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Beyond Opt Out

A Broader Challenge to Corporate School Reform

Howard Ryan is a longtime education activist and a former college English instructor. His book Educational Justice: Teaching and Organizing against the Corporate Juggernaut is forthcoming from Monthly Review Press.

As the corporate takeover of public schools proceeds apace on a global scale, so too does the grassroots resistance. In the United States, teachers in several cities have re-geared their unions toward the Chicago model, standing with communities against school closures and deteriorating services.1 Youth activists are saying no to abusive school discipline policies that feed school-to-prison pipelines. And in the largest expression of resistance nationally, people are challenging the high-stakes tests. Over 600,000 parents opted their children out of the tests in spring 2015; students have launched walkouts and boycotts; school boards are passing resolutions against overtesting; and teachers at a Seattle high school collectively refused to administer a test they deemed harmful to instruction.2 These actions and more demonstrate the hope and promise of public schools as sites for resilience and democratic resistance, even as corporate interests tighten their grip on schools under cover of “education reform.”

This article reflects strategically on the fight for public education, with a special focus on the Opt Out movement, which was recently the subject of a special issue of Monthly Review.3 My treatment applauds opting out as a tactic in an organizing toolkit, but rejects it as a strategy, and takes issue with the analysis of corporate school reform proffered by the leading advocates of Opt Out. A concluding section discusses education organizing strategy more generally.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Characterizing and assessing the Opt Out movement is a complex task because of the movement’s political diversity. The largest part of Opt Out consists of parents—mainly white, middle-class, and suburban—whose perspective may be defined as single-issue opposition to the effects of testing on their children. This single-issue wing works side by side with a smaller wing that I will call progressive Opt Out, led by the national umbrella group United Opt Out (UOO). The progressives incorporate a social justice perspective that connects the testing regime to the broader project of corporate education reform, and to larger systems of economic inequity and racism. Rather than attempting a comprehensive treatment, this article gives particular attention to progressive Opt Out as the movement wing that offers greatest hope—including the hope that they can influence the more politically moderate, single-issue sector of the movement.

The Opt Out movement has tapped into a current of discontent. It has identified something that parents, students, and teachers are angry about. And it has given parents in particular a useful tool for registering opposition while affording their children immediate relief from the stressful tests that tear at student self-esteem and degrade and routinize schooling. Philadelphia education activist Shakeda Gaines describes what Opt Out has meant for her and her daughter: “A couple years back, I started my journey of why I got involved in opt-out. My daughter has suffered some severe emotional problems based on the PSSA [Pennsylvania System of School Assessment]. She was hurt. She cried. She felt like she was dumb. And I knew that she had all the talent in the world. My daughter still wants to be a cardiac surgeon.”

One day Gaines read in the local newspaper about a parent who had opted her child out of the PSSA. “It made me feel, ‘Yay! I don’t have to take this. My daughter doesn’t have to take it.'” Opt Out activism also provided Gaines a path to personal and political empowerment. “It made me reach out. It involved me with meeting different people, stronger people than what I was.… Those people were organized.” When Gaines first submitted an opt-out letter to her daughter’s school, relying on a Pennsylvania law that allows opting out for religious reasons, school administrators told her that she could not refuse the test. Gaines, who serves on Philadelphia’s Home and School Council and works out of a school office, recalls, “They came in my office and they called someone from the Secretary of State, and had him on the phone with me.”

The state official tried to interrogate her: “Well, what religious reason do you have to opt out?” But Gaines stood her ground. “You know what? You don’t have no right to ask that. What’s your name?” “What?” the man replied. “What’s your name?” she insisted. “Ummm,” he uttered. “Now, you will take this test and shove it up your behind,” she instructed, “because my daughter’s not going to take it. And you’re not going to do a darned thing about it. And as a matter of fact, I’m gonna get more parents to go right along with me. So which way are you going with this one?”4

But the movement also has its weaknesses. A key one is limited engagement from communities of color. This is evident in New York, the state that leads the country in opt outs, where the most vigorous protests occurred in whiter, more affluent areas. In spring 2015, when statewide opt outs reached 20 percent, a mere 1.4 percent of New York City public school parents—who are predominantly low-income and black or Latino—opted out their children.5

A significant barrier to such engagement is the greater risk of opting out for low-income communities, where failure to produce strong test scores can limit students’ access to educational opportunities and lead to schools being sanctioned, taken over, or closed altogether. Tamara Anderson, a black educator and parent organizer in Philadelphia, notes that affluent parents who opt their children out of tests typically have a “plan B” available in case of any negative consequences at school. They might advocate for their children at the school, or they might send them to a private school. Such options are rarely available to low-income parents, observes Anderson.6

The Opt Out leadership of Gaines, Anderson, and other black parents in Philadelphia represents an important national breakthrough for the movement. Among those contributing to that breakthrough has been the Caucus of Working Educators, a social justice caucus within the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. When the caucus launched an Opt Out organizing committee and prepared for a first meeting, Anderson recalls, “We not only invited those black parents that were already activated, but we also had those parents invite other people that were not activated. So black parents were the majority in the room. And by being the majority, they felt very empowered to go back and organize at their individual schools.” Fellow caucus member Kelley Collings, a white mathematics teacher, adds, “We were very deliberate about creating a movement of color here in Philly, and that we were staving off the white middle-class influences at the leadership level to allow leadership of color to develop.”7

A second major gap in Opt Out organizing has been its limited engagement and leadership from teachers themselves. Again, there are bold exceptions, such as the teacher-led Seattle revolt in 2013, which began at Garfield High School and then spread to other schools. But while the Seattle actions were widely admired, few teachers nationally were prepared to rebel in the same way by refusing to administer the tests. Even talking with parents about their opt-out rights can put teachers at risk of reprisal in many school districts. In another exemplary action, in January 2015, six teachers at Philadelphia’s Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences (serving grades 6 through 8) went public in advising parents of their opt-out rights. Yet the Feltonville teachers had not arrived easily at their decision to act. “We talked about this in my school on and off for two years before moving ahead,” says ESL teacher Amy Roat.8 The Feltonville group also secured advance support from city council members, citywide education advocacy groups, and a local news reporter. District administrators threatened disciplinary action against the school’s activist teachers, but in the end no punishments were meted out.

More Philadelphia teachers have since begun advising parents of their opt-out rights. At the same time, the school district’s severe austerity is a more urgent concern for the teachers, according to Roat, who recently lost a bid for union president running on the Working Educators’ slate. She comments:

In Philadelphia, we have one of the best high schools in the state. And we also have some of the most poor, desperate, struggling schools in the state. We haven’t had new textbooks in years. Many schools are falling down; they’re unhealthy…. When I say social justice, it’s not just for students. It’s also for teachers to work in a dignified environment with basic supplies. Teachers love to hear that we don’t have to accept this austerity situation as the new normal. It’s not normal, and it’s not okay.

Roat’s remarks underscore that engaging a broad movement requires a broad organizing repertoire. Not every community can be mobilized through an anti-testing focus. But the corporate assault on public schools poses a wide array of dangers that provide organizing opportunities—be it the tests, or school closures and privatization, or budget cuts, or abusive school discipline policies, or the continuing cutbacks in multicultural and ethnic studies and bilingual education.

Moreover, even where Opt Out succeeds in engaging diverse constituencies, as seen in Philadelphia and some other cities, the question of Opt Out’s larger strategic role must still be addressed. If Opt Out opens the door, offering an empowering first step for parents like Gaines, then that is excellent. What then are the second and third steps? Of course, the same can be asked of any organizing trajectory. Suppose one year, facing a planned 10 percent cut in school funding, a community mobilizes powerfully and manages to avert the cut. What will happen the next year if deeper change is not achieved? Will the movement find a way to capitalize on the immediate mobilization and lay groundwork for a more strategic response?

Contradictions in Progressive Opt Out

As already noted, the progressive wing of the Opt Out movement is distinguished by the breadth of its outlook: it sees the struggle as encompassing much more than high-stakes testing. UOO hails itself as “The Movement to End Corporate Education Reform,” and projects a broad view of educational justice: “We demand an equitably funded, democratically based, anti-racist, desegregated public school system for all Americans that prepares students to exercise compassionate and critical decision making with civic virtue.”9 At the same time, since the group’s founding in 2011, UOO’s broad perspective has never been matched by a corresponding breadth in on-the-ground organizing. The project’s national network focuses overwhelmingly on resisting tests. Moreover, UOO’s eight-member administrative team has in many ways encouraged a strong opt-out and anti-testing focus, and not only through the organization’s name. The UOO activist handbook advises that refusing tests is “the quickest and most effective way” to disrupt the corporate takeover of education, and that “strong acts of civil disobedience” such as Opt Out are “the only tools left” in the battle to save public schools.10

This narrow focus on testing, and the view of Opt Out as a grand strategy rather than one tactic, grows from a particular analysis summed up by a movement slogan: “starve the beast.” Since corporate school reform relies so pivotally on high-stakes testing, some activists contend that when opt outs reach a critical level, they will not only render the tests inoperable but will spell the end of corporate reform itself. As education professor and UOO administrator Denisha Jones recalls: “When I heard about opt-out, just a light bulb went off, and I was like, ‘Damn, you’re right! Deny them the data.’ Because if you see this whole reform built on a house of cards, that bottom level of cards is the testing data that drives everything else.”11 Writing in these pages, educators Wayne Au and Jesslyn Hollar argue along the same lines: “High-stakes tests provide the data that is the very fuel of the corporate education reform machine. By opting out of these tests, students, parents, and teachers have the power to take away the data. With the data seized and the machine deprived of its fuel, the corporate reformers cannot produce public education for private gain.”12

The notion that starving the data beast can ultimately bring down corporate reform is faulty in two ways. First, it fails to address political power. Corporate interests have been able to seize control of schools not because of tests, but because these interests enjoy power at all levels of government, effectively allowing them to dictate education policy. Ousting corporate players from schools would require defeating them politically and winning real democracy, a vast undertaking that would require a multi-issue movement, if not the defeat of capitalism altogether. Education organizing can play a rich role toward such long-term transformation, but not by narrowing its purview to high-stakes testing.

Second, the starve-the-beast thesis underestimates the reformers. The reformers are not only heavy hitters, with billions of dollars at their disposal and cross-industry backing from groups like the Business Roundtable; they are also clever and resourceful.13 They can devise insidious responses to opt-outs and anti-testing protests. For example, they may seek to defuse opposition by reducing the number of tests, as in Texas.14 Or they may shift their emphasis from the dreaded annual tests towards daily testing more intertwined with instruction—a process now in play as reformers promote so-called competency-based education (CBE), discussed below. In the unlikely event that testing is defeated through a narrow anti-testing strategy, the reformers would likely devise still other tools for sustaining their control of schools and classrooms.

UOO’s New Direction

Progressive Opt Out may be poised for a shift in direction, or at least such was the sharp tenor of the UOO Conference held February 26–28, 2016, in Philadelphia. If the shift is indeed achieved over the next few years, then the Opt Out movement may stop being an Opt Out movement, as it were, to become instead a diverse educational justice coalition, as envisioned by the UOO team. The prospective change comes partly in response to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed in December 2015. Of particular concern are provisions of the law that could fast-track the national spread of competency-based education. CBE breaks instruction into sharply defined and standardized learning “modules”; once students master one module, they move on to the next. The model has been criticized for its reductionism and its low regard both for student creativity and teacher autonomy.15 It has nonetheless been in practice in other countries for decades, and corporate interests have been actively advancing the model in European higher education, through a project known as the Bologna Process.16 CBE has progressed more slowly in the United States, but that is about to change. ESSA offers federal grants to help states develop CBE models in the K-12 arena. CBE is not just an addendum to the new law, contends researcher and activist Stephen Krashen, but rather a core component that signals a planned, systemic educational shift.17 One of the requirements for CBE grants is that state applicants present “a high-quality plan to transition to full statewide use.”18 Unsurprisingly, CBE enjoys avid support from the Gates Foundation. The National Governors Association, co-sponsor of the Common Core State Standards, is also aligned with CBE, and issued an October 2015 report urging governors to come aboard.19

Critics such as Krashen and the UOO team are particularly concerned about CBE, because the version being promoted—and already implemented by schools and districts in Maine, New Hampshire, and Florida—is intensely computer- and test-driven. And rather than relying on year-end testing, CBE embeds testing into daily instruction, in order to direct and monitor students’ progress through each module. If CBE takes hold, then, standardized testing will saturate schooling even more than under today’s test-prep curricula. Teachers and human interaction would be marginalized while online programs take on the central position in classrooms. Students are not unaware of these effects: as one math student in Maine complained, “I want a teacher to teach me, not a computer to compute me.”20

The ramifications of CBE for the Opt Out movement are enormous. While opting one’s child out of a year-end test is currently viable for many parents, opting out of an entire school curriculum is a more daunting prospect. “ESSA was a game changer for us,” says Colorado teacher and UOO administrator Peggy Robertson. “I’ve got parents coming to me saying, ‘Peggy, my child is being tested every day online. It’s the curriculum. The only way to get out of it is to leave the school.'” Florida teacher Ceresta Smith, also on the UOO administrative team, remarks that the movement needs to “diversify our attack” against the corporate takeover of schools and to “go beyond just opting out of the test.” Denisha Jones adds: “We still think opting out is important. But as we see [corporate reformers’] response changing, we are also changing.”21

UOO’s new, broader approach is laid out in six organizational goals adopted by the administrators and listed in a February conference announcement.22 Abbreviated here, these consisted of:

  1. Pushing legislators to embrace the original intent of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act to facilitate equitable and successful public education for all. (Today’s ESSA is actually a reauthorization of the 1965 law.)
  2. Pushing for data collection to document the extent to which schools and school systems are equitably resourced and racially integrated.
  3. Pushing for protections for the teaching profession and public school funding that ESSA attempts to tear down.
  4. Continuing Opt Out campaigns, with a special focus on engaging communities of color and other marginalized constituencies; also, helping parents and students resist CBE.
  5. Educating established civil rights groups about the harms of corporate school reform, and encouraging such groups to join the resistance.
  6. Joining the campaign to end Citizens United and supporting campaigns to elect school board members and legislators who support public education.

These are laudable goals that could indeed help transform the Opt Out movement into a broader movement to end corporate education reform. But even broader goals are needed, along with viable organizing strategies toward educational and social justice.

From Opt Out to an Education Organizing Strategy

I wish to call not only for more effective organizing strategy but for organizing theory. For an educational justice movement, a theory of organizing should start with the big questions, such as: What would it really take to beat the corporate reformers? Can public education be saved and transformed without tackling a host of other social issues, especially problems of poverty, equity, jobs, and resources? If one believes that public education cannot be saved as an isolated endeavor, then how can education organizing help foster the larger movement that is needed? Below are some organizing concepts that may be helpful in addressing these questions.

1. Building grassroots power. As I have argued, the basis for corporate school reform lies not in tests or other technical mechanisms, but in corporate political power. To challenge corporate power, we must build an oppositional people’s power from below. Grassroots power begins locally. In education organizing, that means a strong emphasis on the school site, neighborhood, local community, and school board. These are necessarily distinct from national and global projects. Winning progressive measures in Congress, for example, is very unlikely when the movement lacks a broad base in local struggles.

While national developments such as ESSA deserve the movement’s study, since they affect events on the ground in schools, they are not necessarily the best focus for action in the current stage of organizing. Today’s movement needs to give much more attention to fighting and winning in schools and communities, while sharing effective models through national gatherings of groups like UOO, Save Our Schools, the Network for Public Education, and the United Caucuses of Rank and File Educators. As its base deepens, the movement can turn its orientation toward state, national, and global initiatives.

2. Flexibility when choosing the issue. The focus of immediate struggle depends on various criteria: What are the local circumstances? What are people passionate about? What might be winnable? And most importantly: What will best engage the priority constituencies (i.e., parents, teachers, students, communities of color)? Key in all cases is an organizational style of flexibility, consultation, and listening.

3. Modeling alternatives. A focus only on resistance, and on moving from crisis to crisis as corporate reformers issue each new blow, cannot be adequate. In my school-site organizing case studies—two in Los Angeles and two in Chicago—I found that teachers, parents, and students bring as much vigor to fighting for the good (e.g., community-connected, culturally responsive curriculum, or reading and writing workshops instead of scripted language arts) as to fighting against the bad (school closures, cancellation of athletic programs).23 In addition, fighting for desired goals provides exceptional opportunities for leadership development, such as authentic teacher-parent governance of schools.

4. Transitioning to social justice campaigns beyond education. The transition from an education focus to a broader social justice agenda as the movement matures is essential for challenging corporate power in schools and beyond. We might picture the movement as advancing through developmental tiers. Tier 1 are projects that are education-focused; tier 2, projects that link education with community concerns beyond the schools; and tier 3, projects addressing social justice issues, for which the schools serve as community organizing hubs.24 In one of the best national examples, the Chicago Teachers Union has begun moving into tier 2 with its 2015 report A Just Chicago: Fighting for the City Our Students Deserve.25 The report links school quality with wider social conditions and policies in the city, calling for action in such areas as jobs, housing and homelessness, criminal justice and policing, health care, and school funding equity.

Returning to Opt Out: what is impressive about the Working Educators’ approach in Philadelphia is that, while the participants see Opt Out as a tactic rather than a strategy, they do situate Opt Out within a strategy. Says Kelley Collings: “We see Opt Out as helping us to build authentic partnerships with parents and community members, in a way that’s just been rare for teachers unions. So, we stand side by side with parents in this fight.” When Opt Out is viewed in developmental terms—as one among several ways to engage, to build relationships, to foster leadership—then it is a powerful tool indeed.

Notes

  1. See Alexandra Bradbury et al.,How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers (Detroit: Labor Notes, 2014).
  2. The Seattle action is described by Jesse Hagopian, “Our Destination Is Not on the MAP,” inMore Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing, ed. Jesse Hagopian (Chicago: Haymarket, 2014), 31–48.
  3. Monthly Review 67, no. 10 (March 2016).
  4. Shakeda Gaines, presentation at United Opt Out Conference in Philadelphia, February 27, 2016.
  5. Diane Ravitch, “Michael Elliott: Why New York City Parents Did Not Opt Out,” Diane Ravitch’s Blog, December 17, 2015, http://dianeravitch.net.
  6. Interview with the author, January 31, 2016.
  7. Anderson and Collings interviewed by the author on January 31, 2016.
  8. Interview with the author, January 31, 2016.
  9. United Opt Out, http://unitedoptout.org.
  10. Morna McDermott et al., eds.,An Activist Handbook for the Education Revolution: United Opt Out’s Test of Courage(Charlotte, NC: Information Age, 2015), 52, 35.
  11. Interview with the author, February 27, 2016.
  12. Wayne Au and Jesslyn Hollar, “Opting Out of the Education Reform Industry,”Monthly Review 67, no. 10 (March 2016): 36.
  13. See Kathy Emery, “The Business Roundtable and Systemic Reform: How Corporate-Engineered High-Stakes Testing Has Eliminated Community Participation in Developing Educational Goals and Policies” (PhD diss., University of California at Davis, 2002), 45; available at http://educationanddemocracy.org.
  14. Valerie Strauss, “Texas Governor Signs Legislation to Reduce Standardized Testing,” Answer Sheet blog,Washington Post, June 10, 2013.
  15. See Terry Hyland, “Teaching, Learning and NVQs: Challenging Behaviourism and Competence in Adult Education Theory and Practice,” paper presented at the 24th annual conference of the Standing Conference on University Teaching and Research in the Education of Adults, University of Hull, July 12–14, 1994; available at http://leeds.ac.uk. A recent critique is Steven Singer, “Standardized Tests Every Day: The Competency Based Education Scam,” Gadfly on the Wall blog, November 30, 2015, http://gadflyonthewallblog.wordpress.com.
  16. Ilkka Kauppinen, “European Round Table of Industrialists and the Restructuring of European Higher Education,”Globalisation, Societies and Education12, no. 4 (2014): 498–519.
  17. Stephen Krashen, speech at United Opt Out Conference, February 26, 2016; available on YouTube. See also Stephen Krashen, “Coming Soon: Much More Testing than Ever,” Schools Matter blog, February 8, 2016, http://schoolsmatter.info.
  18. Every Student Succeeds Act, section 1204.
  19. National Governors Association, Expanding Student Success: A Primer on Competency-Based Education from Kindergarten through Higher Education(Washington, DC: National Governors Association, 2015); available at http://nga.org.
  20. Quoted in David L. Silvernail et al., Preliminary Implementation of Maine’s Proficiency-Based Diploma Program, Maine Education Policy Research Institute, 25, http://usm.maine.edu.
  21. Quotations from Jones and Robertson taken from interviews with the author on February 27 and 28, 2016, respectively. The Smith quoatation comes from her presentation at the UOO conference in Philadelphia, February 27, 2016.
  22. United Opt Out, “Fifth Annual Event in Philadelphia, Feb. 26th–28th,” press release, Feburary 12, 2016, http://unitedoptout.com.
  23. See Howard Ryan, ed.,Educational Justice: Teaching and Organizing against the Corporate Juggernaut, forthcoming from Monthly Review Press.
  24. The proposal for schools as community organizing hubs is developed by teachers union consultant Joel Jordan in his chapter in Ryan, ed.,Educational Justice.
  25. Chicago Teachers Union,A Just Chicago: Fighting for the City Our Students Deserve, 2015, http://ajustchicago.org.
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