If this were a John Steinbeck novel, they'd be picking fruit in California, playing an unwinnable game according to unfair rules. This meeting would be held in secret amid a real threat of violence. Drunk on hope and certain their cause was just, our heroes would rise up only to end up broken and beaten. But this isn't a John Steinbeck novel. It's worse.
On this hot late September Sunday, they met in an outdated high school gymnasium with the doors propped the doors open to coax the afternoon breeze inside. The crowd -- mostly teachers and frustrated parents with a smattering of union organizers and dissident school superintendants -- filled the chairs on the basketball court and spilled into the stands. They'd given up a weekend afternoon to listen to the leader of their revolution, Diane Ravitch, a New York University professor. She is also the leading critic of high-stakes standardized testing that has taken over our nation's public schools like an inoperable malignant tumor.
And while the people hanging on this grandmother's words weren't facing the prospect of brickbats from anti-union thugs, they were plotting a revolution. This was not a sober public policy discussion that considered both sides. These were the ringleaders of the anti-testing resistance, and Ravitch was exhorting them to battle.
"Texas started all this high-stakes testing madness, and Texas is going to end it," Ravitch said. "You know what they say about politicians. They don't ever get out ahead of the crowd. They wait to see where the crowd is going and they run to get out in front of it. You're the crowd! You're going to change this conversation, and Texas is going to change what's happening across this country."
An official in both the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations, Ravitch used to favor using standardized tests for accountability, a practice she now calls a misuse of standardized testing. And she has little patience for testing advocates who demand an alternative from critics.
"The first thing you say about high-stakes testing is that it's punitive. If you spend 12 years selecting one out of four bubbles you are crushing creativity, destroying critical thinking and inflicting harm on children. What's the alternative to crushing creativity and inflicting harm on children? Well, stop hurting children!" she said.
High-stakes testing has radicalized Texas soccer moms, including a state chapter of the opt-out movement in which parents of elementary school students defy state law and refuse to submit their children to the tests.
"We believe that it's immoral to degrade a child's education for the sake of corporate profits. That's our stand, and we're not going to back down off that," said Edy Chamness, director of Texas Parents Opt Out State Tests. Asked whether her kids would get held back for not taking the tests, Chamness offered a peak at her zeal: "Oh hell no. Oh hell no. Hell no. Hell no. And there is, now listen, oh hell no. I'd make the biggest stink and fight there ever was. My kids don't need to be held back."
Ravitch suggested a more radical option: "What would happen if your entire district refuses to give the test? They can't punish you if a hundred districts don't give the test."
Actually they could, says John Kuhn, superintendant of a North Texas school district. Regarded as the leader of the Texas anti-testing underground, Kuhn works for a school board that was among the first to adopt an anti-testing resolution, something 80% of all Texas school boards have now done. Despite this overwhelming majority, Perry's new education chief has indicated he is unlikely to remove the high-stakes from the state test, leading some to criticize the anti-testing resolutions as an empty gesture.
"There's been criticism of school boards and superintendents among people I've talked to and listened to that, you know, what's a resolution? You're just saying this isn't good but you aren't doing anything," said Kuhn. "But, when you're in check and you can't do more than speak out, then speaking out is pretty good. And I know that, yeah absolutely, we could do more, we could put our foot down and say we're not going to give the test but I also know exactly what would happen to me and scarier than that is I don't know what would happen to my school."
Ravitch gave an approving nod to a grassroots group nicknamed Moms Against Drunk Testing that has been lobbying the legislature. It's tough to tell parents of high schoolers that this problem probably won't get fixed before today's kids are tomorrow's adults. "We've been told by people that we need to have a multi session plan. Well that's not acceptable, I have a tenth grade student and she's being impacted," said Dineen Majcher of the parents group formally known as Texans Advocating for Meaningful Assessment.
These parents, administrators and teachers are caught between the rock of Pearson lobbyists and business interests demanding more funding for testing and the hard place known as the Texas legislature that has long bought the accountability gospel. Ravitch told the crowd not to back down.
"You are Texans. Don't let them bully you. Speak up. Speak out. Don't be afraid. Join with your friends and your neighbors. Fight for your school. Fight for your community. You're Texans. Think for yourselves," she said.
The afternoon had the feel of the optimistic part of one of Steinbeck's lesser novels, the part right before the farm workers were put down by the guys with money and guns. To the mother of one 3rd grader, Ravitch offered few illusions.
"I'm not going to mislead you. This is going to be a long struggle. There's not going to be any overnight change," said Ravitch. "What we have is this kind of a management consultant view of the world where everything can be manipulated in terms of a number, and people's lives can be bought and sold. That's a kind of mental slavery. So this struggle that you're in is not going to change quickly, but what you have to do is join the fight against the corporate takeover of public education. Joint the fight against high-stakes testing because everything they're planning to do depends on the numbers."