'Opting Out' Into School Choice

Opinion by Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners in USNews

04/08/15

The logical next step for the anti-Common Core 'opt-out' movement is opting out of entire schools.

What’s in this spring in public education? Apparently it’s students opting out of state standardized tests. 

If you just read hysterical press accounts you might think parents are refusing state standardized tests at a fantastic clip. In fact, for the overwhelming majority of schools and students it’s business as usual. In a few affluent communities opting out of the new Common Core tests is a thing. “Everyone is talking about it at Whole Foods” says one disgusted New York education figure. But so far the opt out craze is more noise than signal. 

Still, faced with even the possibility of an “opt-out” movement education officials are responding with force. This week Kentucky’s education commissioner said school districts cannot honor opt-out requestsand student refusals would be counted as zeroes for school accountability purposes. That strategy seems more likely to fan flames than change minds.

When I asked my nine-year-old daughter about whether parents should opt kids out of tests, she responded, “Well, then how will they know how they’re really doing?” Fair enough, but the debate about testing is long past that sort of reasonableness. So if parents want to opt-out of tests and all this craziness, why not just let them?

 

[READ: Opt-Out Movement About More Than Tests, Advocates Say]

Let’s back up for a minute. To be clear, the opt-out movement is not some organic happening. National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García tried to claim it was during a discussion I moderated a few weeks ago at the Council of Chief State School Officers legislative conference. When I asked her about the millions of dollars some of her state affiliates are spending to encourage test boycotts she didn’t have a response. That’s not very grassroots. In New York the state teachers union is openly encouraging opt-outs and some PTAs are circulating warmed-over versions of union talking points. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten straddles the issue by saying she vigorously supports the right of parents to opt-out but isn’t urging it.

Meanwhile, parents are not boycotting all standardized tests. Parents in Brooklyn, New York, Montclair, New Jersey and other affluent opt-out hot spots are more than happy to opt their children in to the college gateway tests perpetuating privilege and status in this country. Boycotting the new Common Core tests is chic but at the same time millions of students are opting into the SAT and ACT tests while their affluent parents pony up big bucks for tutoring on these and other college gateway achievement tests like Advanced Placement. Education writer Chris Stewart has pointedly noted the cringe-worthy irony of a mostly white led effort to boycott state standardized tests that are arguably most important for low-income and minority students who are frequently denied a quality education in our nation’s public schools.

Unlike the SAT and other college tests the Common Core tests are linked to school accountability and teacher evaluations. The data are disaggregated to make sure some students, especially low-income and minority students, are not shortchanged. It’s probably just coincidental that these tests, which shine a harsh light on how well schools and school districts are doing, are the ones everyone is worked up about?

[READ: Atlanta Scandal Could Be the Tip of a 'Test Cheating Iceberg']

Of course it's not, which explains why after hundreds of millions of public dollars have finally been invested in a new generation of better tests – assessments that educators, the teachers unions and basically the entire education community said it wanted – these tests suddenly aren’t good enough either. 

So why not just allow parents to opt-out? Think about it for a moment. If it were your child being asked to do something you objected to, for several hours, under the supervision of adults who in some cases you don’t even know, wouldn’t you want some freedom? Of course you would. I would, too. That’s why I don’t object to opt-outs even if I find today’s opt-out “movement” ridiculous, selfish and more than a little hypocritical. 

Instead of escalating the opt-out fight, education leaders should channel this sudden enthusiasm for parental rights, parental choice and self-determination to address a broader basket of education issues. If parents are able to opt out of a test they ought to also be able to opt out of a specific teacher’s class or a school as well. The teachers unions could show some consistency by supporting the rights of parents to transfer to better public schools that don’t turn student tests into an unprofessional three-ring circus needlessly stressing out kids. 

[SEE: Political Cartoons on the Economy]

Fundamentally, the call for opt-outs is a call for more parental freedom. In contemporary America, accountability is usually regulatory-based (think financial markets), choice and market-based (for instance clothes) or some combination of the two (like restaurants). It may well be that test-based accountability has run its course in public education. If so, the opt-out movement – ironically fueled by self-interested teachers unions – may be pointing us to what’s next: a lot more choice and unbundling of services in public education. 

That might not be so bad. If it turns out we can’t come together around school accountability schemes that look after the poor – especially while the same elite progressives boycotting tests can’t stop talking about inequality – then we at least ought to give the poor real choice about the schooling of their children given how crucial education is to social mobility. 

Where can I opt into that movement? It sounds less trendy but perhaps more impactful than just opting out of tests. 

Andrew Rotherham is a cofounder and partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit organization working to support educational innovation and improve educational outcomes for high-need students.

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