Julie Zuckerman: Early Childhood's Opt-Out Warrior

Arab Spring has come to New York. The state’s parents, students, and teachers have had enough. Nearly 200,000 boycotted the English Language Arts exam last week. T-E-S-T has achieved the status of obscenity.

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The journalists are going wild. “New York politicians beware,” warned Fred LeBrun, in the Albany Times Union. “A revolution is in progress.” Juan Gonzales of the New York Daily News described it as “an act of mass civil disobedience.”

Under the headline “New York schools could lose millions in federal funds if boycott of Common Core testing continues,” in a piece by Kerry Burke and Ben Chapman, was a photograph of Julie Zuckerman, principal of the K-3 Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights, a New York City neighborhood to which Dominican immigrants have been drawn since the mid-20th century.

An early opt-out adapter, Zuckerman is an unreconstructed progressive educator, a rarity in today’s inhospitable climate for the species. When I last visited her school, she was leading a weekly community sing, on guitar. The scene—parents, teachers, and pre-kindergarteners through second graders—was startling, a throw-back to the 1960s, with a playlist including “Guantanamera.”

In the fall before the spring round of high-stakes standardized tests in 2014,  Zuckerman had gotten her first glimpse of an exam for her kindergartners. Although it was not aligned with the Common Core, it would be used as a baseline score to evaluate all teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade under New York State’s controversial evaluation system. “Why would anyone give these tests?” she asked.

Zuckerman then took her brief to the parents. “I said ‘we’re supposed to give this test—it’s pencil and paper, bubbles, and it’s inappropriate for kids this age.’” In a meeting with no seats to spare, the Castle Bridge parents had their say. When they hit 80 percent approval, Zuckerman called the whole thing off. Her mandate in hand, she opted out.

The school is now well practiced in the art of resistance. This year,  all 24 third-graders boycotted the test. “No one has lost any money yet,” Zuckerman told Gonzales, referring to the threat of federal punishment, hovering over the state’s unruly subjects.  “It’s a myth they’re using to scare schools.”  But events are moving fast. Just yesterday, in a discussion with the New York Times’s Motoko Rich in Chicago,  Arne Duncan declared war. States would pay the price for this massive civil disobedience, he said. If districts did not get the necessary numbers of test-takers, the U.S. Department of Education would have to step in.

The Secretary has a lousy track record with parents. “All of a sudden, their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were,” he once said of white suburban moms protesting the new Common Core exams.  This week, Duncan pooh-poohed the effects on children. “It’s just part of most kids’ education growing up,” he said, reminding those pesky radicals that his own progeny, public school students in Virginia, were unfazed by the whole thing. “Sometimes the adults make a big deal and that creates some trauma for the kids.” He didn’t say a word, of course, about the third-graders in Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter schools, who have been known to pee in their pants during test practice.

At Castle Bridge, white suburban moms are missing in action. In the school’s district, where 91 percent of the children are Latino, a Dual Language program maintains diversity, drawing low- and middle-income families of different races, ethnicity, and national origin.  Wouldn’t you know that Duncan has threatened to withhold Title I funds, grants that serve low-income students, in schools and districts with test-taking rates below 95 percent. States do have some discretion in this matter—although the details are still emerging, with all parties sifting through the legalities.

Has our education secretary met his Waterloo? Even Merryl Tisch is up in arms. New York’s Board of Regents chancellor, she recently expressed her displeasure with the parental uprising in a debate with Diane Ravitch at “All in with Chris Hayes.”  Is Tisch changing her tune? No sooner had Duncan spoken than she denounced “the notion of withholding funding that is used to support programs for vulnerable school populations because we cannot decide how to include testing in the evaluation of teachers.”

Meanwhile, Julie’s strumming her guitar, and the little ones sing: “Each of us is a flower, growing in the garden; Each of us is a flower, we need the sun and rain.” Now tell me who’s promoting educational equity.

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