How pizza helped Garfield High teachers resist standardized testing

Lessons for citizens from teachers who were fed up with the MAP testing system and found the will to hold together until Seattle Public Schools backed down.
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Pizza's Inspirational Powers

Lessons for citizens from teachers who were fed up with the MAP testing system and found the will to hold together until Seattle Public Schools backed down.

When Garfield High School teachers refused to administer a standardized test of students last winter, they unleashed an international outpouring of support. Eventually, the teachers' stand and the uproar prompted Seattle Schools Superintendent Jose Banda to suspend mandatory high school use of the MAP test.  

The teachers also called attention to the national trend toward the commodification of public schools and students: The nurturing of young minds is being transformed into testing outcomes, standardized evaluations of both students and teachers and creation of management tools to reward or punish classroom performance.

And the Garfield staff members reminded the rest of us that a small group of determined citizens — teachers, in this case — could make a difference. The district says it uses MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) results to track students' progress and help adjust instruction to their needs. Teachers objected to its use in high schools for a host of reasons, including questions about its validity for older students and the money and the time spent on testing.

David faced down Goliath — and his consultants, PR firms, lobbyists, think tanks, advocacy groups, foundations and political and media friends. Where did David get the nerve? The resolve? Why not just sign an online petition and call it good?

As a community organizer, I wanted to find out what inspired Garfield’s teachers to direct action* and sustained their determination.  I talked with Jesse Hagopian, a Garfield history teacher, about the boycott. Here are (some of) the sources of inspiration I found:

  1. The Mead Seed: Margaret Mead said social change occurs only when a small group of people take action. For Garfield’s MAP boycott, that group was a party of one – a teacher who decided that enough was enough. The teacher met with Hagopian, told him, “I’m not giving this [MAP] test,” and asked for his help in calling a meeting of Garfield teachers to discuss and vote on a boycott.  
  2. “We’re Mad as Hell and We’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore” Motivation: To be successful, a direct action campaign must address problems that are widely and deeply felt, according to the Midwest Academy, a progressive-oriented training institute. At Garfield, anti-MAP sentiment ran deep among not only teachers, but students and parents as well. When the teachers who were to administer the MAP met to discuss the test, they voted unanimously to boycott. Later, all of the school’s teachers voted on the boycott; with the exception of a few abstentions, everyone supported it. Both the PTSA and Garfield students took active roles in letting other parents and students know about their right to opt out of the test. When the MAP test was eventually administered (by substitute teachers), only 180 of an expected 810 tests were completed.
  3. The “We Came to the Table. We Saw No Change. We Left” Approach: At a January 2013 press conference about the MAP test and boycott, Superintendent Bandas said the MAP “debate” was an “opportunity to come to the table.” But the boycott, like so many direct action efforts, came about only after a series of attempts to come to the table and negotiate with the district had failed. Over the last few years, these attempts included: the Seattle Education Association’s passage of a resolution against use of the MAP; a parent group’s appeal of the school board’s decision to renew its MAP testing contract; teacher testimony before the board, urging less reliance on the MAP; and a district-wide survey of teachers that showed overwhelming opposition to the MAP.

             In my experience as an organizer, these initial, good-faith negotiation efforts can make it easier for a group to remain unified after deciding to “leave the table” en masse and hit the streets. And a record of trying to negotiate makes it easier to attract support from people just learning about a group’s organizing campaign.      

  1. Say It With Pizza: When talking about the boycott, Hagopian described “some dark moments.” One such moment occurred when a district email arrived in teachers' inboxes shortly after their vote, mandating them to administer the MAP test. Within minutes, an announcement came over the intercom: Faculty were asked to go to the teachers’ lounge. Five large pizzas had just been delivered, courtesy of a retired kindergarten teacher in Florida, who had learned of the protest. According to Hagopian, the expression of solidarity “steeled our nerves….It was perfect timing.”

The ongoing flood of support from all over the world — including letters and emails, the organizing by Garfield PTSA and students, support from the Seattle Education Association and other unions, and a nationwide boycott in solidarity with Garfield High — was like a big pizza shield, deflecting at least some of the teachers’ fear of a 10-day suspension without pay. The outpouring of encouragement, Hagopian said, “was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.”

Back to the original question: Members of Team David was inspired to take bold action — a boycott — against Goliath because:

They were widely and deeply fed up. They had tried actions that were not as bold as the boycott — coming to the table, looking for common ground — to no avail. And they had support.

I don’t think I’ll ever look at pizza the same way again. 


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