Bill Ferriter, I think, writes one of the most thought-provoking blogs around on education. I’d really encourage you to subscribe to it if you haven’t already. A couple of his posts have prompted me to write ones of my own here, and now he’s done it again…
Bill writes about Carl Chew, the teacher in Washington state who recently was suspended for two weeks for refusing to give his students a standardized test. In his blog, The Tempered Radical, Bill makes a number of very good points questioning Mr. Chew’s decision. I won’t repeat a lot of what Bill says (his post is definitely worth reading), and agree with much of it.
I don’t believe, though, that his final comment that “teachers like Chew show disregard for the values of the communities that they serve” is either fair or accurate.
I’m a veteran of civil disobedience from my seven years in the Catholic Worker Movement prior to my community organizing career (which both preceded my move into public school teaching five years ago). I can say from experience that what is often called “prophetic witness” or “speaking truth to power” is a key part of our democratic history. I’d certainly include Mr. Chew’s action in that tradition.
At the same time, I think civil disobedience (as I’ve described educational technology) has a place, but also has to be kept in its place.
I think performing civil disobedience outside of the context of a strategic campaign is indeed often, to use the words in Bill’s post, “arrogant” and “egocentric.” At the risk of sounding too harsh, I think it’s much easier to refuse to give a standardized test then to do the day-to-day and face-to-face organizing of listening and agitating people to develop an effective campaign for more accurate and just student assessments.
From my knowledge and experience, historically, civil disobedience has only been effective in making social change when done as a specific tactic in a well-organized and thought-out campaign where many people have been involved in its planning (nothing I’ve read about Mr. Chew’s actions indicate it was in his case, but, of course, it is possible that I don’t have all the information).
Which is not to say that there have also been important times in history, and there will be additional important moments, when individuals just feel that it’s critical to their own conscience just to say “no.”
Do I think Mr. Chew’s actions were or will be effective in making any sort of change in how students are assessed anywhere? No. Do I think they were probably arrogant and egocentric? Yes.
Do I think his action showed disregard for his communities’ values? Definitely not. In fact, I’d say they might have been an extraordinarily accurate representation of the best values in our community traditions.