By Anthony Cody.
Some have argued recently that the Opt Out movement is dead because it has actually become helpful to those promoting constant online testing, since it interferes with the annual standardized tests. Since the annual tests can be replaced by online monitoring of student performance, this will be the wave of the future. So we should stop organizing parents and students to opt out, and instead focus on the new dangers coming from educational technology.
There is a real danger here. I wrote a post more than two years ago, entitled “Classroom of the Future, Student Centered or Device Centered,” which warned of this. I wrote:
In this mode of instruction, these devices become the mediator of almost every academic interaction between students and their teacher, and even one another. Students are assigned work on the device, they perform their work on the device, they share work through the device, and they receive feedback via the device. What is more, the means by which learning is measured—the standardized test—will also be via this device.
It is the appliance that now becomes “intelligent” about each student and the appliance is the vehicle by which lessons are “personalized,” because the appliance is what is keeping track of what the student is capable of, and where the student is weak.
Of course the teacher has the ability to oversee and monitor the assignments the device is making, but the whole idea is to automate this process. And this is happening in an environment where there is a clear desire to increase class sizes. Thus we have “personalization” via digital device, at the same time we make teacher-student relationships far more difficult because budget constraints are increasing class sizes.
Last year, I wrote again about Competency Based Education, and the idea that computerized lessons could replace annual tests.
So where does this lead us? We have the test makers defining concepts for students to learn, which are clearly delineated so the learner and the teacher know precisely what they are accountable for. We have frequent “formative assessments” built into assignments that students complete on computers, to be checked by those computers, with tagged data provided to teachers (and presumably to those tasked with supervising teachers.)
There are two unwritten assumptions that are constant from the beginning of NCLB and carry through to this new version. Teachers are not trusted to make judgments about what students learn, how they learn it, or how learning is assessed. Assessment is defined as the external monitoring of the work inside the classroom. The second assumption is that data and technology must be instrumental in whatever process is devised. The main innovation here is the more thorough and intrusive penetration of the classroom via computers capable of monitoring learning.
But there is a leap being made by some activists that I do not quite follow. They argue that since these systems can eventually replace the annual standardized tests, the evil geniuses at work behind the scenes actually WANT students to opt out of annual tests. And that people like Diane Ravitch and the New York State Allies for Public Education have become co-opted, and are duping people into supporting this new Competency-Based system.
I do not see things unfolding this way. First of all, opting out of a state test is an act of civil disobedience. It is an act of individual and collective defiance of a top-down mandate.
Powerful interests NEVER want people to engage in acts of defiance. Once such acts are successful, people learn that they have a power that system managers and the ruling class do not want them to have. Bill Gates and company are literally spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to kill the opt out movement.
Opting out is a transcendent act of defiance that opens the door to all sorts of defiance of the controls and systems we are expected to engage in. It should not be abandoned. It should evolve. It has been necessary to Opt Out of annual standardized tests – and it still is, as long as they are being used to rank and sort students and teachers. Now it may be necessary to opt out of excessive screen time. Opt out of online systems that track and share highly sensitive personal information about your children with for-profit vendors, or others who are using this information not to educate them but to market to them and treat them as consumers. Parents Across America has posted a useful toolkit and opt out form.
The state annual test may or may not be dead in a few years. In any case, the spirit of Opting Out will live on, and the success of the movement is inspiring parents to take control into their own hands and resist abusive practices. The movement of defiance, one of non-compliance, is growing, and that spirit should live on as long as technology and tests are used to manipulate and control teachers and students against their wills and against their best interests.
Opt out is a type of civil disobedience. It is a form of protest where parents, students, and teachers refuse to submit to the perverted use of high stakes standardized testing. We never wanted permission to opt out. We never asked for an opt out clause. We promoted opt out as a tool for stopping the corporate assault on public education. Opt out was to be the first domino that sends the rest falling down. If a whole class opts out then there is no need for test prep and if a whole school opts out then there is no need to use valued added measures (VAM) to evaluate teachers. And one by one the dominoes fall as we get closer to tearing down the school reform house of cards.
United Opt Out will be holding a summit in Houston next month to build this movement, and connect more closely with the civil rights struggle. The fact that the federal Department of Education continues to try to coerce states into squashing the opt out movement is strong evidence that it has had a real impact, and continues to work as a monkey wrench in the testing machinery.
So while I agree that we need to raise awareness about the limitations of educational technologies, and the dangers posed by Competency Based Education, “personalized” learning, and the like, I do not think we should leave behind the opt out effort. Technology can be a useful tool, but it should be used to give students and teachers greater power. When it is used by a top down “learning system” to rank and sort students and teachers, then it is time to opt out once again.
It is natural that with a diverse movement such as we have there will be uneven attitudes or understandings of some of these issues. But to seize on these differences and use them as the basis to claim that some people are “dupes,” or even agents of deception is unwarranted. We are all working to respond to a quickly changing landscape, and our common ground ought to be a deep and abiding appreciation for the work that teachers do with students, with the goal of empowering students to learn and change the world around them. The rest of this discussion is about tactics – and that is something we can always discuss together as allies in a common struggle. So let’s stop trying to find differences that can be blown up bigger than they ought to be, and instead work together on the common ground that has helped us build a strong movement together.
Update: Kevin Ohlandt, a blogger who had criticized Diane for not writing much about these issues yesterday took the time to engage with her on her blog. He posted the exchange here this morning. I hope this gets us back on the path to respectful discussion and solidarity.