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Pepper spray seared Jesse Hagopian’s face and tears streamed from his eyes. He had just given a speech at this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, on January 19 in Seattle. In keeping with tradition, the thirty-third annual event began in the gymnasium of Garfield High School, where Hagopian himself attended school and now teaches history. He presented plaques to students who were leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement. After the ceremony, 10,000 people marched toward downtown.
There, Hagopian delivered the event’s final speech, demanding justice for Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and other unarmed black males who died at the hands of police.
“I challenged people who celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. but denigrate his true legacy: a life of direct action against injustice,” Hagopian recalls. “He would have been in the streets of Ferguson, demanding that black lives matter. Those who chastise Black Lives Matter as too strident but the next day celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. are doing his memory an injustice.”
Applause rang in Hagopian’s ears as he headed off to complete the day at a birthday party for his two-year-old son. Then, as he walked down the sidewalk, calling his mother on the phone to ask her for a ride, a police officer pepper-sprayed him in the face. A bystander caught the encounter on a cellphone video camera, footage Hagopian is using in a federal lawsuit against the Seattle police.
Hagopian, a nationally known school reform advocate who writes the blog “I Am An Educator,” arrived at the birthday party with his eyes swollen and ear burning. His two sons, especially his six-year-old, were troubled.
“I didn’t know what to tell them,” Hagopian says. “For all the education I do about structural racism and inequality and police brutality, my tongue was tied when my son asked me what happened.”
Jesse Hagopian’s passion for social justice led him to the classroom, something that surprises him given his own struggles in school.
“Most of my life I would have thought of this as the last profession I would have had,” says Hagopian, thirty-six, whose mother is of Armenian descent and whose father is African American. “School was a very arduous experience to me. It didn’t seem like it was meant for me.”
Yet Hagopian has become a leading voice for an end to high-stakes standardized testing, and has brought together civil rights activists with parents who fear that too many tests are creating a stripped-down, dull, and oppressive school environment, especially for kids who are already disadvantaged. In September, his work culminated in a historic
Seattle teachers’ strike, driven by the demands of his coalition of “social justice educators”—more recess, less testing, and race and equity committees in every school.
The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to show “adequate yearly progress” on state-defined standards measured by testing. This spurred a wave of new tests—one national group found that students in large urban districts will take an average of 113 standardized tests between pre-kindergarten and twelfth grade. The massive increase in standardized tests has generated a backlash from teachers and parents.
The issue has gained momentum through broad-based opposition to new standardized tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Across the country, community activists have protested the closing of neighborhood schools that fail to improve test scores and their replacement with private operators.
Proponents argue that standardized testing is necessary to hold schools accountable and ensure that every student masters the basics. But critics, including Hagopian, maintain that this testing disrupts teaching and learning, taking long stretches away from class time, and, worse, cements social inequalities.
His efforts gained national attention in 2013 when he and other teachers at Garfield organized a successful boycott of the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), a set of standardized tests mandated by the Seattle Public Schools. Under pressure, the district changed its policy and left it up to individual schools whether to administer the test.
Hagopian’s work bringing together a large, diverse movement to combat overtesting stands out in the Seattle area, home to Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and the richest man in the world. The Gates Foundation is a force behind Common Core, as well as education “reform” advocacy that pushes for the use of high-stakes tests. On the premise that data will solve all problems, Gates has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on developing teacher evaluation systems based on standardized tests, as well as the tests themselves, and huge databases for storing and analyzing test scores.
“We oppose these tests because there are too many of them and they’re narrowing the curriculum and they’re making our kids feel bad, but they’re also part of maintaining institutional racism,” says Hagopian, who serves as an adviser to Garfield’s Black Student Union. Thirty percent of the school’s students are black, compared with 7 percent of Seattle’s overall population.
Hagopian supports a growing national movement of parents and students who are opting out of taking these tests. While a dozen civil rights groups—including the NAACP—earlier this year issued a statement arguing that parents who opt their kids out of tests sabotage the data collection necessary to improve schools, Hagopian has persuaded the Seattle King County NAACP to buck the national organization’s position. Other Pacific Northwest chapters have followed suit.
Contrary to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s comment that opposition to testing comes from “white suburban moms,” the movement is expanding to include people of color, Hagopian says.
“To truly take down the institutions of racism in this country, it will take a movement that’s led by black people, but it will have to draw in a multiracial coalition that will have to include ‘white suburban moms’ who realize that if our nation’s wealth is used to incarcerate black and brown people, there won’t be enough money to fully fund schools for all,” Hagopian says.
“My goal is to help join communities of color and the Black Lives Matter movement with the opt-out movement,” he says. “That would truly be a social force beyond the amount of dollars in Bill Gates’s bank account.”
As a youngster, Hagopian wanted little to do with activism or school, even though his mother served on the Seattle school board and fought military recruiters’ access to students. An early experience with testing left him believing that he would not succeed.
“I can remember vividly in third grade when a teacher brought out my standardized test score and showed my mom . . . that my dot was way below the bell curve,” Hagopian recalls. “I felt really ashamed, and I knew from that moment on that I was stupid.”
Three things kept him in school: his friends, baseball, and his mother. She expected his grades to be good enough to get into college.
“I did just enough of my mom’s requirement so I could play baseball,” says Hagopian, who still has the loose-limbed carriage of an athlete. “Thankfully, we had resources so that I could take the test prep course over and over until I got the SAT scores I needed.”
He attended Macalester College in Minnesota, where he met his future wife and experienced a political awakening.
“When I started taking media studies and cultural studies and critical race theory, it started explaining some things about my experience as a mixed African American person, and I began to realize I had something to contribute,” Hagopian recalls. “It became so meaningful, I stopped playing baseball even. I wanted to figure out, ‘How can I connect what I’m learning about structural injustices to actually make change in the world?’ ”
When he graduated from college, he joined Teach for America.
“After my five weeks of training in the Bronx, they shipped me off to Washington, D.C., and I taught in one of the most impoverished ghettos in the country,” says Hagopian, who grew critical of Teach for America and later earned a master’s degree in education from the University of Washington. “I would walk by the White House on my way to work and then I’d be in an area that looks like many developing countries.”
In Washington, D.C., he taught sixth graders. For a beginning-of-the-school-year show-and-tell assignment, he asked his students to bring something important to them to class. One student presented the driver’s license of his father, who was in jail. Another brought in a photo of an uncle who had been killed.
Many students had such tales of loss, Hagopian says. “The second day on the job, I had to confront the reality of the situation: These kids had been abandoned by the world’s wealthiest country.”
Their school was so dilapidated that water poured through the classroom ceiling, ruining posters of historical figures the students created as part of their first major assignment. Then came the 9/11 attacks. He and his students witnessed smoke rising from the Pentagon.
“Within weeks or months, our nation could mobilize untold resources to go bomb the Middle East, but they couldn’t raise money to fix the ceiling of my classroom just a few minutes away from the halls of government. That experience teaching some of the most vibrant, incredibly creative kids I’ve ever had the honor of working with, but seeing them set up by a system that callously disregarded their humanity is what set me on the path of being an education activist.”
Although teachers and their unions commonly lobby lawmakers, Hagopian’s brand of activism doesn’t follow statehouse etiquette.
In November 2011, he and other members of the Seattle group Social Equality Educators traveled to Olympia to protest cuts to education funding. They hoisted a banner that read “Citizens’ Arrest, Lawbreakers Need to Fully Fund Education” in a budget-slashing committee meeting.
Using the call-and-response “mic check” technique employed by Occupy Wall Street, Hagopian declared, “The constitution of Washington state reads it is the paramount duty to fully fund education. We therefore issue a citizen’s arrest of this Washington state legislature.”
A county judge had already ruled that the state failed its constitutional obligation to fully fund basic education. Shortly thereafter, in January 2012, the Washington Supreme Court agreed. In 2014, the state’s high court held the legislature in contempt. A series of one-day teacher walkouts has kept pressure on the legislature to fully fund K-12 education by 2018.
But on that fall day in 2011, it was Hagopian who was arrested, with a state trooper slapping on the cuffs and leading him from the building. When he returned to school the next day, he was stunned to find that his students not only knew about his arrest, but were organizing a walkout to protest education cuts. An estimated 500 students participated.
Hagopian’s words are passionate, but he delivers them with an easy-going style and an occasional warm chuckle that puts listeners at ease. He’s a sought-after speaker, and shows up regularly in newspapers, magazines, and on TV.
“The media can often be a destructive force in our society,” he says. “I’ve found ways through alternative media or by finding cracks in the mainstream media to amplify the voice of different struggles.”
Hagopian launched the “I Am An Educator” blog in 2013, when Garfield was in the thick of the test boycott. It provides a media-friendly archive of his speeches, articles, and photos. He also serves as associate editor of Rethinking Schools, a magazine that advocates for social equality in public education, and has edited an anthology titled More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.
The subject he teaches, history, is not covered by the Measures of Academic Progress standardized test. He was drawn into protesting the test when another teacher contacted him as his school’s union representative. One nonconforming teacher could be sanctioned or fired, but he figured that if all the school’s teachers joined in the boycott, they could win.
One of Hagopian’s central arguments against standardized testing is that it disproportionately harms students of color. “The most damning truth about standardized tests is that they are a better indicator of a student’s zip code than a student’s aptitude,” he writes in More Than a Score. “Wealthier, and predominantly whiter, districts score better on tests.”
“It’s one of the motivating factors for me in combating the school-to-prison pipeline,” says Hagopian, who is active in the Black Lives Matter movement. He has lent support and advice to Garfield’s Black Student Union as youth have stepped into the fray.
On the day a grand jury declined to indict the officer who shot an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri, Hagopian spoke at a Seattle rally protesting the decision. As he rushed back to school after the lunch-hour outing, he was stunned to see students streaming out of Garfield in protest. About 1,000 walked out.
The Black Student Union also organized a march on a police precinct, calling out the Seattle police department for not doing enough to rectify a pattern of using excessive force identified by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2011. The thirty students were met by police in riot gear.
The Seattle Human Rights Commission this year gave Garfield’s Black Student Union a Rising Human Rights Leaders Award. Hagopian stresses that the students set their own agenda, and only turn to him and the group’s other adult advisor for counsel, but other leaders credit him for inspiring youth.
“He is really encouraging young people to step up to the plate and get involved in activism, not in a way that pushes them into it,” says K.L. Shannon, a member of the Seattle King County NAACP executive committee. “He’s a role model. And they’re responding.”
A new generation is following in Hagopian’s footsteps, including his own son. With his dad’s support, the youngster opted out of the Measures of Academic Progress in kindergarten last school year.
“I think my son would probably score pretty well on these tests, but I would never want him to face that [idea] that his intellect can be reduced to a data point,” Hagopian says. “Those tests can’t quantify any of the things that make him who he is. I don’t want him to ever think that what I believe is important in education is the outcome of that score.” w