they should ever feel comfortable in the community--that is beyond me. 

But in most areas we are a long way, in most areas, from making life miserable for testistos, shutting down schools for long periods of time (remember though the Oakland strikes for 'schools not jails,' the massive Ontario Canada teacher strikes, Detroit school walkouts and strikes etc) and leading a social upheaval that restructures the way we live.

The gap between what is and what should be is what we need to fill. But that gap cannot be completely filled, either by the vigorous negativity that grows with critiques of society and education, nor by our utopian ideas about a better world. It is the partial emptiness, I think, that keeps the desire aloft that will make change possible. Still, to move from one place to another, we need to consider what actions might be taken that could link us with more and more people, in order to both become more powerful and more wise.

So, what can we do?

We can insist on teaching well, in exploratory ways that address the personal and the structural (the make-up of the child, the student, the educator, and the particular school-and capitalism) and not abusing the kids: love over ego. That means fighting the tests, and racism, everyday. 

It also means considering what we know about how people learn, when the project is that they become self-conscious, self-activating, class-conscious people. We can link our teaching with life, with the struggles for production, reproduction, and rationality. Teachers nearly alone, I think, are prepared to understand that the failure of past revolutionary efforts was not just the failure of a few corrupt leaders, or just the failure of a bad analysis of what capitalism is, or a failure caused by external forces; but it was a failure of, significantly, education--people were never (rarely) addressed in ways that would not only tell them what was wrong, but offer them methods to understand what else might be wrong--or taught in ways that made them self-actualizing and conscious of the processes of capital, and to be able to perpetually reevaluate their own interests as a class in all of that. 

It was always assumed that the leaders knew what was wrong with capital, and that if they just told the people, the people would understand. Missed almost entirely was the authoritarian psychology built into the hierarchical structures that capital also needs. People were never taught the confidence that they themselves can comprehend and act on the world-and methods to do it that grasp that analysis is always open, incomplete, as things change-but analysis is often complete enough to motivate action. Indeed, action is key to analysis.

At the least, we can do analyses of the tests, who wrote them, what is on them, who is segregated from the testing rooms and how, what the class/race implications are of the form and processes of the tests, what the results do, and so on. We can historicize the tests, in short, and then we can get the details on who wrote them and who promotes them and make those names and addresses and phone numbers and email addresses public for people to use them as they choose. The analysis of the tests holds a special promise in that it clearly demonstrates all the aspects of capital: the need to mask the interconnection of all things, the need to hide the key role of labor, the magical acceptance of the ownership of natural resources, the pretense that the rule of the few over the many is natural and democratic. 

We can organize by listening to peoples' problems and trying to see how our analysis, and the methods of our analysis, might be useful to them-and if it is not at all useful to them perhaps we need to reconsider it entirely.

We can work and point out the contradictions: inequality and democracy, the employee mentality of test-takers and the claims for citizenship education, growing unities of production and exchange, exacerbated disconnects via nationalism, racism, and segregation, the split of those who work and own, etc. 

We can fight back, creatively, sometimes joyfully, sometimes ferociously. Boycotting the tests is great in some places. In others, having masses of kids deliberately fail is even better. Rejecting the bribes that are attached to the tests seems crucial to me-and possible. In California, entire schools are rejecting the payoffs. In Michigan, there is a growing movement of students and parents to turn their backs on the money the state promises middle class kids for taking the tests. 

We can grasp the relationship of reasoning and power. One can lead to the other, but at a certain point material interests override. For example, it is key to reason with students and parents, and sometimes with principals and other administrators. But there is little reasoning with most state legislators or superintendents. They need to see the power lurking behind the argument. And that power, in our case, is going to be located in the ability to mobilize masses of people in direct action-aimed at a vital joint. For instance, in Detroit, to close a school for a march for "Book, Supplies, Lower Class Size-and a democratic curriculum" would be terrific. An even better march, built over a long time, might aim at the downtown casinos (the antithesis of everything that school stands for), what elites see as key to their recapture of the city.

We can understand the difference between altruistic solidarity and missionaryism. The former, solidarity, might be well exemplified by the upper-middle class school districts which took the lead in boycotting the state standards and the tests, in part because the students, parents, and educators recognized that the tests would wreck the schooling they mostly enjoyed, but also because many of them realized that the testing was aimed like a weapon at poorer districts, which did not have the power to initiate early resistance. The upper-middle class districts then set the stage for what later became broader resistance later on. The next move, which I am not suggesting flowed directly from the first, was the massive wildcat Detroit teachers' strike in which the rank and file swept aside a state law which everyone claimed had halted teacher strikes forever, and their union leaders who opposed the strike. The Detroit teachers had reciprocated in kind, demonstrating the even greater power of those who are directly tied to the most exploited sectors of the population. Missionaryism, in contrast, is the arrogant motive of the test-writers, the missionaries of the privileged, who have determined that people must adopt their vision, and the must allow the missionaries to interpret that vision, at the mere cost of one's soul. 

We can carefully analyze our own situations, understanding that our situations are more similar than different, but that the differences are sometimes key. We can understand that every organizer always hears a litany from locals about why things are so special here that nothing will work, and the organizer goes and gets things to work-through the people who claim it cannot. 

We can understand that there are interesting relationships between organizing and education, and that in our present situation, they are inseparable, with the organizing side often being the main thing to worry about. 

In addition, we can recognize that the standard methods of redress, the remedies offered to us by the status quo, are actually designed to put us on avenues that separate us from our base of potential power. For example, union grievance procedures exist to physically move the struggle away from the workplace and into 'reasonable' pathways where the grieveant, the union rep, and the bosses try to find comprises. But between workers and bosses, there are rarely comprises. There are winners and losers. While we are not powerful, we may have to use these procedures, not with any faith that they will work, but as a method to organize to the point where we can exercise enough control of the workplace to say, "I am not going to file a grievance. My friends and I are going to shut this place down until you concede." Much the same can be said of the court system, electoral work, etc. At issue is the relationship of building a base for the serious exercise of power, and the methods of organizing around the temporary reform desired. This issue is not going to be resolved in the courts, in the press, in the electoral process. It can only be settled by offering up sufficient social unrest that the process of standardization and testing becomes too costly to pursue. 

Lastly, for this grows too long, we can demonstrate that the same reason most people send their children to school, hope, is written into history-not something we whip up out of nothing. The structures of capital itself are driving us together through systems of production and exchange, while the ideology of capitalists seeks to drive us apart. Our task is to reach out for the golden ring that really is there-the material potential for equality and democracy, and world wide social consciousness. Hope is equivalent to social justice and I see that as the democratic and egalitarian struggle for what is true, an inexorable battle that is threaded through all of history. Only the oppressed have an interest in the truth. In short, we can win. We will win. At issue is simply how much we will lose, in terms of our humanity, before we do. And that decision is up to us. What we do counts, more than ever.