Monday, January 7, 2013

National Opt Out Day

Today is national Opt Out Day. Today is the day that United Opt Out, a group of grassroots public education advocates from across the country, has called on parents, students, teachers, administrators, school board members, and anyone else who cares about what is happening to our schools to challenge corporate style education “reform” in our own communities. It’s time to think about what opting out means.

For just over a year, this grassroots movement here in Southwest Pennsylvania has been standing up for public education: fighting for adequate resources, equity, and policies that support public schools as a public good. Dr. Mark Naison, professor of African American studies and History at Fordham University and a public education activist, compares what is happening now to the rights movements of the 1960s, which grew in the context of the great Civil Rights Movement. Our current work for public education “began with conversations, most of them private; then meetings; then formation of organizations; then rallies, marches, boycotts, lawsuits and strikes – the same model followed by movements of the Sixties on behalf of women’s and gay rights.” [LA Progressive, 12-3-12]

Our movement is still relatively young, both at the local level with groups such as ours and at the national level with new organizations such as Parents Across America, Save Our Schools, and United Opt Out that have emerged in just the past couple years. But Dr. Naison notes that we have already “robbed [corporate style reform] of its air of romance, exposed its links to big money interests, and challenged its claim to promote the cause of equity and civil rights.” Perhaps most importantly, our movement has “let individual teachers, parents and students who were feeling smothered and abused by the new policies know that they are not alone and that resistance is possible.” Naison identifies four steps in this moral and political awakening: 

  1. The first step is telling the truth about what Reform is really doing to our schools; 
  2. The second step is to share that insight with colleagues, friends and family; 
  3. The third step is to attend rallies and public meetings which challenge the Reform agenda; and
  4. The fourth step is to Opt-Out, Boycott, Strike and Sue.” [LA Progressive, 12-3-12]

According to Dr. Naison, most folks are in stage one or two – talking about what is happening in our schools and sharing that information with our networks. Here in Yinzer Nation, most of us leapt into stage three – attending rallies and publicly challenging threats to our schools such as the massive budget cuts. (If you need a reminder of all the incredible work we accomplished in 2012, please see “Top 10 Success List.”) Now it’s time to move to that fourth step and consider what an Opt Out movement could do here for our schools.

Let me start by sharing the conclusion I’ve come to: this year, my children will not be taking any high-stakes-tests. That means no PSSAs, no Keystone Exams; none of the approximately 23 standardized tests my sixth grader would be subjected to (nine more than last year). These tests are damaging our schools, our teachers, and most significantly, our children’s education. We’ve rallied in snowstorms, met with our legislators, written letters to the editor, held vigils for our furloughed teachers … heck, I’ve been all the way to the White House – twice – talking about what is happening to public education. This is fundamentally a civil rights issue about equal access to a great education for all our children, and now is the time for civil disobedience: my family can no longer participate in a system that is causing great harm to the people and institutions I care about.

Dr. Tim Slekar, who last week helped us understand how high-stakes-tests are being misused to harm our teachers, explains: “all of this testing, test prep homework, data driven instruction and holding teachers accountable has sent an entire generation of students to careers and college less prepared to do real intellectual work and lacking any sense of imagination and curiosity. This system is destroying our children.” He is one of the founding members of United Opt Out, lives here in Pennsylvania, and has opted his own son out of high-stakes-testing. He believes opting out is “the only thing we have that has a chance at stopping this insanity” and that this “decision is pro child, pro teacher and pro public school.” He reminds us that, “Taking care of our children is our first responsibility. … We are talking about stopping the intellectual abuse and demeaning educational experiences our children have had to sit through for 10 years.[@theChalkFace, 12-21-12]

In the coming days, we will look at the connection between high-stakes-testing and budget cuts. We will examine how these tests have changed school culture and how teachers feel about having to administer them. We will review the plague of cheating scandals that have infested our state, all the way to the PA Secretary of Education himself. And we will recall the misuses of our children’s test data, now being inappropriately and punitively applied to teacher evaluation and school closure.

Today I am saying: this is our data and they cannot have it. I care about learning, not testing. That doesn’t mean I am against all testing – of course our teachers need to assess student learning. But testing is not learning. Enough is enough with the high-stakes-testing. In Pennsylvania it is our right as parents to review copies of these tests that will be administered to our children and then to request a religious exemption (I will explain more about this soon, too). Therefore, I will be calling upon the traditions of social justice, social action, equity, and compassion at the root of all our major religions to quite simply opt my children out of this madness. For them, for their school, their teachers, and for the institution of public education.

Today is national Opt Out Day. What will you do?

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