Three Cheers for the Opt Out Movement

Three cheers for the Opt Out movement! When the history of the collapse of data-driven, competition-driven school improvement is written, the parents and students of the grassroots Opt Out uprising will get much - or most - of the credit for driving a stake through the heart of the testing vampire.

Of course, leaders like Diane Ravitch will be justifiably credited for guiding embattled educators through the dark days of the corporate reform era. The turning point came when families decided that they could not take any more test, sort, reward, and punish malpractice. Once students and parents refused to cooperate with the bubble-in mania, the use of test scores to drive output-driven and market-driven reform started to collapse. Hopefully, this spring's Opt Out will bring the long-awaited victory.

One cheer for the Brookings Institute's Tom Loveless, and his discussion of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and for noting the failure of CCSS to raise student performance. Okay, maybe he deserves 1-1/2 or 1-3/4ths cheers for his resisting changes to the reliable NAEP tests in order to please Common Core advocates, and for concluding, "Watch the Opt Out movement."

Loveless notes that "states that adopted CCSS and have been implementing the standards have registered about the same gains and losses on NAEP as states that either adopted and rescinded CCSS or never adopted CCSS in the first place." He then gets to the key point, "The big story is that NAEP scores have been flat for six years, an unprecedented stagnation in national achievement that states have experienced regardless of their stance on CCSS." Now, Loveless says, "CCSS is paying a political price for those disappointing NAEP scores."

The big story, however, is the failure of the entire standards-driven, test-driven, competition-driven model of school improvement. Loveless is free to adopt his own methodology for his latest research paper on education reform but he deserves a "boo" for continuing to reduce complex and inter-related processes to a bunch of single, simple, distinct, quantifiable categories.

Loveless, Brookings, and other reformers deserve a loud round of boos for pretending that the failure of Common Core standards is unfair and/or regrettable. On the contrary, the political and educational battle over national standards is a part of the inter-connected debacle produced by a simplistic faith in standards and curriculum; bubble-in accountability; and the federal government's funding of teacher-bashing, mass charterization, and the top-down reforms of the last 1-1/2 decades.

While I appreciate Loveless's candor in acknowledging that the stagnation of NAEP scores in the last six years is unprecedented, his focus on standards misses the other big points. These realities have not been lost on the grassroots Opt Out movement.

In 2009 and 2010, (at the beginning of the subsequent period of stagnation) the Duncan administration and the Billionaires Boys Club coerced states into adopting virtually the entire accountability-driven reform agenda. Moreover, tens of billions of dollars of new funding failed to improve student outcomes. These expensive experiments also were exceptionally costly in terms of the energy expended by educators and the demoralization of the profession. They "sucked the oxygen" out of school improvement, as they damaged our educational values.

Finally, this was a time of steady economic growth, meaning that even if we had not committed enormous amounts of federal, state, and philanthropic money and educators' effort to school reform, we should have at least seen incremental growth in student performance.

In contrast to some policy analysts, parents know their children as whole human beings - who deserve to be treated as more than a test score. Students, families, and teachers did not experience CCSS as simply a set of untested college readiness standards that were imposed from above. The standards came with inappropriate - and often cruel - high stakes tests. Students with no desire to attend college were liable to be denied a high school diploma based on a college readiness test. Some 3rd graders were subject to retention because of their performance on CCSS tests, and more would have been subject to that punishment had the Opt Out Movement not come to their defense. GED programs across the nation were wiped out by Common Core tests. Teachers were subject to firing and schools were subject to closing based on CCSS tests.

Armchair education reformers protest that it wasn't the CCSS that prompted brutal teach-to-the-test, driving so much of the joy of teaching and learning out of school. Those reformers may not have understood that such abuses were made inevitable by the imposition of test-driven accountability and the endless competition which was encouraged by the mass closures of schools. But if they didn't understand why under-the-gun school systems would respond in such destructive ways, they weren't qualified to mandate education policies.

When CCSS tests were imposed, for instance, poor urban districts had no choice but to focus on nonstop remediation for standardized tests or risk a massive increase in dropout rates. Since test scores were the ammunition of choice for the life and death struggles for schools facing mass charterization, districts had to choose between soul-killing rote instruction and the prospect of privatization - driven by charter management organizations hired by systems in order to comply with the Duncan administration's Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants.

But perhaps we're seeing the last days of the education blame game. Maybe Loveless and other pro-reform analysts will give up on trying to pin the rejection of their policies on parents and teachers. As parents refuse to allow their children to take the tests, it will become even more impossible to set cut scores, meaning that it will become even more impossible to claim that systems can identify the children and adults who supposedly should be punished for their scores. Once the punitive parts of school reform are repudiated, little or nothing will be left of this unfortunate period of education history. And, the Opt Out movement will deserve the credit it is granted in closing that chapter.