Will You Risk “Playing with the Gray”?


Dina Strasser expands on one of the concerns she noted in her article, “An Open Letter on Teacher Morale,” in the February 2014 issue of Educational Leadership.

Dina Strasser on the actions to protect peopleWhen I interviewed educators for my article “An Open Letter on Teacher Morale,” I witnessed the most intense struggle when we discussed what one of them chose to call “play with the gray.” They were referring to this idea that you navigate the system—massage it—to get what you need done, or that you consider taking a more activist stand by protesting the culture of testing by having kids opt out of taking standardized tests for example. The educators’ struggle with such issues hasn’t left my mind.

Frankly, I’m an armchair activist. I’ll show up at the occasional rally, write letters, and periodically make phone calls to my representatives. My writing and blogging could possibly be characterized as a kind of activism. Mostly, I’ll talk with anyone who will listen about what needs to be fixed in public education. And, although I downplay this along with every other educator, I did make the decision to enter this career 13 years ago— a poorly paid, overworked, underresourced, deprofessionalized, and now often publicly demeaned career. Maybe that’s enough activism.

But is it really enough? And if you do take that additional step—if you truly play with the gray—what might be the consequences?

Let’s take the example of opting out of standardized exams, something I also mention in my article. I haven’t ruled this out for my own children, who are both of exam age (although “exam age” may be 4 years old and up the way things are going). Yet I worry in a similar way to how my interviewees worry. The consequences of my actions here don’t really fall on me: They fall on innocents who don’t have the foggiest idea of what scale scores and (VAM) are.

In my case, my children also happen to be strong readers with wide background knowledge and a decent socioeconomic status, all of which have been proven to affect test scores as well as, if not more than, content knowledge. At the moment, my students see tests my students as no more than a really, really boring two weeks in school, not the whisper and shame fest that could result if I instruct them to refuse to participate.

Further, if they attended school in one district I know of, they would—if they refused to take the tests—be banned from all extracurricular activity (humiliatingly pulled out of their sports teams and clubs ) because of “insubordination.”

Who am I to pretend to believe in some dire, life-altering effect the exams may have on my children?

What right do I have to use my kids as political pawns?

Of course, the situation is different for administrators or lead teachers, or for parents who have a legitimate beef about the damage testing can do to their kids, but the principle is the same. It’s a cruddy situation when the actions you take to protect people—in this case, students—lead to harming the people you’re protecting.

Where is the line? I haven’t found it yet. Have you?