The Opt-Out Movement Could Provide the Seeds for the Revolution We Need
The movement of parents to "opt-out" is exciting. Parents are coming together and standing up for what they believe is good for their children. It is democracy in action, a revolution of sorts. But, the stakes are unclear and misunderstandings abound. Parents are paying attention, asking questions, and investigating what is happening in classrooms. We have wanted this for a long time...right? We need to capture and harness this energy so that it doesn't dissipate when the crisis of the moment abates.
Lessons From New York
In New York State the spring administration of the English Language Arts and Math assessments produced a growing number of opt-outs. Schools reported a variety of challenging situations. Some had children who came on the day of testing with letters announcing their intention to opt-out. Teachers and administration were struggling with a sudden change of plans for students, relocating them or having them remain in the testing room without the test. If a child arrived without a note from home and refused to take the test, there are requirements that the child sit in the testing room. This raises the stress from opting out to the same level the testing is causing. Children are being given permission to say "no" to what the school is engaging; could this be a problem in the making or great empowerment for student choice?
In some places, parents have taken the position that they do not want their children to take any tests that affect teacher evaluation, feeling that the test is more about the teacher evaluation than their children. In New York that presents a problem because the Regents Exams, required for high school graduation, are directly connected to the teachers' evaluations. So the logic will fail. What will happen? The rules become unclear and children remain the pawns on the policy game board.
Much has been written about the impact that these high stakes tests are having on the students, their parents, and their teachers. Simply, if these tests had less stakes attached, and they were used, initially at least, to track the progress of the implementation of the new Common Core Standards, this could have been avoided. See where public opinion is. An overwhelming percentage of people believe schools and teachers are doing well. From the Times Union/Siena College Upstate Education Poll:
Asked to rate their local schools on the job they are doing in preparing students for college, to be citizens, with the skills they will need as adults and for the workforce, half of residents give local schools either a good or excellent rating on only college preparation and civics while 61 percent say that schools are doing no better than fair or poor in getting our young people ready for the workforce...Sixty-four percent of all residents, and 73 percent of parents with children in public schools rate the overall quality of their teachers as either excellent or good.
The Parent Involvement We Need
While this is reinforcement and balance against all those reports saying schools are failing, we must not make serious educational decisions based upon opinions. How does a parent know if we are preparing students for the future if we as educators are in the midst of struggling to agree on what the skills and learning opportunities are that will prepare them for a world that does not yet exist? A good job is being done? How do they determine that? And if they have a better idea of the future than we do, they should be at our planning tables joining with us as plans for moving forward are settled.
The 21st century has offered us thinking, technology, accessibility, and challenges that are nudging schools out of their 20th century comfort zones. These standardized tests, assumed to be the answer to improving education, give no information that impacts teacher practice or student achievement. They only indicate, on a scale, whether a teacher and his or her students have taught and learned what is on these tests. If intended for a quick check on the system, then they should not take so much time, energy and money to implement and they shouldn't count for so much.
The only way to change the way teaching and learning takes place, improve teaching and learning, and truly prepare students for a world that can only be imagined is through systemic changes. Now is an opportunity to reach out to the parents and those in the community who have become actively engaged in a movement to protect children from the stresses of over testing and capture their interest and energy. Let them help create a revolution and redesign the schools. Is there any reason to fear them? After all, they also want the best for their children.
Most importantly, until the mandates change, there is more to be done than fight. Rick Hess, in his book Cage Busting Leadership warns that
accumulated rules and regulations, policies and practices, contracts, and cultures that exhaust educators and leaders...leaves little time or energy to tackle the things that matter most (p.223).
He posits cage busters
resist the temptation to define excellence solely in terms of increasing reading and math scores and graduation rates. They ask what excellence looks like, and don't settle for doing well by today's minimalist yardsticks (p. 225).
We have met cage busters. In states where the rules, regulations, policies, practices, and contracts present extraordinary challenges and constraints, they continue to envision the future and push away the obstacles. It can be done. This is the parental involvement we need.
Hess, F.M. (2013). Cage-Busting Leadership. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press