Educators Employ Art Activism to Call for Less Testing, More Learning Time

New Mexico art activismEarlier this year, educators in Santa Fe, N.M launched an artistic response to the misguided education policies that have eroded a student’s time to learn with too much standardized testing.

As part of NEA’s “Time to Learn” campaign, several educators created an exhibit of adorned chairs and called it, “The Joy of Learning Chair Project.” The chairs were temporarily installed outside of the New Mexico State Capitol during a lobbying effort and rally, which was sponsored, in part, by NEA-New Mexico in February.

Hundreds of educators, parents, and union members attended the “Voices United for Our Students” day of action to speak up against several harmful bills. This included a mandatory “flunking” bill that would require—with no input from parents or teachers—third graders be retained for not passing a reading test, as well as additional funding for more student testing.

Already in place were “weeks of testing that would shut down elementary school libraries, and cancel art and music classes,” explains Grace Mayer, a middle school art teacher and president of NEA-Santa Fe. “It was excessive.”

The display served as a public awareness campaign to highlight subject areas that make a profound difference in the lives of students and that can’t be measured on a standardized test.

“We were losing so much instructional time, and the positive influence we were having on the kids was taken away because we were consumed with test prep,” says Mayer. “Parents and the public needed to know how testing has turned our education world upside down.”

While talk around accountability and performance on a national level may sound appealing to parents, Mayer said in a statement, “… we wanted to remind people of what we could be doing in classrooms if we weren’t constantly testing.”

Six chairs were created, and each had a specific theme, such as art and music, nature, and unity. At the rally, the chairs were set in a reading-circle style to underscore how students could be surrounded with meaningful lessons that allowed for discovery, exploration, and experimenting, as well as learning about new people.

“It only takes a moment to change someone’s life and to do that you have to show them things they’ve never seen before,” says retired high school English teacher Martye Eisnon, who helped with the art installation.

Eisnon taught juniors and seniors for 16 years in Santa Fe. She retired last year out of frustration, but remains active in her local Association. “It was the testing,” she says that drove her out and adds, “I couldn’t bear to see my students [some who earned top grades] crying inconsolably because they couldn’t pass the PARCC test. It was abusive to me.”

New Mexico has seen its share of egregious education policies. The state’s teacher evaluation system strips local control from school districts and hands it over to the New Mexico Public Education Department. It’s also based on a value-added model that uses 50 percent of student data. Teacher attendance accounts for an additional 10 percent, if educators use all 10 days of their sick time—but even if one day is used, it still counts against them and has the potential to change their rating from “effective” to “ineffective.”

Educators also contended with a gag order from the education department that has since been lifted. The order prohibited teachers from being critical of the standardized tests. Violation of the order could have resulted in the suspension or revocation of an educator’s licensure. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico filed a lawsuit in March, citing that the order violated free speech. The state’s education department dropped the gag order in May.

While she still plans to encourage other educators across the state to create their own art chairs, Mayer is hopeful she can speak freely about the negative effects of standardized tests and some of the options available to parents.

“We couldn’t disparage the test, but now that the gag order is lifted, we can communicate with parents about the opportunity to opt out of this test.”

In Santa Fe, fewer than three percent of students—about 220 out of some 8,000—opted out of the PARCC tests, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Since the lobbying efforts and rally, there’s been a significant reduction in student testing with the passage of a House bill, which eliminates a prior statutory requirement for three subject area standardized tests per year, per subject area.

The net effect: more time for learning and less time taken by testing.