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Student activists raise their voices for education reform

A group of teenage activists joined host Melissa Harris-Perry at Sunday's Education Nation Student Town Hall to discuss their ideas for education reform, and the importance of the student voice.
/ Source: Melissa Harris Perry

A group of teenage activists joined host Melissa Harris-Perry at Sunday's Education Nation Student Town Hall to discuss their ideas for education reform, and the importance of the student voice.

Education reform has become a prominent debate across the country, but the students who are impacted by its result are rarely invited to weigh in. This year, there has been a surge of students determined to disrupt that standard and make their voices heard to advocate for education reform that makes sense based on their own experiences with hot-button issues like high-stakes testing.

At the Education Nation Student Town Hall on Sunday, host Melissa Harris-Perry spoke with a panel of student activists from across the country–including Cauldierre McKay, a 17-year-old from Rhode Island who has been advocating against high stakes testing since he was 11 years old. He said he became involved at such a young age after realizing that, as the test-takers, students should have just as much of a voice about the effectiveness of tests as the adults administering them. McKay is now an Executive Board Member of the Providence Student Union, which he describes as “a youth-led organizing group that fights to build student power.”

In February of this year, the Student Union orchestrated a “zombie march” in response to a new minimum score for students to pass the standardized test that allows them to graduate from high school. Around 100 students dressed up as zombies and shuffled to the Department of Education to protest the measure. “We wanted to send a message that high-stakes tests are sucking out the creativity of our curriculum and turning us into test prep zombies,” McKay told Harris-Perry.

After the protest, the Student Union came under fire from adults who commented that they were simply complaining because they did not want to take the test. That criticism inspired the organization’s second creative protest tactic – having 50 accomplished adults take a portion of the state exam. McKay reports that even the students were “extremely shocked” to find that 60 percent of the adults did not score high enough to pass the test – and therefore did not meet the requirement to graduate high school.

“That really brought to us the question, what is this test really measuring?” McKay said. “How is it measuring how successful we’ll be in life if these adults didn’t even pass it?”

Eighteen-year-old Nuwar Ahmed is also a member of the Student Union in her home city of Philadelphia. She told the Student Town Hall that funding for public education is a critical issue for students in her city. “We’re not the priority in the eyes of our Governor,” she said, “and because of the lack of funding, we aren’t able to have a lot of things, such as teachers and nurses and counselors and sports and arts and music and all the great things that… make schools what they are.”

In Chicago, 16-year-old Ross Floyd attends one the best high schools in the city. But he joined the Student Town Hall panel to explain why he has been on the front lines of student protests in the city as co-founder of the Chicago Students Union. “What makes Chicago so great is that we’re a city of communities and we stand together,” Floyd explained.” So although [my school] wasn’t affected in the education crisis that’s going on in Chicago, 49 elementary schools were.”

The Chicago Board of Education closed those schools in May, citing loss of population in their surrounding neighborhoods. But the schools selected were also disproportionately those of low-income communities of color, a fact that resulted in an ultimately unsuccessful legal challenge. “You have to constantly ask the question, what if it was [my school] that was closed, you would want people to go out and march for you,” Floyd said on Sunday.

He also commented that the closures can not be considered independent of what else is happening in the city’s education system. “At the same time charter schools are coming in and teachers are being fired and $90 million is being cut from our budgets–you know in your heart that’s not right, and I personally have to do something about it,” Floyd said.

Eighth grader Noa Rosin Plotz has been advocating for a three-year moratorium on high-stakes testing. “Since 2001, when No Child Left Behind passed, we’ve been testing, testing, testing, and we have shown no improvement,” Plotz said to Harris-Perry. She believes that a moratorium is necessary for the standardized tests to be improved–and to figure out if they are truly the correct assessment tool for students.

Despite being advocates for different issues specific to their home cities, the student panelists all echoed that the voices of students must be included in education reform, and that student activism must continue until they are. “We will keep doing creative actions until we ensure that students have a voice in the education debate,” McKay told the Town Hall.