Opting Out: Our Strongest Weapon against the Corporate Education Reform Machine
Since No Child Left Behind was implemented and schools across the country were held hostage to unreasonable goals, punished for educating low achieving students, and besieged with an alarming increase of high stakes standardized testing, parents, teachers, and students have been fighting back. Unfortunately President Obama and his administration doubled down on the false narratives set by NCLB with Race to the Top which increased testing and evaluating teachers based on those tests, also known as value-added measures. Nonetheless, those of us who know that high stakes testing is not a valid measure of a student’s academic achievement or a reliable measure of a teacher’s effectiveness, continue to fight back against these dangerous policies that have created an atmosphere of blame, punishment, and failure. United Opt Out (UOO) is a grassroots national organization formed in 2011to lead the fight to resist high stakes standardized testing. The mission of UOO is “to strengthen public education; fight corporate based reforms . . . and, in particular, to end the practice of punitive, high-stakes [testing] and related activities that are fraudulently being used as ‘proof’ of the incompetence of public education/ teachers [and schools].”
UOO has encouraged parents to opt their children out of high stakes standardized testing in an effort to deny the corporate model of education reform the data they need to profit off our children’s education. Parents have a right to say no to policies and practices that they believe are unethical and harmful to their children. Although many states and education leaders claim that opting out is not legal, UOO has developed state guides that inform parents of their right to opt out is indeed a recognized right for parents to have control over the education of their children. UOO also instructs parents on how to inform the principal at their child’s school that they will be opting out of high stakes testing. Some parents have felt resistance and have been scared into thinking that if they opt their child out it will have a negative effect on their school but to date that has not happened and thousands of parents across the country have been successful in opting their child out of high stakes standardized tests, field testing, and testing used to evaluate teachers.
Parents are our first line of defense when it comes to opting out because unlike teachers they cannot be fired for their decision. However, teachers are increasingly choosing not to administer tests that they know are harmful to their children. In January 2013, teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle Washington voted not to administer the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test to their students. The teachers argued that the tests lacked any significant value because they were not aligned to the state standards. Superintendent Jose Banda threatened to suspend any teacher who did not administer the test but after receiving numerous emails and calls of support from parents he backed down and the teachers were not punished for their actions.
In February 2014 both Drummond Elementary School and Saucedo Elementary School boycotted the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT). Parents, students, and teachers were also threatened with dire consequences if they went through with the boycott but they refused to back down. As the opt out movement continued to grow, President Obama continued to pay lip service to the concerns of parents, teachers, and students about the alarming increase of high stakes testing. During his State of the Union Address in 2012 he called for an end to teaching to the test and this past month he issued a statement that appeared to be a call to reduce the escalation of high stakes testing. The Christian Science Monitor writes that President Obama said, “I have directed [Education Secretary Arne] Duncan to support states and school districts in the effort to improve assessment of student learning so that parents and teachers have the information they need, that classroom time is used wisely, and assessments are one part of fair evaluation of teachers and accountability for schools,” in a statement on Wednesday October 15, 2014.
Two days letter Secretary of Education Arne Duncan writes an article for the Washington Post where he claims to support the cutback in testing but continues to argue that tests are the best ways for parents to know how their students are performing. Dr. Yohuru Williams, a professor and education activist reminds us that these words are not surprising given that we are in an election year and that we should not be fooled into thinking that the Obama Administration is going to back down from the mantra of high stakes testing. Despite the continued rhetoric that does not correspond to real action from our supposed education leaders, teachers, parents, and students continue to fight back and say no to corporate education reforms that seek to privatize public education.
Last month, kindergarten teacher Susan Bowles from Gainesville, Florida issued a statement to the parents of her students that explained why she would not be administering the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading (FAIR) tests. Citing her ethical concerns that administering a test for six weeks to kindergarten children was not something she could do in good conscience she risked being fired to do what she felt was right. In response Florida education officials have dropped the FAIR test for kindergarten students throughout the state. A small step but immensely important victory for the opt out movement.
Following closely in Bowles steps, Peggy Robertson, an administrator for UOO and a teacher in Aurora Colorado also issued a letter stating that she refuses to administer the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test, a new test aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). She argued that the tests along with the CCSS “have placed unrealistic expectations on our youngest learners, many who now view themselves as failures because they are unable to meet the developmentally inappropriate expectations set by the . . . standards.” UOO next issued a plea for unions to support teachers who refuse to administer the test. When asked by Washington Post reporter Valerie Strauss if they would support teachers who refused to administer the test both NEA and AFT said they would support teachers who did not administer the test but failed to elaborate on what kind of support they would issue.
So what should be our next move? We know we cannot wait for the Secretary of Education to follow up his claims with tangible actions that actually reduce or eliminate our national reliance on high stakes standardized testing. And we know that we cannot continue to allow our children to be over-tested and turned into data points instead of human beings who are entitled to a high quality public education. So we must continue to fight. But we need to be strategic in how we fight. The unions say they will support teachers but what will that support look like and will it be enough? The only way to know for sure is for more teachers to refuse to administer the test. If teachers are disciplined for their refusal then we will demand that the unions offer the support they promised.
Now we understand that every teacher is not in a position to risk losing his or her job. Many teachers work in right-to-work states and have zero protections including tenure and the right to due process. And although the unions claim they will support teachers who refuse to administer tests we do not know what this support will look like and if it will keep teachers from losing their jobs or being disciplined. So we are looking for teachers who are preparing to retire or leave the profession and are willing to risk retaliation if they refuse to administer the test. If the teacher is disciplined or fired for their actions we will reach out to their union leaders to demand the support and advocacy they said would be there. Then we will know just how far the unions are willing to go to support teachers. Therefore, if you are willing and able to refuse to administer high stakes standardized tests, which are not a valid and reliable measure of student’s ability and promise, please write and publish a letter stating your intentions. Send a copy to firstname.lastname@example.org so we can keep track of your situation. Together we can deny the corporate reformers the data they so desperately need and drive out the testing insanity that has dismantled our public education system.
To learn more about how you can actively fight back against corporate education reforms, please join United Opt Out at their Standing Up for Action Spring Event January 16-18th at the Broward County Convention Center in Ft. Lauderdale Florida. In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, UOO is hosting an event that brings advocates for public education together to form plans of actions. For more information and to register visit our Eventbrite page.
By: Denisha Jones
Denisha Jones is a professor in the School of Education at Howard University. She is former kindergarten teacher and preschool director. She is an admin for the Badass Teachers Association and United Opt Out.
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