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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.

As Denisha Jones wrote today:

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.

Author

Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.

Comments

  1. ciedie aech    

    Since the very beginning of NCLB invasions into our district’s low-income schools, the slowly recognized fact that “teachers cannot be trusted” began to make headway. Keeping teachers OUT of any decision-making about tests, class schedules, curricula and interventions thus allowed the powers that be to THEN HIRE (and spend massive “fix the school” funding upon) outsider after outsider after outside. Outsiders who subsequently turned around to loudly blame teachers for every mess made by their inability to make informed decisions.

  2. Chris Cerrone    

    Excellent piece Anthony, As long as traditional high-stakes testing exists, opt out must remain part of our activism. The awareness and advocacy built around the opt out movement has already raised questions about student privacy, screen time and online assessment such as CBE. Parents in the opt out circles are becoming aware of the big picture and the very groups under attack have been informing and educating parents about the other ways the corporate reformers plan to harm our children and their schools.

  3. Kevin Ohlandt    

    Anthony, thank you for posting this. As one of the “activists” (I have trouble seeing myself as an activist but many have told me I am) who wrote yesterday, I knew the title of the article would be meant to draw people in. I went back and forth on it and eventually came up with “Opt Out As We Know It Is Dead”. My concern, based on the amount of pilot states and districts that are already implementing these kind of tests, is that once all the ink is dry on ESSA and all of the state plans, this will happen very fast. Many states are having what are called “community discussions” (as Delaware is calling it) to get the public out so they can check that off on their things-to-do for ESSA list. It is one of the requirements of the law. I believe the time is now to get parents involved at a massive scale. Opt out is not passé by any means, and as long as the once a year and horrible SBAC is in my state I will urge parents to opt out. But once we cross the Rubicon of once a year to “stealth” mini-tests, I don’t want parents to be caught in that moment and not know what to do. I would rather squash that whole future from even happening now by making a lot of noise. That was my entire reasoning for my article, as it was for others. But I don’t want anyone to think opt out is dead, just evolving by necessity as I posted in my article. I’m very happy Diane and I had our dialogue on all this. If she wasn’t aware of certain aspects of the ed tech boom going on in schools, she certainly is now. Sadly, I have felt betrayed by people involved in fighting this stuff over the years, especially when it came to opt out legislation in my own state. We had a great bill that many parents, teachers, and legislators fought tooth and nail for last year. Our legislators passed it with an overwhelming majority. Our Governor vetoed the bill, but our legislators had a chance to override his veto. Very few allowed it to even get to that point and it died. Many who I hoped would support that override did not, including our state educators association. It got very ugly towards the end. So my trust factor going into this year has been very raw. I realize that is something I have to be mindful of. We are all human. For good or bad, Diane is known as the national voice for all our collective fights to save education. Things were questioned this week with her, and people were suspicious, but I believe Diane answered all the questions. Should it have gotten to that point? Probably not. But for those of us who are waist-deep at our State DOEs, Boards of Education, and looking at contracts and research papers every day, we are a suspicious lot and we have learned that if we don’t question we will never know. But it’s all in how we do it and I recognize that.

  4. Anthony Cody

    Anthony Cody    

    Kevin, Thanks for engaging, and looking for ways to build bridges and work through differences. It is hard work sometimes, but it leaves us all much stronger as a result.

  5. Larry Lawrence    

    Anthony, thank you for dealing with this vociferously expressed anger among several of our activist colleagues. As a serial UOO, NPE and SOS conference-goer, I have great respect for all involved. The topic of technology in the classroom has not been something that has been addressed at any of these conferences in any major way (if it has been part of any of the Keynote Addresses, I don’t recall any). If we ever do, I will be all ears since it’s a topic in which I’ve been involved from the beginning of my teaching career.

    I have been involved in discussions of the possibilities and dangers of technology in education since my faculty field trip to the Rand Corporation in the spring of 1960. We watched in fascination as the massive computers that ran the North American Radar Air Defense (NORAD) system typed out a response for us on an electric typewriter. As a result of this visit, I read several books about the future possibility of artificial intelligence and thought about how I might use this in my high school math classroom when the technology became available. I even experimented (1964-65 – with their permission) with a ninth grade algebra class. We ordered a set of programmed books that took students to a page that matched their responses to questions and then directed them to the next step (sound familiar?). It didn’t work well and was abandoned as a failure (although the class organized a great end of the year party).

    In 1967, when I was on the staff of the UCLA Lab School, Director John Goodlad (also Dean of the Grad Sch of Ed) presented what he predicted were going to be the two great issues in the education of the future. First, a focus on major issues of humanity (environment, inequality, war, etc.) and, second, the question of how we were going to deal with the use of sophisticated technology in education (remember personal computers didn’t arrive until 13 years later). We discussed this but didn’t have any technology available to look into the issue. Several years later (1983), some of the my Lab School colleagues and I teamed with some Israeli computer people to study how we could use computers in the classroom – that is, with Atari computers! Interesting, but the project only lasted one year. A couple of years later we gathered some Apple donated Macintosh SE and Plus Computers and I became (in 1986) the technology specialist to explore the use of computers in the classroom – although UCLA was instrumental with the development of the Internet, the Lab School had no access in the late 80’s. The lack of computers and the limitations of what was available placed this three-year effort in the “good try” category.

    After I left the Lab School in the early 90’s, I came down to the San Diego area to work as a math consultant for a startup educational technology company (Lightspan) that was developing software programs in math and language arts. The company was using start-up venture capital funding ($35,000,000) from the dreaded Microsoft Corp. The dream of Lightspan’s CEO was to deliver content over the Internet. However, (and many either don’t remember or just don’t know) in 1996 the technology was not yet in place to deliver content over the Internet so the programs ended up on Sony Playstations. Also, the cost of much less sophisticated programming tools greatly increased the developmental costs. After two very interesting years Lightspan decided that they actually needed to sell a product. To do so, they had to make sure that the content met the math and language arts objectives of the major states. Creating very sketchy relationships between math objectives and the software programs was nonsense, so I retired to my full time role of soccer/basketball/baseball dad.

    The technology moved rapidly after that, but the ability to deliver material from a central source (Internet) is reasonably new. However, the concern about the role of technology in education has been going on for a long, long time. I agree that it is a major concern, I don’t agree that it’s something with which has been incorporated without many of us being concerned, that we’ve had the wool pulled over our eyes. I have always viewed my work with the Opt Out group as part of a more comprehensive concern about the forces that are weakening our system of public education. Even back in the 80’s my teaching colleagues were concern about technology taking over the role of the teacher. The concern even influenced the name of the project we had with the people in Israel. Originally, it was the Computer Curriculum Project. It was changed to the Curriculum Computer Project so that the technology was not up front. With the ubiquity of technology, perhaps we need to stop the negative comments and unite to develop a strategy to reignite the notion of the importance of the individual teachers controlling what is to be used in the classroom.

  6. Elizabeth Hanson    

    Thank you Anthony for another great article. At some point parents and teachers might just opt out of this form of education altogether. I don’t know how it would look. Maybe with computers down and everyone is reading books instead and the reformers drop by and complain. That’d be a scene “Grapes of Wrath” up… computer screeens down… We are really living in some disturbing times.

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