Sarah Jaffe in Salon
Agustin Morales’s first day back at school came a little bit late this year. On November 24, he began his fourth year as English teacher at Maurice A. Donahue Elementary School in Holyoke, Massachusetts, to congratulations from his students and colleagues.
Morales had to fight to return to school at all this year. As Salon reported in October, he was let go last spring, after his evaluations took a sudden turn at about the same time as he joined fellow teachers and parents to protest so-called “data walls” in the classroom; teachers had been instructed to post students’ names and test scores on a public wall as a motivation tactic. Parent Paula Burke called the walls “public humiliation.”
The Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations, in a preliminary finding, agreed with Morales that there was probable cause to believe his legally protected workplace activity—speaking up against working conditions that he and other teachers thought were harmful—was the reason for his firing. Unlike some of the other teachers who appeared at a school committee (Massachusetts’ equivalent of a school board) meeting to protest the data walls, Morales did not yet have Professional Teacher Status, Massachusetts’s equivalent of tenure, which comes after three years in one school district. He had also just been elected president of his local union, the Holyoke Teachers Association, as part of a reform caucus, Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU), that also helped teacher educator and high-stakes testing critic Barbara Madeloni become president of the statewide union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA).
Morales expected to spend this week in a public hearing room before the labor department, presenting witnesses and evidence that he remained the good teacher that his evaluations said he was up until last February. Instead, the district chose to settle with him. The terms of the settlement are confidential, but what matters to Morales is that he’s back in the classroom.
“This victory does not belong to me,” he says. “It belongs to the teachers who’ve seen the hostile takeover of their profession by corporate interests. It belongs to the parents who’ve seen their children start to hate school. It belongs to every student that has been dragged ahead in the name of No Child Left Behind. It belongs to all the students who’ve bottomed out in the Race to the Top. This victory belongs to all of us.”
Dan Clawson, an MTA board member and a labor sociologist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, tells Salon that Morales’s return to teaching sends a larger message to teachers in the state. “One of the things that happens in teaching these days, even with tenure, is a culture of fear. Teachers are afraid to speak up for what they know is right,” he says. “It tends to be that the higher the test scores, the more affluent the area, the easier it is for teachers to speak up and the more parents are there supporting the teachers that are speaking up for students.” In Holyoke, a poor district where about three-quarters of the students are Latino, it can be much harder for teachers to challenge the way things are done.
Morales, who grew up in Holyoke and graduated from the public schools, became a compelling voice for that reason, Clawson notes. “Here’s somebody with a base in the community. If you’re trying to smack teachers down and this person stands up to you, your ability to carry the community with you is challenged.”
It was the community’s support that Morales says helped him get his job back, too. Parents and students joined rallies and press conferences to stand by him, and he says their congratulations since his return have meant everything. And yet, he reiterates, the most important thing is not his job. “If what I wanted was my job I would’ve just kept my mouth shut, I would’ve done exactly what I was told and been a good little soldier,” he says.
Teacher tenure remains a hot topic around the country, with education-reform advocates like Campbell Brown, former CNN anchor, claiming that tenure amounts to a job for life for child abusers at worst and ineffective teachers at best. Yet Clawson notes, “The way they talk you would think the best school systems in the country were in Mississippi and Alabama where they don’t have all those pesky unions.” Massachusetts, though, has the highest test scores in the country. By the reformers’ own metric, the numbers don’t add up.
Instead, without a union and a community willing to stand up for him, Morales would’ve been out of a job. (Indeed, as I reported in October, even losing his job for a few months meant Morales had to sell his house.) And while most unions stand up for their members when their jobs are threatened, Clawson says that Morales’s struggle against high-stakes tests in the workplace is a part of the union’s broader struggle against overtesting. The MTA this fall also successfully pushed back on a statewide requirement that would have linked student test scores to the renewal of a teacher’s license to teach, a move that, Clawson wrote in Jacobin, would likely incentivize teachers to leave struggling districts like Holyoke for more affluent, whiter districts like Newton where test scores are already higher.
“If tenure is abolished,” Clawson says, fights like Morales’s “will be the only way we’ll keep people there.” How many teachers will be willing to go through months of uncertainty to stay in a poor school district?
Morales, for his part, has no plans to keep his head down now that he’s back on the job. “If there’s one thing I’ve taken away from this entire fight to try and get back in the classroom it’s how unimportant I am,” he says. “The ones that mean something are the students and the teachers. What my victory has allowed people to see for the first time in a long time is that there’s a hope for a larger victory. That there is a way to fight back, that we’re not helpless, that we’re not victims, that we can actually take part in the fight in a very active manner.”
The Massachusetts teachers plan to keep pushing back against high-stakes testing, joining a growing national movement of parents, teachers, and students. MTA president Madeloni and Morales will both be speaking at the United Opt Out conference in Florida this January, and Morales notes that Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester has already put out a letter acknowledging concerns about overtesting and instructing teachers to provide “alternate educational activities” for students who do not participate in the tests. “Our biggest mission this year is making sure we get kids to opt out of the 3-8 [third through eighth grade]testing because it consumes so much time,” Morales says. “I’m going to continue working really hard to try to shine a light so that the parents can see it, I want a light so bright that it just cannot be ignored on what is going on with their kids.”
The data walls may be gone, but, Clawson notes, administrators are still focused on testing in a way that dehumanizes students. He points to the instructions teachers at Donahue recently received for their classroom observations, requiring them to have seating charts that include a student’s test scores along with their name, whether they are English-language learners or special education students, and other data clearly marked. “It’s a teacher-only data wall,” Clawson says. It avoids the public shaming but it’s the same kind of focus on this and it’s, the information they want there tells you what matters to administrators. Every time you glance at your seating chart, you’d be reminded of the person’s test scores.”
“One of the biggest things I get from most teachers is that there’s too many initiatives, there’s too much being mandated, so teaching is no longer really teaching,” Morales says. “Now we are more like sweatshop managers walking around with clipboards making sure all the i’s are dotted and all the t’s are crossed, and if they’re not we need to make sure that they are because god forbid they don’t do well on the test, then it makes us look like bad teachers. We’re creating a generation of teachers that are so test-oriented I’m scared they’ll never see the other way. The way that I grew up being taught.”
Morales and Clawson hope that this victory for one teacher will give the union some momentum to expand their fight and encourage more teachers to step forward with their concerns. “I think the message is as abundantly clear as it possibly could be that the time has come to fight back,” Morales says.