Social Justice Educators Should Seize This Moment

Jesse Hagopian interviewed by Dana Blanchard

The crisis induced by the global pandemic has presented a number of key questions to social justice educators around the country. Black Lives Matter at School leader Jesse Hagopian talks to Rampant about how to confront those challenges and build on recent waves of teacher organizing.

What do you think of this pressure some schools and districts are putting on students now around “lost learning,” an idea that is related to terms used before the crisis like the “achievement gap?” How do we combat this deficit narrative in the education justice movement, especially now in a moment of crisis?

I think that this narrative of “lost learning” that is being rolled out around the country is really backward and problematic. The New York Times editorialized it saying this would be a “hobbled generation” because of these last few months of schools being shut down. I sympathize with some parents and families that are worried about their kids falling behind on the academic track that they were on. I can understand that anxiety, especially for Black and brown families when the narrative is always framed in terms of an achievement gap and it is this deficit model that is saying that Black and brown kids are far behind white kids in the current academic paradigm. They worry that this will lead them to be farther behind. 

I can understand why families would have anxiety around that but I think what educational leaders need to do is reframe what the purpose of education is, what intelligence is, and what learning looks like. When we do that we realize that this deficit model of education has been lying to us and in fact Black and brown children are very advanced in a whole host of skills that unfortunately aren’t valued in our society today but nevertheless are actually more important than many of the academic skills being taught in schools. 

What I’ve noticed in my own classrooms is that my predominantly white AP students are very good at eliminating wrong answer choices and scoring high on standardized tests, but they don’t so well when they come into my ethnic studies course which has majority students of color, and there’s no longer any multiple choice tests. Instead the goal of the course is to identify problems in our society and figure out collective solutions to those problems. What I find is that my Black and brown students excel. They are actually extremely knowledgeable about how systems of oppression function and about ideas for collective solutions. My predominantly white students find they have a lot to learn from the students of color. If we look at education in that way we can see that this time of crisis under COVID-19 affords us an opportunity to learn a lot about how society functions, about problems in our world and how those problems might be addressed. 

There will be setbacks in the acquisition of certain academic skills. But if we take a more broad and holistic look at what education is, I think we’ll find that our students are learning how the world works and some of the big challenges and problems in our society that need to be addressed. When you look at who just got bailed out by the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, in terms of corporate welfare that was given and the measly fund afforded to ordinary working people, I think there is a great opportunity for education there. Students are learning a lot about how diseases are transmitted and how societies react to crisis. Those kinds of lessons mean that they will be far advanced in some ways.

Schools have always been a place of contention between capitalists and working-class families. The bosses see schools as places to promote privatization, meritocracy, and to serve to indoctrinate students into dominant ideology while teaching basic skills but often not much more. Our side has always viewed education as a space for liberation and fought for progressive, sometimes radical demands like inclusion of all students, robust services for students who need support, and curriculum that promotes the full development of a child. How is this crisis sharpening this contradictory nature of education? What can we do to push for our vision for schooling?

I agree that this crisis sharpens the contradictions of education and reveals things about the structure and the nature of how our school system is set up in a capitalist society that are worth analyzing and figuring out. We need to help reveal some of those lessons. A couple of the ways I have seen this play out are, for example, cuts to high-stakes standardized tests in the spring. Who knew you could do that? It turns out that if there is a big enough crisis in our society you can scrap the standardized tests that are meant to rank and sort our youth. We should fight to never let them come back. 

In Seattle we got rid of grades. Kids will either earn an A or an incomplete and then they can work on their assignments later. It turns out if the crisis is big enough we can also get rid of grades. Grades and standardized testing have been the biggest weapons in education that are used to punish kids into submission, used to frighten children, used to rank and sort children, used to inculcate them with a sense of their place in society. So much so that if you have a low grade point average it proves to you that you are not worthy of an Ivy League college and a great education and a well-paying job. It helps convince students that they should expect less from society. The same is true with the high-stakes standardized tests. 

Social justice teachers and socialist educators should seize on this moment when so much is up for questioning right now because of the crisis, because they’ve had to roll back some of the most punitive aspects of education. For example they can’t suspend kids anymore, they can’t test and grade. This is an opportunity for us to help reveal how those structures were harmful in the first place. 

We need to be talking about the fact that in many communities there was a mass crisis going on well before COVID-19. This mass crisis should have been big enough to suspend high-stakes testing and grading already. I’m talking about crises overlapping with institutional racism, which is so thoroughly part of American public schooling. Just look at the suspension rates where you have Black kids being suspended and expelled at four times the rate of white students. Then you look at the eurocentric curriculum that obscures and diminishes the contributions of Black people and people of color. There are 1.6 million children in the United States that go to a school that has a police officer but not a counselor, and predominantly Black and brown schools have these police officers. You can see the way that institutional racism is a crisis for our children, and it’s a crisis at such a scale that we should invest our resources not in measuring this crisis through a grade point average but in supporting our youth by providing more trauma counselors, more school psychologists, and social workers. We need to shift our priority from trying to measure these students to supporting students.

There is a crisis of inequality in this country, where you have over half of students in the American public school system qualifying for free and reduced lunch, living in poverty. That is a level of crisis that should suggest to us that instead of ranking and sorting our youth with high-stakes standardized tests we should suspend those tests and use the billions that are spent on standardized testing to build community schools with robust wraparound services to support our kids. 

Every single contract battle in every district across the country should have a demand in their next contract for a nurse every day in every school.

This moment could be a moment of shock doctrine that Naomi Klein talks about where the billionaire class seizes on a moment where we’re all in shock and uses it to push forward programs they have wanted for a long time to further profit. Witness the drive for online learning and so-called personalized learning, where kids sit in front of computer screens in classes of over a hundred students so they don’t have to pay for teachers but they can pay for more technology to enrich educational tech companies. 

The alternative to this shock doctrine could be the point where we build social-movement unionism and educator unions demand every school in the country have a nurse. Every single contract battle in every district across the country should have a demand in their next contract for a nurse every day in every school. That demand will connect with parents and students in a way that maybe before the COVID-19 crisis it wouldn’t have quite as strongly. There’s an opportunity for us to advance a set of social justice demands that prioritize the physical, social, and emotional well-being of our youth over different ways of ranking and sorting youth. That’s going to be an immense task right now because the ruling class in this country are licking their lips at the potential profit opportunities from public education. 

I’ll just end by talking about 2008 with the Great Recession. That crisis led to President Obama and Arne Duncan putting forward the Race to the Top Program. They used that crisis to implement a program that was all about the privatization of public education. Under Race to the Top you could get funds for your state that was in desperate need of money for education only if you raised the cap of the number of charter schools, only if you implemented more accountability measures with increased use of high-stakes standardized testing. They really launched an all-out assault on our children in public schools. 

It has taken the last decade of social justice educators, parents, and students linking arms and fighting back to reverse that attack. It has been incredible the amount of success we’ve had, with the opt-out movement revealing how harmful these tests are, coupled with the Red State Revolt leading to more public education strikes around the country, including the Los Angeles teachers’ strike and the Chicago teachers’ strike. The strikes in Los Angeles and Chicago won important gains for youth and families and showed a social justice approach to unionism. 

The last ten years we’ve pushed back the worst aspects of Race to the Top. But now this crisis is going to require a new level of organization, because people like Betsy DeVos are in charge, and she has been one of the biggest proponents of vouchers online learning. We must build an even bigger movement to wrestle control of public education away from the billionaires and put it back into the control of the communities and the students it is supposed to serve. 

Jesse Hagopian is an award-winning educator and a leading voice on issues of educational equity, the school-to-prison pipeline, standardized testing, the Black Lives Matter at School movement, and social justice unionism. He is an editor for Rethinking Schools magazine, an author, public speaker, organizer, and ethnic studies teacher at Seattle’s Garfield High School—the site of the historic teacher boycott of the MAP test in 2013. Jesse is the coeditor of Teaching for Black Lives, and is the editor of the book More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. He is also an organizer with Social Equity Educators (SEE), a rank-and-file group of Seattle educators working for social justice in public schools.