Teachers: A Call to Conscience

“My conscience leaves me no other choice.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On April 4th, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, declaring “My conscience leaves me no other choice.”  Dr. King went on and “insisted that it was morally imperative for the U.S. to take radical steps to halt the war through nonviolent means (King, ‘‘Beyond Vietnam,’’ 139).  In a Q & A following his speech, Dr. King said:

As I said earlier in the speech, I think the time has come for those of us feel that this war is immoral and unjust to advise young men of the alternative to the draft, which is to serve as conscientious objector. I think this will do a great deal to arouse the conscience of the nation on this whole situation, and certainly if the war is continually escalated I think this will be absolutely necessary. – Dr. King

In a letter to a Navy friend written in 1965, John F. Kennedy wrote on the topic of conscientious objection:

War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector
enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.  
 ~ John F. Kennedy, Letter to a Navy friend, quoted in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965), p. 88.

Through No Child Left Behind, through Common Core and its subsequent tests; our own Congress, the US Department of Education, the National Governor’s Association, and the Council for State School Officers have joined corporate education reformers declaring war on America’s public schools. (This war is actually global.)

As a result of this declaration of war – aligned with the passions of conscientious objectors of previous wars, a spark was lit in the hearts and minds of teachers. As teachers, we passionately object to the way testing dominates and distorts instruction and learning for children, preventing teachers from teaching in ways we know are good for children.

A new movement has risen in the Teachers’ Letters of Professional Conscience.  We believe it is morally imperative to take radical steps to halt toxic high stakes testing around the globe.  We write these letters to arouse the conscience of each nation and believe our actions are absolutely necessary.

A re-write of JFK’s quote is meant to inspire our movement:

Governmental and corporate-led war on public schools will exist until that distant day when the Teacher of Professional Conscience enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the corporate reformer does today.

~ Susan DuFresne

On January 28th, 6th grade teacher, Becca Ritchie delivered her letter of professional conscience to our local school board, re-writing and speaking her words echoing Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, as found here.

“Remember that fear is natural, but there is greater fear in knowing what will happen if we don’t take a stand.”  

– Jia Lee 

Taking this step is a serious matter, and as you can see by the expression on our faces, we knew the seriousness of putting our objections into words, and then into action.  Notably we crossed enemy lines to give our speeches in Bill Gates’ backyard –  aka prime corporate reform territory. As conscientious objectors, we have been forged in the crucible of corporate education reform.

On Wednesday, January 28th,  as one of four teachers in Renton, WA, we stood before our local school board and read our Teachers’ Letters of Professional Conscience.   The #Renton4, as we call ourselves, included Integrated (special ed and general ed) Kindergarten teacher – Susan DuFresne (speech here), 3rd grade teacher – Judy Dotson (speech here), 5th grade teacher – Julianna Krueger-Dauble (speech here), and 6th grade teacher – Becca Ritchie (speech here).

After our objections, we asked our school board to respond to our letters, giving them two options.  Please see these options below:

____ (insert teacher name), Your concerns are noted and valued and you will be allowed to opt out of administering the (insert test name)  without any retribution.
____ (insert teacher name),  Your concerns are noted and your professional conscience is being discounted. Administration in this building or district requires you to administer the (insert test name) despite your objections and the harm, outlined in the narrative, that children will experience.

This ground-breaking movement led by teachers is challenging work.  We want to provide both a space for other teachers to publicly share their letters, a road map for teachers who wish to join our movement, and a space to create solidarity for the growth of this movement. Peggy Robertson of United Opt Out is keeping a list of teachers who refuse to administer the test.  Her updated list as of today is as follows:

Becca Ritchie – Washington
Dawn Neely Randall – Ohio
Dan Hornberger – Pennsylvania (refused to administer PA Keystone Exams)
Another site created by a group of New York teachers including Jia Lee –  called Teachers of Conscience –  can be found here. While we are not alone, we recommend teachers find allies in this important work to stand behind them in solidarity across their districts as they read their letters to their school boards.

Subsequently, we have created a road map for other teachers to follow in our foot-steps.  We are continuing this work with our local school board and will post updates and additional strategies, bumps in the road, suggestions, and successes as the process unfolds.

Please find our objections on our “Our Objections” page, linked here.  If you, as a teacher agree with our objections, you are free to use them, adding your own words in a few paragraphs to personalize your story.  Please work with other teachers in your district prior to going to the school board with your letters.  Once you are ready to read your letters to the school board, please post your letters here in our comment section.  We will publish your letters here on our blog, collecting the Teachers’ Letters of Professional Conscience. This is a call to action.  Direct action.  Imperative moral action. Join us.

What do you think?  Is toxic testing a moral issue?  Should teachers as professionals have an oath of “first do no harm”?  Are you ready to join a movement led by teachers to end toxic high stakes testing?  Are you ready to take a stand, objecting to being used by our government and corporate reformers as an instrument of war on children, teachers, and public schools?


5 thoughts on “Teachers: A Call to Conscience

  1. Attn: Ms. Trina S. Newton, Superintendent of Schools
    Administration Center, Geneva City School District
    400 West North St.
    Geneva, NY 14456
    Open Letter to Ms. Trina Newton

    Dear Ms. Newton:

    In recent years I have been assigned to administer New York State Assessments to students during testing days. I am requesting to be assigned alternative duties during these assessments in the future. As an employee of the Geneva City School District, I feel it is my duty to speak up when practices and policies that cause harm to our students are in place. The assessments administered by Pearson for the State of New York are part of a scheme that is causing harm to our students and may ultimately cause the Geneva City School District to cease to exist as we know it. Participating in this process seems to be the wrong thing to do.

    Through the course of my duties as a proctor last Spring, I reviewed the assessments that fourth grade students were administered. As a long time educator, I was very dismayed. These tests seemed to be designed to trick students into answering incorrectly rather than to think through logically and develop sound answers based on facts found in text or mathematical information. Sadly, it is impossible for me to discuss these tests frankly because there is a gag order on all teachers in New York State regarding the contents of the exams. This gag order was put into place after poorly designed and nonsensical test items were made public in 2012. If I were to reveal specific questions, even after the fact, I would put my career at risk.

    Outgoing Education Commissioner King has stated that parents deserve to know how well their children are performing. If this is the case, it is essential that parents see the actual tests after they are administered and graded. When the State only releases excerpts from exams, it promotes a culture of distrust. How can parents determine the value of a test if they are never permitted to see the document? Parents also should clearly understand the cut score system. They need to know that these cut scores were designed to fail the majority of students in the State. The results were determined before the tests were taken.

    The Governor and State Legislature have acknowledged that the roll-out of new assessments is flawed and, therefore, have delayed consequences for students for several years. At the same time, the Governor has now decided that 50% of an individual teacher’s evaluation should be based on these same flawed tests. Does anyone really think that this is going to result in less pressure for students? The Governor has also decided that 35% of each teacher’s evaluation will be determined by an outside observer. This leaves the Geneva City School District with 15% to work with. Having spent eleven years of my thirty year career working as a middle and high school principal, I am appalled. The Governor does not trust the Board of Education in Geneva with the education of the children in this community. It is only a matter of time before all local control is removed.

    I am encouraged by the actions of the Geneva Board of Education on January 12, 2015. The Resolution on High Stakes Testing and the Resolution in Support of Correction of Inequitable and Discriminatory Funding of State Aid are important statements of principle from the elected leaders of our school district. I fully support the sentiments of these resolutions and stand with the Board of Education. Sadly, our Board of Education is hamstrung by New York State. If the district administrators and our Board of Education do not bow to the dictates of the State Education Department, it is threatened that State Aid will be withheld and the district could conceivably come under the direct control of the State.

    It is time for all stakeholders in this educational community to make their voices heard in Albany. The students, Board of Education, and educators need your help. Please take a stand for local control of your school district. Geneva is a unique and wonderful place with amazing promise. I am thankful every day that I have the opportunity to serve the young people of Geneva. I wish to continue my service with the support that we truly deserve from our State leaders.

    Thank you in advance for your consideration of my request for re-assignment.


    Kenneth P. Foster
    Instrumental Music Teacher
    North St. School

    cc Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch, Governor Andrew M. Cuomoo

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for your letter, Ken. We will post it this this morning. Do you have a photo you would like us to use?


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