Missing the Mark: The Opt-Out Movement, Testing, and Problems Not Named

A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to join a friend and colleague for an evening with Diane Ravitch. It wasn't a private meeting, of course. Ravitch was in Milwaukee to promote her newest book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools, as well as to stand in support of Opt-Out MIlwaukee. It was, in many ways, exactly what I expected. 

If you're unfamiliar with the Opt-Out movement, it refers to (quickly growing) groups of parents, students, and educators who claim what they're now referring to as "conscientious objector status" in response to Smarter Balanced and PARCC standardized tests. These are sometimes referred to as "Common Core tests" (never mind the fact that "Common Core" refers to a set of standards, and that there is not a specific test mandated by adoption of Common Core standards), and appeared in Wisconsin for the first time this spring, here called the Badger Exam. 

If you've followed Diane Ravitch or any of her colleagues over at Rethinking Schools, you know fairly well what to expect. To no one's surprise, Ravitch draped her argument against the latest  incarnation of national standardized tests in a more general critique of neo-liberal Ed Reform, charter and choice schools, and Teach For America (for Ravitch, forever personified by Michelle Rhee, even if not in name). Needless to say, as a charter school employee and TFA corps member, I was not the target audience for her talk. (I'll have to come back to my take on Ravitch's critique of these other, related topics - especially TFA - in another post.)

I had been generally supportive of the Opt-Out movement before attending, based on the few stories I had been seeing of student-led walkouts and parent-led movements in communities of color. What was introduced at the event struck me as something ... different. Different in the sense that the face of the opt-out movement was now a wealthy white woman (joined a few weeks later by American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten). Different in the sense that a primary argument against the tests now seemed to be that middle-aged teachers found the technology too confusing (the tests are administered online, and require a higher level of interaction than simply selecting a bubble on a multiple choice question). Different, perhaps, due to the centrality of teacher opt-out in the movement that was introduced. 

This past week, the Opt-Out conversation got a little more interesting (albeit too late in the game to make much of a difference in this testing season). After a coalition of civil rights groups came out against the opt-out movement, Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post's education blog came out swinging in support of Ravitch's Network for Public Education. In short, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights argued that the data offered by standardized tests gives under-served communities "the power to advocate for greater equality under the law." In response, Ravitch and the NPE released a statement, saying

[we] only want to emphasize that the standardized exams they are now defending are one of the most significant contributing factors to the tracking and racial segregation of students into separate and unequal programs and schools. 

Unsurprisingly, both sides claim to represent the authentic voice of communities of color. For the coalition groups, their authority on civil rights issues is presumed; assumed to be so obvious that it needn't be defined or defended. The NPE, despite being largely represented in the media by wealthy white women like Ravitch or Weingarten and the mostly white suburban districts where Opt Out walkouts have gained traction, pointed to notable exceptions: latin@ in Albuquerque, black students in Baltimore, even the president of the Seattle NAACP (chosen, of course, because the NAACP was one of the civil rights organizations in question). 

This is sure to be an interesting debate to watch. The NAACP, after all, can't be as easily swept aside, written off as a corporate/right-wing pawn as in the case of "Ed Reform" leaders like Howard Fuller. 

My reaction, feeling little connection to either side of this debate, is one of disappointment. The coalition statement read that 

[at] the heart of that debate is whether or not we will have the courage to make the necessary investments in each and every child, no matter their race, ethnicity, class, disability status, or first language.

As I noted above, the NPE claims that "one of the most significant contributing factors" to stopping this sort of investment (and exacerbating school segregation and disproportionate allocation of resources) is standardized testing. It seems to me that both groups miss the point. There is a crisis here, but it isn't simply a lack of bold investment in communities of color or too much testing. The problem underlying the systemic racism that both groups seek to address is one neither seems to have the courage to call by name: capitalism. 

The NPE laments the role of multi-billion dollar companies like Pearson in guiding efforts like the introduction of PARCC / Smarter Balanced tests. The coalition's statement laments inequality in "employment, the criminal justice system, and consumer lending." Yet neither of these parties has the courage to name system that connects these issues. The economic and social challenges of Milwaukee's most impoverished neighborhoods, for instance, can be traced directly to corporate-backed trade policies and the elevation shareholder interests over employee and community interests. Likewise, the oft-discussed "school to prison pipeline" would not be what it is without the influence of for-profit prisons, whose profits have skyrocketed even has crime rates have fallen in the United States. While the recognition of the role of capitalism in racial oppression seems to be reasserting itself as a viable topic for public discussion, the anti-capitalism of 60's civil rights groups is rendered invisible in the fight for education as a civil rights issue.

The robust conversation about capitalism and the history of racial oppression in the United States (even reparations, as in the case of Ta-Nehisi Coates' now widely discussed essay for The Atlantic) is perhaps reason to be hopeful that this sort of dialogue about education may be possible in the mainstream. And yet, if the Opt-Out movement is any indication, we've got a long way to go.