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What student protesters can learn from history

It seems that you can’t turn on the news or open a paper without seeing something about a protest movement somewhere around the world. People are rising up at an unprecedented rate, demanding that their voices be heard.

So it’s no surprise really, given that standards and standardized tests often take on the face of the “oppressor” within education, that we see students standing up and walking out of classrooms refusing to take part in “The Man’s” testing game.

It’s easy to be dismissive of these students—especially when they hold signs that read “Too cute 4 standardized tests.” But as a social science teacher, I can’t help but assign meaning and context to it all, and what I see is a group of young adults who desperately want to be a part of change, but don’t fully understand what it takes to make that happen.

Let me be clear, this isn’t entirely their fault. Pop culture, the media, and even much of education teaches us that if we stand up for what we believe in, and what we believe in is “right”, the higher moral ground will win the day and all will be well.

Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, people marched and boycotted, and suddenly the city of Montgomery saw the error in their ways and ended bus segregation. The 13 Colonies were tired of being “overtaxed,” they refused to pay, went to war, won, and now we have America.

All it took were groups of people to say “enough” and change happened. But it is this non-contextual lens by which we view history that leads to shortsighted solutions.

In this particular instance, the students didn’t want to take a standardized test—for whatever reason, good or bad—so they walked out. If the only goal of the walkouts and demonstrations was to bring to light the problems of over-testing, then I guess they can hang it up and move on. They have brought the issue to forefront of the conversation across the state.

People heard about the walkouts, students and schools made the news, district employees had to make statements, but now it’s back to business as usual. Each district that has experienced walkouts still has given, or plans to give, statewide standardized tests. And the overwhelming majority of students will take them. So if the students’ goal was real and systematic change, we aren’t quite there.

To revisit Rosa Parks, people often forget that the boycott lasted 381 days. Thousands of blacks and whites had to walk, carpool, bike, or whatever it took to be able to get to and from work or wherever they needed to go in whatever weather condition presented itself. They had to face death treats, and some lost their lives. They had to spend countless hours working with members of the city and state government, to negotiate and finally bring resolution to bus segregation.

The American Revolution lasted 18 years and when it was all said and done 50,000 American soldiers had been killed or wounded. And the American democracy we know now would not begin to take full form until those in charge did a decade of post-war work to establish something similar to the government we now enjoy and these students wish (and have the freedom) to challenge.

If students want to be taken seriously, it is critical that they come to the table with solutions, not just problems. They will have to realize that walking out, making signs, and protesting for a day or two is not the best approach if they are interested in more than just making the nightly news.

Students will have to come to a concrete understanding that authentic change takes time, effort, failure, and compromise. We will never eliminate statewide tests, because they do serve an important purpose. But how can we have accountability and information on student learning that everyone can feel good about? Students are a critical voice as we seek to find that balance.

I am confident that the students can rise to the challenge. I see in my students a growing awareness of the power that they have, and they are very much interested in leveraging that power to shape an education that THEY feel prepares them for THEIR future.

If adults—educators, parents, and policymakers—are serious about guiding students to be independent, critical thinkers who can advocate for themselves, then we have to make a more concerted effort to include students as we shape the policies that affect their lives, and students need to engage with the process long term.

Instead of opting out of the current tests, students need to be opting in to being a part of meaningful change.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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