Jia Lee has been teaching in New York City schools since 2001, working with elementary and special needs students in the Bronx and Manhattan. In recent years, she has been an activist in the “opt-out” movement, where students abstain from sitting for state exams tied to teacher and school ratings.

Last year, bowing to pressure from parents and teachers, Governor Cuomo and the state Board of Regents reversed their previous policies and eliminated test results from the state teacher evaluation system.

Lee, a United Federation of Teachers union representative for her school, is running for the union’s leadership in opposition to current president Michael Mulgrew. She is the candidate of the MORE (Movement of Rank and File Educators) caucus, a faction of delegates calling for less “top-down bureaucracy” in the union and increased mobilization and advocacy for teachers’ rights.

Gothamist talked to Lee about her experience working in the New York City Department of Education, the opt-out movement, her campaign for the city union presidency and her role as a parent with a student attending city public schools.

When I was a kid, I would play school. I was fascinated with the idea of working with children. But I had experiences at school that I felt weren’t open to my way of learning. I would hear about experiences that my college friends had had at private school, in more progressive settings, which made me want to study child development and public education.

I started in the New York City Department of Education as a Teaching Fellow in District 75. I taught in the Bronx in a self-contained high school, with students with severe emotional disabilities and behavioral disorders. I’ve taught K-12 throughout the course of my career. I eventually landed at an elementary school in the East Village. I started co-teaching with a general education teacher and then I taught self-contained for a couple of years. Then I transferred to the Earth School, which was around the corner from my first school, PS 63, here in the East Village.

When I first started, it was in the first year of No Child Left Behind, during the roll-in of using standardized metrics to evaluate schools and teachers and administrators. Which just didn’t feel right. I was teaching students who were in and out of incarceration, in and out of public institutions for mental disorders. A lot of them had been born during the crack epidemic, so many had developmental delays and cognitive deficits as a result. But they were expected to pass Regents Exams.

Half of my students under 21 could barely read, let alone have the background knowledge to access the content on the tests.

Racial segregation—not just among students but also staff populations—it’s a crisis that the methods and policies that we know are causing ranking and sorting of students are the very mechanisms that are ranking and sorting us as teachers.

Even new teachers coming into the system, they are not passing the [new Pearson-administered certification program] edTPA and the new certification tests. Disproportionally, black and Latino educators are not passing these tests. And there’s a reason for that. I find it to be a huge problem that we are continuing with systems that are unfounded and that have huge racist implications and contribute to systemic racism. It’s like we’re going backwards instead of forwards.

Real teacher preparation comes from working with experienced educators. That has gone to the wayside and there is now so much emphasis on passing tests. There are too many tests and there’s too much jumping through hoops. They are an added barrier in a profession that’s already seeing dwindling numbers. Nobody wants to go into teaching any more.

But that was the position I was put into—to teach Regents-level science. I was just trying to work within those parameters. And my first elementary school teaching experience, it was very traditional, compliance-based. It wasn’t until I arrived at the Earth School, which was founded about thirty years ago during the progressive education movement, that I realized what “whole child” learning could look like.

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Mayor de Blasio, First Lady McCray, NYC School Chancellor Fariña and Queens Borough President Katz Visit Home Sweet Home Children’s School in Queens, September 2014 (Rob Bennett / Mayoral Photography Office)

At the school, we design our own curriculum. But it’s a public school. It wasn’t until I got here that my mind was blown away, and I thought, “Oh my god, this is the kind of thing I wish I had.” In my classroom, I have 27 students. It’s a co-teaching classroom and we have a broad range of students with Individualized Educational Plans who come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. And they are all so engaged in the work.

I feel that a lot of students in our system are missing out, because of the pressure to raise test scores and to follow certain content standards. That’s being mistaken for real learning. This system has produced school cultures of compliance which denigrate engagement—which is at the root of learning.

We are still expected to administer the state tests. We are still expected, in a lot of ways, to follow certain compliance mandates. Because of the rich history and traditions in our school, there is a natural pushback against that and so you see a rise of the “opt out” movement in our school.

The last few years, the “opt-out” movement has grown incrementally, but it’s in schools like ours—the Brooklyn New School, the Earth School, the Neighborhood School— these schools have all had their share of resistance. It’s because of the work that we do and what we value. It’s hard to say where the movement started, with teachers or parents. It’s a chicken or the egg kind of question. If you already have a culture of communicating with your families about where your students are really doing well and what they are struggling with, there’s already a conversation happening. We have an open door policy at our school.

Once New York City had a grading system for schools, and that became a focal point in our school building because the grade would be great one year and down the next. Just because of the nature of our school size, one test score, or one item on one child’s test, could totally skew the metrics.

The more research that we did, parents and teachers together, through the school leadership team, we realized that these results were based on faulty metrics. These results which have big implications for our schools are hugely problematic. The results are public and people make their decisions on whether or not they send their child to your school based on these ratings. The ratings affect the morale in the school building—and they are based on a metric that is completely flawed. Parents started saying, “We’re not going to participate in this.” The conversation with the teachers is just natural; it wasn’t taboo in our building.

The majority of our students opted out. There is a disparity between the families whose parents can make it to meetings and those who can’t. Several meetings are held through our Parents Association or our School Leadership Team and the parents who work really long hours or certain times of day don’t always make it. Being able to get them to have access to those discussions, to let them know what is going on, is a lot of work. We don’t always reach everybody. For the small percentage of students who did participate in the tests, those parents might be afraid of consequences that might affect their particular child. They ask, “Will this have implications for middle school admissions and beyond?” In some cases, students say, “I want to see what the test looks like. I want to try it out.” They don’t understand the politics of it. And I’m not going to argue with a child. And parents aren’t going to argue with a child over it.

My child goes to the middle school that’s on the third floor in my building because of convenience, number one, and because I got to know the community so well. For him, he’s opted out since the 4th grade. Fourth grade is supposedly the year that they look at test scores for admissions. It did not affect my son’s ability to get into any school.

What I worry about as a parent, is that his teachers start to feel the pressure of being able to meet a certain standard that we may not be able to reach. It’s okay to meet him where he’s at and foster his sense of learning, his sense of understanding of how to work with other people, of how to analyze situations. That that’s more important to me than content. Having a nurturing school community is way more important.

The school ratings on the city level were done away with. At the state level, they are using the test scores, putting them on a norm reference bell curve. And you are guaranteed a bottom quartile when you grade on a curve; you are guaranteeing that teachers can be labeled as failing, that there will be schools labeled as such. It’s an excuse to label them, put them on a receivership list and shut them down. We are seeing a connection with the proliferation of charters. Privatizers, charter hedge fund supporters, politicians even, are not shy about saying what their real agenda is.

Since the tests are scored on a bell curve, one child’s high test score begets another child’s low test score, and that could mean the closure of a school in a poor community, which is probably black and Latino.

That’s a civil rights issue and an equity issue, when there’s so much more linked to the outcome of a test than what happens in a classroom. About 1 to 14 percent of performance can be attributed to what the student learns in a classroom; the greater factors for how a child will perform on a test are linked to a parent’s educational attainment and their socioeconomic status.

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Mayor de Blasio gives remarks at the UFT Spring Conference in May of 2015 as UFT leader Michael Mulgrew looks on (Ed Reed / Mayoral Photography Office)

Under the new contract negotiated by the UFT and the DOE, I think there was a cap of 200 schools that could apply to become a PROSE school—the Progressive Redesign Opportunity for Schools of Excellence. I have a problem with PROSE personally, because schools like ours apply for it right away, so we can be free to do what we are already doing. We can design our own MOSUL [the exam on which teacher performance is based], which has to get approved by the state. We can develop our own methods of learning.

What I don’t like about it is that you create tiers of schools. It’s another divide and conquer tactic, where schools that already have strong democratic processes can protect themselves, because a lot of the consortium schools and the progressive public elementary and middle schools are in the PROSE program. Schools like ours are able to continue what they are doing without the immense pressure that is on the other schools. And that comes at a societal price.

The diversity initiative, which our school is a part of it, that’s another piece. I feel like we should do some deep research into why New York City is so segregated. It has deep roots in zoning laws, it has to do with gentrification, it has to do with other issues that you can’t just stop at the school level. You can’t just stop it with a policy. I feel as though a lot of the answers coming from the DOE are problematic.

They still support standardized testing. The tests don’t give us any valuable information, but the chancellor keeps saying that the metrics let us see how the kids are doing. No, it doesn’t! Scores are determined after the tests are taken. They won’t include test items on exams if too many students get them correct in field testing. So it’s rigged. To know that and say that it’s a valuable tool, I think that’s very dangerous, because it’s the same tool that is used to stigmatize and label failing schools as a reason to shutter them and allow privatizers to come in and open up charters. And we know that’s part of a real estate game. That’s where it’s a double edged thing for me with the new administration; they are doing more of the same, in a lot of ways.

The more I got into it, the more I learned about how our union has been complicit in the mayoral control that led to Bloomberg being able to put into place Joel Klein, who had absolutely no experience in the public education system, to be able to implement fast-track leadership academies, take away local elected school boards, in essence, depriving communities of any democratic voice, shuttering schools and wreaking havoc in neighborhoods that needed so many resources.

These neighborhood schools could tell the DOE what they needed in order to thrive and be able to succeed, but instead they were being punished. It wasn’t until I came to the Earth School that I realized what education could look like and what a democratically governed school looked like. This is what all schools should have, we alone shouldn’t just be protected. We get to do our own thing, but everyone else has to suffer.

I think that the basis for MORE [the United Federation of Teachers Movement of Rank and File Educators caucus] is to empower for teachers at the school level to build strong chapters. Any foundation of a union is based on solidarity. You can’t allow divide and conquer tactics. The staff has to be solid. It doesn’t mean that they all have to be in agreement all of the time, it just means that there have to be practices and structures in place that allow for collaborative decision making and a respectful environment. Sadly, in most places, that is gone. Teachers who have won Teacher of the Year Award have been targeted. The work has to done be school-by-school, it can’t be top-down. We have to ask ourselves, what does our school need? And what can we do to get it? So we can support our work and our students.

I was at the first MORE meeting. And we thought, every time we would assess a situation, we would always go back to our union—“What is our union doing? Why are we not feeling empowered in our schools to fight back against co-locations of charters? Why aren’t we getting the support when we need it?” The further we looked, if you follow the line, you see they have gone along. Even under former UFT head Randi Weingarten-who gave the okay for mayoral control of the schools—you see these behind closed doors negotiations happening and then being presented to us, the members. “Mayoral control is going to happen and it’s a good opportunity for us to focus on our schools.” There was always some kind of excuse being given.

You have to do some reading and research outside the UFT to look at the bigger picture in the labor movement. We have the Taylor Law here in New York City, which means we are not allowed to so-called “strike.” That’s the very power of a labor union which has been restricted. What we have become is a business union, where it’s a service-based union instead of a real rank-and-file led union.

MORE is about changing that culture. That decision-making should come from bottom-up. There are issues about working conditions that affect our work with our students who we should be able to advocate for.

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Jia Lee (Jennifer Preissel)

Instead, what we are seeing, is that policies are being negotiated with politicians, with hedge fund managers, with people like Bill Gates, people with no experience in education at all, people working in for-profit industries, who are making decisions which are being relayed to members by union leaders. Money is being taken. I think the AFT, the national union, has taken something like $335 million dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The UFT has also taken something like $4 million dollars from the Gates Foundation to support Common Core. When you have your own union leadership negotiating with the very entities that are out to privatize the school system via targeting the teachers’ union, because we stand in the way, you start to say, “Wait a minute, our union leadership is basically an arm of the government and no longer representative of us.”

What I’m seeing is that the old union vanguard is very weakened. The Chicago’s teacher’s union was successful in their strike and a MORE-affiliated caucus that won control in LA did so because they mobilize and organize teachers to have voice. They are actively vocal which is what the old guard unions don’t know how to do. Our union does not know how to organize at all.

If you look at places like Chicago, the ability to link the community issues as teacher issues, to implement social justice unionism—you see tens of thousands of people are coming out to support teachers. We saw that in the one-day strike that happened on April 1st in Chicago. I was there. It was incredible to see people coming off the streets and solidarity from other workers. Their transit workers took 15-minute stall on the line in solidarity. You have a social justice lens and framework for what a union should do and how it should practice. That becomes your fulcrum for community organizing.

The Unity Caucus has been in power since the beginning of our union. They have what is called the “loyalty oath” and it’s a form of democratic centralism. Their idea is that you have power in unity. The party line is that even though we may disagree, we have more power if we vote the same. At the delegate assemblies, Michael Mulgrew will give longwinded announcements and speeches. It’s a two-hour meeting, after school, when people are exhausted—and he spends over an hour talking. Then there are announcements done by another person—that’s also very slow. Then you get to the part where you can raise questions. There are a lot of comments to the questions—and round-about ways of answering. Then the time set aside for debates and raising motions is like 15-20 minutes. A lot of people have things that they want to raise, but for example, two delegate assemblies ago, there were ten minutes for raising of motions period. One person got to raise a resolution and it was shot down within the time period. They vote as a bloc.

I raised a motion to get retroactive pay for people who are on maternity leave or medical leave who didn’t receive theirs. Somebody from Unity spoke up—who happened to work in the Queens Borough office as the lead maternity liaison, and she spoke against it. She said, “If you are going to have a baby, you have to make those decisions in advance, you have to make those accommodations in advance.” I couldn’t believe it. People were dismayed. But because she is identified as a Unity person, people voted against it, even bringing it to discussion. But we need the strength and force of our union leadership to do something about it.

I know the chances to win the union presidency are very slim. A large part of the voter turnout are retirees, who don’t live here. The current leadership works hard to get that support. I’m running because I think it’s an opportunity for teachers to see that there are others speaking out about the issues that we are all concerned about and that we can be very vocal and organize around them. There can a support system which doesn’t exist at our union. Our major emphasis is on building empowerment at the chapter level.

This is about mobilizing and organizing and getting people excited about possibilities instead of feeling like, “You know, I don’t think I can take this anymore,” and wanting to leave, which I hear a lot. We want to keep our public school system alive. We don’t want to cower and let the system make us leave what we love and abandon the very reasons we came to it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jennifer Preissel is a New York City high school teacher.

Read our entire New York City teacher interview series here.