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BPR Interview: Aaron Regunberg

Courtesy of Aaron Regunberg

Aaron Regunberg ’12, a community organizer in Providence, talks to Brown Political Review’s Omar Ben Halim. Regunberg is the Executive Director of Hope United, a student-led organization at Hope High School aimed at organizing social programs to foster educational achievement.

Brown Political Review: What draws you to high school education in particular?

Aaron Regunberg: For one, it’s one of the most intractable parts of education. High schools now are really similar to how they have been for a long time in a way that lower grades aren’t. Having said that, I’m not  particularly drawn to high school education over the other grades, and I think real transformational educational changes need to start at younger grades. By the time students get to high school, they’re already on a course and there’s a lot you can try to do to keep them on that course if they’re on the right one or if they’re struggling to try to correct that. But really, things have to change earlier.

As far as the work we do at the Providence Student Union, which is a youth-led, student organising program that brings students together to make sure youth have a real say in decisions affecting their education, we’ve been working with high school students because those are the students who are most able to stand up and organize for what they believe in. Middle schoolers could start doing similar work if they had the right support; we’re not in a place to do that but there are some organizations around the country that do really cool organizing work with middle schoolers.

BPR: How successful has the organization of students been so far, in terms of their academics and the successes of student government at school?

Regunberg: Students have had significant successes on two prongs. One side of the work that we do is really leadership development: it’s helping students learn to make decisions, to have certain leadership skills – public speaking, etcetera, to learn how the political system works and how they can have a role in it. Hopefully we’ll have students who continue leading their communities and fighting for social and economic justice. So partially, it’s having students experience the political process firsthand – going to the State House, testifying on hearings, lobbying their Representatives, organizing protests and actions to garner publicity, working with coalitions – seeing how hard change can be, but also that change can happen if they really stick to it.

The other prong of the work is trying to make real, concrete changes that students want to see in their schools, to improve their educational experiences and atmosphere. We’ve seen some cool changes on that front too. Students have had a lot of different successful campaigns: from trying to get healthier school lunches in their cafeterias to holding school building contractors accountable in making sure they fix up the crappy bathrooms, to fighting to make sure that one school hired a Physics teacher instead of a long-term sub they’d had for three years, to researching and designing their own pilot student jury in order to have a student voice in school discipline issues. Our big campaign for the last year now has been at the state level, working on the issue of high-stakes testing. We think we’ve had a lot of success putting it on the agenda and making it one of the hot political issues in the state.

BPR: There has been a lot of discussion about the NECAP. Can you explain why you oppose the use of the test?

Regunberg: In terms of high-stakes testing, and in particular in the use of the NECAP assessment as a make-or-break graduation requirement (which has been one of the PSU’s main focuses for a while now), students have several areas of concern. The first is that the impact it’s having on students is really harmful. We’re talking about a make-or-break obstacle that’s being introduced at the eleventh hour, after students have had twelve years in Rhode Island school districts that in some cases have not been preparing them sufficiently. And so they say, “Now we’re going to put all the accountability for this system on individual students.” And what that does is punish the students the system has been serving least effectively: low income students, students of color, special needs students, English language learners. Those are the students who are disproportionately at risk right now of not graduating, the long-term effects of which are catastrophic for a student’s life. In the short term, students are now dealing with incredible stress and uncertainty.

There are 4,000 students across Rhode Island right now who are at risk of not graduating. For some of the students, maybe they’ve got the family support structure, maybe it’s an automatic thing in your family that you go to college because your parents did, maybe that uncertainty and that stress is going to be okay for them. But for students who don’t have that support system, for whom going to college is a big and risky step already, that can be what it takes to keep students from taking that next step. And then the other “basket” of students’ concerns is what they’re seeing everyday in the classroom. With the placing of such high stakes on this single test, students are really seeing the quality and the creativity of their curriculum be impacted. Teaching to the test is going way up, narrowing of the curriculum is going way up. There are two subjects tested: math and reading. So that’s what [teachers] are going to focus on, to the exclusion of other subjects that aren’t being tested. Students are being pulled out of elective classes and even core classes to do basic test prep – “drill-and-kill, bubble-fill.” When our students talk about education, many of them want something to prepare them to be thoughtful humans who can think creatively, and to give them some of the skills they need to actually succeed in the modern world.

BPR: But would you say there is a need for an objective metric to measure both student and teacher performance?

Regunberg: There have been a lot of questions similar to this one throughout our campaign – so what’s the alternative if it’s not this high-stakes test? Our students did a lot of research on different systems around the country, some of which were successful and others of which failed. And what our student leaders have been advocating for is a system of performance-based assessments. In New York State, there is a group of 28 schools called the New York Performance Standards Consortium. At each school, students complete a long-term, rigorous, standards-aligned performance-based project in each of the core classes where you really need to prove your competency and proficiency. But they have some creative license and control, where they choose what they’re working on instead of having this long assessment where they’re just sitting there taking a test. And those schools in New York City with identical demographics to the rest of the city have had higher graduation rates, higher college acceptance rates, and more importantly, higher college completion rates. So students have been saying, “We know there are alternatives that actually work better and don’t have any of these unintended consequences of high-stakes testing – why aren’t we giving them a try?”

BPR: Would you say that student unionization has a role to play in increasing the quality of teachers?

Students coming together and standing up for what they believe in has a big role to play in improving every aspect of our educational system. Regunberg: Students coming together and standing up for what they believe in has a big role to play in improving every aspect of our educational system. Nowadays, there are a lot of different interests in the school reform movement. There are CEOs, there are nonprofits, there are politicians, there are bureaucrats, there are lots of different folks and they all have a different idea of what students need. But the one group that really doesn’t have a voice are the people who are most impacted by these decisions, whose educations and futures are on the line. So having students be a part of that conversation, be at the table, be leading that conversation, is vital because students know what works in their schools. Anyone who has been a student knows that kids can say, “This thing worked really well, this thing was making our classes better and more interesting, I was actually putting down my phone because class was interesting, this was making the atmosphere more conducive to learning and this was not, this was hurting it, this was making kids pissed off,” and so on.

The fact that we’re not listening to that whole world that’s so rich for informing policy is a big problem. And students have found that generally they don’t get that seat at the table simply by asking nicely. Students have to build the power and come together to gain that seat. The “unionization,” as you say, of students is very important and we’re seeing that here in Providence, where there are a number of youth groups. We’re the Providence Student Union, but there are groups around the country that are working to bring student voices into the conversation.

BPR: What do you see as the way forward for education reform in the US?

Regunberg: Personally (which is different from me as the director of the Providence Student Union), what I think needs to happen is that we are really broadening the conversation on school reform, to include all of the factors that actually affect students’ lives and students’ academic outcomes. So when we’re talking about education reform, we need to be talking about poverty, we need to be talking about social services, we need to be talking about making sure students aren’t homeless, that students aren’t hungry. When we’ve had all of those things in place, we’re going to see students performing a lot better academically, no matter what happens in the schools. In the schools, and this is more directly what PSU has been saying, we need to be really teaching and learning. Particularly when you have a system of high-stakes testing, the students who are impacted the most are the ones who have the lowest test scores, because they are the ones who need to raise their test scores. But when you have this arbitrary bar, there are a lot of ways to game the system. There are a lot of things that teachers, administrators and school systems feel they need to do in order to reach that bar, but those ways of gaming the system aren’t what students actually need in order to become great humans. That’s not the education I got, where you’re stripping out electives, and extracurriculars, and sports, and history, and project-based learning, and field trips, which are a total thing of the past in the Providence public schools – things that actually make students get up and want to go to school and want to learn, because all that can happen is the test prep, test prep, test prep. As long as we’re doing that, those problems aren’t going to go away; they’re going to get exacerbated, so that’s one thing that I hope and that our students hope is going to change in the future. We’ll have to see.