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Brookline Newcomer 

The MCAS boycott-support workshops
and beyond 

Published in the Brookline TAB

June 1, 2000






No doubt the Brookline students who chose to take May's mandated MCAS test scored at least as high as predicted by the town's privileged socioeconomic status. But I'm especially impressed with the two dozen Brookline High School students who boycotted the exam instead. At a workshop organized by boycott supporters I listened to the protesters discuss direct action's historical effectiveness and moral justifications. Unfortunately, the students' in-depth discussion of difficult moral and political questions is exactly the kind of discussion that an MCAS-corrupted curriculum will eliminate.

Prior to April's one-day boycott, the anti-MCAS students had planned a series of workshops for May's two-week boycott period. They were eager to demonstrate that resisting the test didn't mean they were too lazy to learn. So they asked the Brookline Boycott Support Group's parents and educators to arrange classes on a variety of topics.

BHS Headmaster Bob Weintraub then instituted a penalty: lowered grades in test-related courses. After student, parent, and teacher protests, Weintraub modified his penalty by allowing students to write a research paper on the topic "I am not taking MCAS because...." The students reduced the number of workshops they had requested so they could spend time on their papers.

We ultimately offered two 90-minute classes, the first on education reform, the hazards of high-stakes testing, and relevant court cases selected by Weintraub (presented by Kathleen Boundy of the Center for Law and Education and Brookline's Alan Stoskopf of Facing History and Ourselves), and the second on protest and civil disobedience (by Facing History's Dimitry Anselme and me). (Both Alan and Dimitry are former BHS teachers; I've taught related college courses for many years.)

We organized the protest workshop around student reactions to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Dimitry and I asked the students to consider three of King's points with direct relevance to boycotter strategy--the distinction between just and unjust laws, the rationale for accepting punishment, and the problem of go-slow "white moderates" who urged civil rights activists not to be disruptive. In this context, we asked them to assess a wide range of possible political activities ranging from voting, petitioning, and lobbying at one extreme (the "official" low-level form of citizen involvement to which Headmaster Weintraub and Superintendent Jim Walsh urged the students to limit themselves) through rallies and marches, boycotts and strikes, civil disobedience and sit-ins and other forms of direct action, to the other extreme of assassination, terrorism, and revolution.

The students wrestled with the topic's many complex implications. They debated one another energetically while avoiding simplistic answers and superficial consensus. They made sophisticated arguments about the conditions under which different forms of protest might or might not be justified when political and legal institutions consistently ignore justifiable demands for social justice.

These are the sorts of debates in which serious political activists routinely engage. Many Brookline residents remember splits within the civil rights movement between adherents of nonviolent civil disobedience and Black Power militants, in the anti-Vietnam War movement between pacifists and revolutionaries, and locally in the anti-nuclear movement between the Clamshell Alliance's symbolic-protest approach and the Coalition for Direct Action at Seabrook.

These old divisions are mirrored today in the growing movement against corporate globalization. This academic year has seen a variety of tactics during the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization, the Washington protests against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and the Boston protests against corporate-controlled genetic engineering. There was also a nationwide resurgence of anti-capitalist Mayday demonstrations, which in Boston targeted the Stock Exchange, Fleet Bank, and Fidelity Investments. And the year's not over: on June 4th there'll be an anti-sweatshop protest at the Harvard Square Gap.

Weintraub and Walsh's repeated urging of MCAS boycotters to try lobbying ignored the fact that some boycotters, as well as many other anti-MCAS folks here in Brookline and across the state, have been petitioning and lobbying for some time and continue to do so. But it was only direct action--personally refusing to participate in a ludicrous, unjust, education-destroying, exercise, thereby rendering inaccurate any use of MCAS scores to compare school districts--that finally got some attention. We should all be proud.


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