School, Creativity, and Control

bildeLast month, a group of Garfield High-school teachers held a press conference to announce that they would refuse to administer the controversial MAP test to their students.

Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, is a test given several times each year to 9th grade students, meant to “provide detailed, actionable data about where each child is on their unique learning path,” according to the Northwest Evaluation Association, the non-profit which developed and promotes the MAP.

Teachers, however, are claiming that the test “subtracts many hours of class time from students’ schedules each year,” tests students “on content [teachers] are not expected to teach,” and violates “the rights of groups of students [with limited English skills] for whom schooling already constitutes an uphill battle.” You can read a summary of their disagreements with the test here.

Some supporters of the boycott, however, would like to see this burgeoning struggle encompass an even greater number of issues with the school system. To that end, members of Seattle’s Black Orchid Collective (BOC) – some of whom are teachers in the Seattle School District engaged in the current MAP Boycott – are urging teachers, students, and the broader Seattle community to not only support the teachers boycotting the MAP, but to support students fighting against racial inequality, and students fighting against issues of sexual violence and rape in our schools as well.

In the piece below, BOC explain what they mean by creativity and control as they relate to the recent teacher resistance against standardized tests, reminding us that issues in our schools go much deeper than the MAP.

Creativity, Not Control
Learning for Life, Not Labor

Human beings are naturally creative.  Instead of adapting to our surroundings, we have adapted to changing surroundings.  Our brains developed to learn and create in a state of almost constant motion and change. We have the capacity to create, together, in ways that grow and transform nature, our minds, and our bodies, instead of destroying them.  We are constantly learning by acting; for us, learning and creation are part of the same process.

However, it is easy to forget all of this when you are trapped inside a classroom doing boring lessons preparing to take standardized tests in which you compete with the person next to you.  Everything is controlled.  Instead of creating knowledge together, the teacher is handed a chunk of knowledge which she is expected to deposit in her students minds, so they can regurgitate it on a future test.  Those who regurgitate most efficiently rise to the top.

Meanwhile, the infrastructure we use to collectively create – from music and art programs to labs and texts and computers – are deteriorating due to austerity budget cuts, especially in working class schools and majority non-white schools.

The School to Work to Prison Pipeline

Some of these schools feel like prisons, with security guards and cops stepping in to reinforce school discipline. Students who are written up or expelled get channeled toward juvenile detention, prison, and the second-class citizenship that comes with having a criminal record.

Our creativity has been turned into dead labor and our learning has been turned into a system of control.  Instead of preparing students to create together, our schools prepare students for dead-end jobs making money for rich people – or unemployment, hustling, and prison.  In these jobs, young people will not be expected to question, to think critically, to collectively create new possibilities, so these qualities are not prioritized in America’s classrooms.

The Thinking Classes and the Working Classes

Of course, creativity is prioritized in a small number of schools or elite programs within schools  that train the future thinking classes – the ones who will write the new computer programs, start new biotech companies, or administer the state and corporate bureaucracies.

Education “reform” is about raising a small number of youth into these thinking classes, while the rest are left in the working classes, where all you need to know is what bubble to fill in, and some math and reading skills so you can read the threatening memos or instruction manuals your bosses will use to convey their orders.

We are taught that we can’t be thinkers and workers at the same time. The great traditions of working class intellectual life are cut off, when they could be recreated in  new ways.  We forget about Malcolm, Assata, and Gramsci reading and writing from prison; we never practice writing for freedom like Gloria Anzaldua, Joe Kadi, or Tupac.  We never find our own voices, which could go even farther.  Youth today are cut off from a chance to become that rose that grows from concrete, the next generation of organic intellectuals.

The “Achievement Gap” is Really Apartheid

This divide between the thinking classes and the working classes is created and re-created in our school systems, and it often falls along racial lines.  Some people call it the “achievement gap”, and wring their hands about why students of color are not succeeding at the same rate as white students.  Yet, while they market new products, motivational speeches, and diversity programs aimed at ending this achievement gap, it just doesn’t get better.

Some blame the parents. Others blame the teachers union.  Some blame both.  But no one is looking at the root cause: our system sorts youth through a vicious division of labor that is created and recreated in the schools.  The schools teach us one thing:  your class is your destiny, and it is often color coded.  That is the main objective of the curriculum, and it is drilled into you at a young age.

Sure, there are success stories of students from working class, non-white backgrounds rising into the ranks of the college educated and going on to “middle class” lives.  But this only happens enough to maintain the myth of upward mobility that covers up what is really going on:  apartheid for everyone else.  When the markets crash and everyone becomes downwardly mobile, the programs that  youth of color use to pull themselves up by their bootstraps are the first to be slashed.

It Doesn’t Have to be This Way

Many teachers, parents, and students  know we are capable of a lot more, and this is confirmed by waves of research coming out now.  Study after study has shown that teachers need to  build relationships with students, respecting their agency and collective autonomy.  Learning should be student-centered, not  test-centered.  We need to encourage cooperation and creativity, tapping into student interests, facilitating student self-awareness (“metacognition”), and purposeful, fascinating discussion. This research seems to point toward models of collective learning that are much more dynamic and revolutionary than what we have right now in capitalist classrooms.  For example, Vygotsky’s social learning theory is very popular right now, which is ironic since Vygotsky developed it in the context of the Russian Revolution.

These kind of creative learning methods cannot be implemented within the confines of capitalist classroom control, especially control enforced by standardized tests. The contradiction between what it is possible to learn and what is necessary to test has become so unbearable that many schools across the country seem to be at a breaking point.

Beating the Odds: This is not Freedom Writers

Every once in awhile, teachers and students will come around who “beat the odds” and classrooms of working class youth will unleash their creativity to write books, perform Shakespeare plays, or initiate gang truces.  Then someone will make a movie about it.

This is all inspiring.  But when the system celebrates these teachers as exceptional individuals, it covers up the real lessons here: that the actual  heroes are the students, that they are capable of a lot more than what society has assigned them, and they are only capable of creating this when they cooperate instead of compete with each other.  Focusing on the myth of the exceptional teacher who rises above her colleagues undermines the cooperative spirit that makes this success possible in the first place.  The exceptional teacher is held up as a prop to get other teachers to feel lazy and guilty if they are not working 70 hour weeks and destroying their personal lives and mental health in order to excel in the classroom.   The reality is,  for these kinds of successes to become the standard, instead of the exception, we need creativity not control, and we need collective learning that prepares us for life, not labor.

Learning History by Making it Together

When students at Rainier Beach High School walk out demanding funding to renovate their dilapidated school facilities, they are pointing in this direction.  When teachers at Garfield High and Orca K-8 refuse to administer the MAP standardized test, they are pointing in this direction. When community members organize to  Collective resistance to the regime of control is real learning, in motion.  Instead of just learning about history to regurgitate facts on a test, we start to make history, together.

We know there are a lot of people out there who want creativity, not control.  We hope this blog will help us find each other so that we can organize and mobilize in our schools and neighborhoods, learning from each other in the process.  We welcome collaboration with fellow teachers,  fellow parents / family/ guardians, fellow students, and anyone who the schools have assigned to the working classes.

We will post updates about local organizing we are doing  in Seattle, as well as crucial developments in other cities.  If you would like to contribute, please contact us at CreativityNotControl@gmail.com.