Boycott the MEAP
Part Three
Rich Gibson, Wayne State University College of Education 

In our earlier articles of this series we have described what the MEAP is and why it came to life. In sum, the MEAP amounts to curriculum standards and high-stakes exams which divide students, teachers, parents, and children along lines of race and class-in the interest of elites who have a lot to gain from controlling what is known and how people come to know it. The MEAP was born in a time of rising inequality and authoritarianism. It is designed to deepen those factors. The MEAP, which piles terrific pressure on educators and students, is child abuse. 

The MEAP demolishes the kind of education that is exploratory and linked to the world and our community (let's map a Detroit playground, now let's map a playground in Grosse Pointe-and then a playground in Grenada), that is critical and rooted in democracy (how come our metro area is so carefully divided along lines of class and race?), that is meaningful and creates a meeting of the teachers and the students where they are at (let us design our plan for the year together, understanding that we all start at different places, but that we want to head in the same direction), that is inclusive and hence rational (crossing boundaries of race, sex, and ability-not only in the studies but in who is in the classroom). The MEAP is designed to crush the main message of any worthy education: we can comprehend and transform our world. 

The MEAP will intensify already harsh levels of economic inequality and racial segregation. We have suggested that people boycott the test. This closing article in the series describes how people can boycott the MEAP and what other things might be done to improve education and civic life for our children-and all people in the community. 

Today, boycotting the MEAP appears to be tougher than ever. Appearances are deceiving. In fact, there is rising resistance to tests like the MEAP all over the U.S. The movement calls itself "Pushback," and is based in organizations like the Rouge Forum in the Midwest, New York, Florida, and California. In Virginia, Massachusetts, and Illinois, students, parents and educators have joined in creative ways to defeat the tests-like deliberately failing them. 

In the past in Michigan, MEAP boycotts have been easy-just don't go to school or announce that you will not take it. Since most people failed the MEAP, since no university requires or even recognizes the MEAP, and test scores have always just been a measure of parental income, there was really no reason to take the tests-or teach to them. That is why in some places like Birmingham 95% of the students did not take the test. Many students in Detroit also boycotted the MEAP, although the state did all it could to cover-up the levels of non-participation. 

Terrific pressure is now coming from the state of Michigan apparatus, a carrot and stick approach that seems at first glance to be powerful. The stick is that administrators and principals (whose union in Detroit was abolished) have been told that their jobs are on the line if they do not force people to take the MEAP and raise scores. So most of them have quit telling students, parents, and teachers that they have a right to not take the MEAP, or that they do not have to teach to the exam. The carrot is the promise that students who pass the test will be eligible for scholarships of up to 2500$ to be used at Michigan colleges and universities. Remember, this scholarship money comes from the "Tobacco Settlement," that Michigan won in 1998. Some groups are suing the state about this distribution of the funds. Remember, too, that little the state has promised about the MEAP has come true. All that passing test really offers is to be "eligible" to win the money, not to get it. 

It is important to examine the carrot and the stick in detail. First the carrot: the $2500 bribe being offered to students is just that, a buy-off for their participation. Previously, suburban students have turned up their noses at the exam, knowing they had nothing to gain. Now, nearly assured that they will pass the test because all the MEAP examines is their language, customs, and background, it is extraordinarily tempting for suburban kids to take the test. More than a bribe, it is yet another inheritance; their birthright offers them the money almost automatically. 

But for most students, participating on the MEAP in exchange for the bribe contains a quadruple-whammy. First, the students will be intellectually stultified by learning the fictions that comprise the content of the MEAP. Even if they seek to pretend that they are just "conning the exam," the powerful message to them is that the construction of rational knowledge is really just a meaningless scam. So the MEAP will have done its job, demonstrating its main message: you cannot understand your circumstances and even if you did you could not act on them. Underlying this is a message that fosters indifference to ideas-- and to others. 

Secondly, the students who take the bribe will invariably be more sharply segmented from other students and teachers who have an interest in a genuine struggle for knowledge, who want to take part in an authentic curriculum that they all share. For example, in many schools which are doing inclusive work (multi-age classrooms, classrooms including people of many different abilities and backgrounds) as soon as the MEAP bursts in the door, it is necessary to partition students-by what the MEAP predicts as their abilities. In Pontiac, one principal followed the logic of the MEAP and circulated a letter to parents of kids who she thought would do poorly on the MEAP, telling them to keep their kids out of school. In schools where teachers are doing creative units, say on the civil rights movement, the MEAP shatters the flow, demanding attention to the style of the test. The MEAP robs teachers of their most precious commodity, time with students. 

The upshot, whammy three, will be that students will be more deeply set apart from each other within school districts, between school districts, and within individual schools, as the MEAP scores are used to split them apart. Since funding, school closures, wages, and jobs are all attached to MEAP scores, the impact is to pit one group of people against another in a dead-serious battle for scores. Should this work, the deeper impact will be that youth in metro-Detroit will unconsciously participate in redoubling the racial and class boundaries that have weakened working people in the past-and which underpin the crisis in the city today. An injury to one, in this case those whose genealogies to not match the test, will precede an injury to nearly all-except those elites who gain from divide and conquer methods of rule. 

Finally, the fourth whammy: once the student (and consequently the education workers) are thoroughly divided, once their unity is completely demolished, why continue to bribe them? For a relatively few thousands of dollars, elites will have achieved what they could not have achieved with the stick alone-a thoroughly segmented education population imbued with accepting their own powerlessness. 

There are plenty of other people lined up for their share of related bribes. Textbook publishers, for example, are distributing thick manuals, available at high cost, about how to teach the MEAP. Many of the people who wrote the bogus exam are now profiting from their state-subsidized work by publishing how-to manuals on the test. At least two Michigan bureaucrats, in mink coats, now tour the state promoting the MEAP. Advertising firms profit from pro-MEAP radio and TV ads. Bureaucrats and real estate agent all stand to gain from wider participation. 

Now let us examine the stick. Students and parents are being threatened at the same time they are being bribed. The first powerful message in 1999 was that the administration of the MEAP was moved from the state department of education to the treasury department, the same department controlled by Mark Murphy, the fellow appointed to the new Detroit school board who holds veto power. There is not a shred of pretense left to suggest that the MEAP is an educational tool. It is an economic and social lever, nothing more. 

With this stick in place, the state uses the violent threat of unemployment, destroyed futures, and fear of unannounced sanctions to whip principals, teachers, and students into shape. Principals are told they must deliver high participation rates and scores or be jobless. They then deny that people have a right to opt out of the test. Teachers are informed they must demonstrate that they do nothing but teach to the MEAP, and bring forth high scores, or be fired. This is especially true in Detroit where the teachers' union agreed to contract provisions that allow entire schools to be closed based on test scores. Then, at the short end of the stick, children face terrific pressure to stand and deliver top MEAP scores. Most educators in working class schools have now seen children in tears about the MEAP. The horror stories are so common that teachers have a term for them, "MEAP Shrieks." 

Even so, there is resistance. Dozens of teachers have refused to teach to the MEAP and urged their colleagues to do the same. Recently in Oak Park, for example, unsigned leaflets appeared in teacher mailboxes, urging that educators take action about the MEAP, that they inform students they have a right not to take it. One entire working class suburban district appears to have given the answers to the MEAP to students when they took the test. They overdid it and their scores were disallowed, but nothing happened to any of the people involved. The Rouge Forum web page has sample pages of forms parents can use to opt students out of the test, and sections quoting the National Education Association Code of Ethics, showing that teachers should not devote their classrooms to the rote learning the MEAP demands. At the last conference of social studies teachers, in April 2000, teachers held forums against the MEAP and interrupted sessions of state bureaucrats who promoted it. In short, many people hate the MEAP and are taking concerted action against it. 

No ones needs permission to not take the MEAP. Just stay home, don't go to school. That, however, is not enough. 
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