Jia Lee’s Call to Action: Let all Teachers be “Teachers of Conscience”

“Remember that fear is natural, but there is greater fear in knowing what will happen if we don’t take a stand.”  

– Jia Lee 

The following is a War Report on Public Education and Living in Dialogue exclusive interview with Jia Lee. 

By Lucianna Sanson.

Jia Lee, a special education teacher at the Earth School in NYC, testified at the Senate Education Committee hearing on January 21, 2015. During her testimony, she not only explained why standardized tests are harmful to students, but also why she is refusing to administer the tests. Her testimony was a national call to action encouraging teachers to refuse to give harmful standardized tests to their students. In the following interview, Jia Lee discusses what it means to be a “Teacher of Conscience.” (see Michael Elliott’s short documentary on her testimony here.)

Q; What stand have you taken?

Jia Lee: I have taken on the position of a “conscientious objector.” I cannot stomach administering these tests to my students.

Q: How do you see high stakes tests affecting special education students?

Jia Lee: The high stakes attached to the standardized tests have had a detrimental affect on all of our students. However, if you want to think about it as a continuum, the students with special needs have been hurt the most. Their individualized education plans that create customized learning goals based on where they are at become nullified. So, students whose teachers work hard to take them from where they are to make progress suddenly feel as though none of that matters. Everything hinges on one narrow assessment.

Q: What did you think was most important to share with the Senate committee when you testified?

Jia Lee: They needed to hear that the policies were not working, and worse than that, the funding to adopt these policies do not reach the schools. We are in a starved situation without adequate resources, yet held to comply with new policies. They also needed to hear that teachers and entire school communities feel voiceless and not trusted to do what is best for their students.

Q: What did you think about the questions they asked?

Jia Lee: Many of the Senators asked important questions about learning and assessments, but they were directed mostly to the “experts” who focused mainly on how to measure annual yearly progress. Steve Lazar and I spoke to the professional use of assessments in our practice. Standardized tools are considered a narrow assessment tool, and in order to truly get a good sense of how a student learns and what they know, multiple measures and performance based assessments, without stakes, need to be considered.

Q: What do you think will be the outcome of the ESEA renewal process now underway in Congress?

Jia Lee: I can only hope that, in the least, the stakes will be removed and the tests will be used as periodic indicators. Grade span testing is part of S. Alexander’s option 1 proposal. There are many political pieces to this process that make it complicated. For a more long term vision of ESEA renewal, I hope people will re-examine the purpose of ESEA.

The spirit of the President Lyndon B. Johnson’s ESEA never included this kind of expenditure of resources on unproven testing and accountability measures. That is why NCLB has been a failure to our students and schools.

Whatever the outcome, I hope it spurs a real dialogue between elected officials and the general public, because in order to fix this, we need to go back to a time before public education budgets were viewed as a source of profit for testing and education corporations. Those who have a direct interest, parents, educators and community members must be at the forefront in the decision making process. Decisions on assessments and evaluations should be made at the local level. Stakes must be removed so that the focus can be put back to programs that improve the living conditions of all of our families, at a time when over 50% are living in poverty.

Otherwise, we’re looking at a growing opt out and refusal movement.

Q: What has been the public reaction to the stand you have taken, and your testimony?

Jia Lee: I’ve been amazingly overwhelmed with emails, Facebook messages, cards and phone calls from people who are thankful that I spoke so openly about being a conscientious objector. Some have reached out to say that the testimony helped them make the decision to do what is right for their child and opt out; some teachers have felt it gave them hope and want to speak with their school communities about how to empower themselves.

Q: Other teachers have begun to join you — four last week in Washington state delivered statements of professional conscience. What would be your advice to them and others considering taking this stand?

Jia Lee: First, they are not alone, and what I’ve learned is from others. Reach out and find others who feel the same way and are right there with you. Others will not be ready, and that’s OK Make a plan for yourself, a timeline and checklist of things to do. Go onto our wordpress site, Teachers of Conscience, and use the letter as your own template. Going public and involving the media provides a platform and a sense of security. And remember that fear is natural, but there is greater fear in knowing what will happen if we don’t take a stand.

Q: How has your union supported you?

Jia Lee: Just last week, our state union, NYSUT, issued a revised opt out fact sheet, indicating that it will support teachers who take a position to opt their own children out, those who speak out against high stakes testing and those who refuse. Twenty-one locals in New York State passed an I Refuse resolution and are calling on our state union to do the same.

Q: What connection do you see between the teachers of conscience movement and the growing number of students choosing to opt out of tests?
Jia Lee: As parents engage in their right to opt their children out of high stakes testing, it gives teachers, like me, the sense that there is no greater consequence that what will happen if we don’t speak up and take a stand. No one but us can protect our profession, and collectively with parents, students, administrators, we can protect public education.

Q: Where do you see the movement heading next?

Jia Lee: As people start to awaken and see that we can no longer keep our heads down, I believe that people will force democratic decision making through a variety of means: opting out/refusal, legislatively and changing how we engage around issues of public education. Even if the federal government reauthorizes ESEA with the same or similar testing mandates, teachers, parents, students and concerned community members are learning that this can’t work. While we opt out and refuse compliance to the standardization of our communities, we will start to see people engaged in highlighting our vision for public education.

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