How Has Education Activism Changed You? In Honor of United Opt Out

UOO2012 I am leaving for my annual summer vacation tomorrow. We go every year at this exact time. Two years ago at around this time, someone whom I only knew through email exchanges on a list serve (Peggy Robertson) asked me and four others to join her to form a group whose mission would be to fight high stakes testing and corporate destruction of public education. I said yes. So did Tim Slekar, Ceresta Smith, Shaun Johnson, and Laurie Murphie. And I’m so grateful they did. United Opt Out was started. This is our second year anniversary. During my annual summer vacation in 2011, when UOO was a mere week or so old, I remember sitting up until 2 am in the Outer Banks of NC putting out some Face Book “fire” and thinking “What the hell have I gotten myself into???” No  one warned me. No one warned me how such an investment in activism would change me. I am grateful to the organizers of the SOS march and rally (Bess Altwerger and Rick Meyer especially) who allowed me to be actively involved with that effort and the SOS organization. Without it I doubt that I would have ever have met Peggy, Ceresta, and Laurie (who were part of the SOS effort) –Shaun and I were working at the same institution at the time (which funny enough, Peggy didn’t realize when she asked each of us to join) and I knew Tim in name only and had yet to meet him in any way. I believe that the universe conspired to bring us all together. And now these five people are my family. And during SOS in 2011 I was becoming prepared for what was to come: Sleepless nights obsessing over who funds Common Core; an inability to attend ANY school function for my children without either making guffaw sounds, rolling my eyes, or watching friends avoid me as I pass out flyers or begin foaming at the mouth; littering my home office with giant crazy charts of who is connected with whom in education reform;  levels of patience and frustration expressed by my husband who has given up much of his time with me so that I could attend events, rallies and Skype meetings; two children who know more about Pearson, Common Core and school reform than any average elementary grade level child should ever have to know; and an unending…tireless….compulsory NEED to CHANGE things. Before I ever even met Peggy in person, I remember one early September night in 2011, sneaking out of a restaurant (my husband was getting pissed at the email/texting mania that had been going on) and hiding (claiming I had to go to the bathroom) so I could talk with Peggy about some major crisis involving our website. We, all six of us, have become somewhat “insane”–and my life has been all the better for working with them. Each of us over the last two years have had our family, friend, and professional relationships stretched and challenged. Activism exacts a price. Only a reasonable person might ask their inner most self at least once, “Is it worth it?” But I always arrive at the same answer. “Yes it is. What other choice is there?” No one warned me that this kind of commitment to activist work in education would allow me to experience the deep, profound, and unbreakable ties with five people whom I had barely met, or knew, before 2011. Each one of them has taught me lessons on how to be a better, stronger, wiser human being. And since that day I can think of so many more amazing people who have joined the efforts of United Opt Out, and too many sister-groups to even name, that have transformed my work life and my personal life in ways I never could have dreamed. So on this, our second year anniversary, I want to thank each of them: for teaching me what it means to be wise, trusting, courageous, tireless, brave, humble, and dedicated to something greater than just “me and mine.” I love all of you. And I will stand and fight with you and all the others who are joined with me by fellow groups, organizations, and our shared purpose. More than ideals, it’s our relationships that build our movement. In a mere two years, the Opt Out movement has exploded onto the scene across the country, led by courageous parents, students, and teachers. We have occupied the U.S. Department of Education and joined with many other events and efforts. Our website has received over a million hits. This past July we launched our state by state opt out guides and Declaration of Independence from corporate reform. This week we launch our “Back to School Protest Pack” We are growing. The tide is rising. So on this two year anniversary I am re-posting the very first thing I wrote as a founding member of United Opt Out, while up at 2 a.m. on the Outer Banks of NC. My first sleepless night writing. My first activist piece. Please share it widely. And to my UOO family: We’re just getting started! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ LETTER TO PARENTS FROM A PARENT Aug 21st, 2011 Dear Parents, I write this letter as a parent myself, who also happens to be an educator for over twenty years (and counting…), which means I live by a double edged sword. Education, which has been an immensely political issue for me all these decades has also become a deeply personal one beginning six years ago with the birth of my son Conor, and two years after that with the birth of my daughter Molly. I also happen to be on vacation at the beach with my family at the moment I write this letter. I suppose while I focus on my family this week, the educator’s mind never turns off. So I begin this letter with a short story (a metaphor of sorts) about being at the beach, thinking about the school year which begins in less than 2 weeks, and the effects that high stakes testing has on me, my children, and our society. This morning I lugged our wheeled cart full of assorted items needed to keep children amused for hours to the beach. As we crested the dunes I saw that the sand castle and large tide pool (aka big hole) we had dug were still there from yesterday;  not washed away completely by the evenings tides but rather worn down at the edges, and filling in from wind and sea mist. Conor immediately grabbed a few sand toys jumped into the middle of the tide pool, now empty and dry. Looking at the water I could tell the tide was moving back in slowly. “Let’s dig it back out again” I chimed, “That way when the water moves up it will fill back in again.” He was eager to begin, but after a few moments his attention waned. “The water’s not coming in mommy” he noted. “It takes time buddy. If we start digging now by the time the tide rises we’ll be ready.” He was not convinced and promptly moved on to make friends with the two young boys at the next umbrella. But I kept digging. And I started thinking … about high stakes testing, and the costs of opting my children out of testing (when that time arrives) versus the costs of not opting them out. There is a lot at stake here. The term high stakes testing is aptly named indeed. I have heard stories of and know a few parents around the country who have been brave enough to opt their children out of testing. Where I live in Maryland testing is attached to a high school diploma. So in essence, if I opt my children out after 8th grade, they may risk not receiving their high school diplomas. That is a very high price to pay to prove a point. In the meantime, I have other fears. If I make a big issue out of this and fight the tests which will begin for them in3rd grade, what will other parents think? Will my children be treated differently by their teachers and school administration? I imagine the glares and whispers when I attend the PTA meetings. Indeed, change is difficult because change is frightening and it exacts a price. But as I continue digging the sandy tide pool, I realize that while I worry about the thought of throwing my child under the proverbial bus to resist high stakes testing, by not doing anything at all, I am throwing them and everyone else’s children under the bus for years to come. For all the very real and justified fears I have about facing “punishment” for resisting the testing  movement, I think about all the punishment my children are facing right now by not taking action. The problem is that we have become so used to the abuse that testing practices wage our children and teachers, it is like having been hit with a hammer so many times we don’t feel it any more. But the damage is there. High stakes testing is exacting its own price while we stand back and watch. And every time I cannot imagine the fear and intimidation tactics could possibly get worse, they do. Children are increasingly developing psychological and physical problems related directly and indirectly to the tests. As we reduce PE, lunch, and recess and other physical activity, to spend more time “practicing for the test” we increase rates of obesity among our children. Anxiety and depression are on the rise because of the pressure children sense in their classrooms, not to mention the rising numbers of students labeled ADHD because they are unable to sit still for hours like chickens in battery cages on a factory farm, being force fed worksheet after worksheet of skill, drill, and kill material. My mind wanders toward a broader historical perspective. During the Civil Rights movements of the 1950’s and 1960’s, activists who practiced non-violent forms of protest against discrimination of all types, were not met with open arms. When Ruby Bridges walked across her new all White school campus she was not met with a date to be on Oprah and a contract for her own reality TV show. No.  She was met, at all of six years of age, with violent epitaphs and objects being thrown at her. When the students from Birmingham Alabama led the non violent protest in Kelly Ingram Park in 1963, the red carpet was not rolled out for them. Few, if any, stood there cheering them on. They were met with fire hoses and police dogs. But, if you are like me, born too soon to remember this personally, we sometimes wish to romanticize these movements. We like to believe that had we been there, we never would have allowed such tragic and horrific events to occur. We want to believe that we would have been right there with them, standing in protest against the wrongs of society. The choices those brave individuals made were often at the cost of their jobs, social standing, and even their lives. How many of us really and truly are THAT brave?  They paved the way for many of the civil and social rights that we share today. If you want to believe you would have done the right thing back then, then do the right thing, right now. The decision to opt your child out of testing is both personal and political. It is an act of civil disobedience. Testing not only impacts the health and well-being of our own children. It also shapes the larger policies of equity, re-segregation, the school to prison pipeline, and the kinds of values that we are teaching the future stakeholders of this country. Critical and imaginative thinking are dying at the feet of discrete facts and passive thinking disguised as “education.” We will not be met with pats on the backs and a red carpet. The policy makers who insist on pushing their test driven agenda will use fear and intimidation of all kinds to keep people from speaking out and standing up. But as I look at myself in the broader scope of time and space, I ask myself, “When I look back on my life, on what side of history do I wish to be standing?”  Maybe you cannot opt my child out of testing. Some states make it more feasible than others.  Maybe you cannot be that brave soul who takes that giant leap. Maybe that’s not you. That’s ok. What is not ok is resignation … to say “There’s nothing I can do.”  Resignation is not an option. All of us can do something. Without the one there cannot be the many. And while it will take many to change things, we have to act individually as well. We can voice our concerns to boards of education. We can write letters to the editor. We can speak publicly in different forums about our demands to end this testing madness. It is destroying our schools and destroying our children’s rights to an education. It is child abuse. And who among us will allow that?  When we become brutally aware and honest about this fact, we must face the realization that all must act-somehow. Teachers cannot do it (alone at least). We pay taxes for public education. We vote. And we cannot be fired. And we cannot wait for policy makers to make a turn around. I promise you-they won’t. Not without massive pressure. Now in 2011 we are a consumer society. For the last 40 or 50 years we have been consuming the benefits of those civil rights activists from generations before us. We have begun to take for granted certain rights and we make erroneous assumptions about trusting too much in the decision making of those in power. During the economic downfall of 2008 and since then we all watched as CEO’s of banks and corporations who were largely responsible for this economic mess, rode off into the sunset with million dollar bonus packages. And these same corporate stake holders are now profiting at the expense of my children and yours. Exactly what is it that they have done to gain our trust?  Ben Clark at published in 2004 cited that “Sales of printed materials related to standardized tests nearly tripled from 1992 to last year, jumping from $211 million to $592 million, according to the American Association of Publishers.” Meanwhile arts, music, and PE are getting slashed left and right from schools across the country. Class size goes up, resources goes down. The testing craze is not about making education better.  In fact research has shown it does the opposite. It is about lining the pockets of big business at the expense of our children’s education. If we do not change the course of educational policy, no one will do it for us. The tide pool that was dug for us by the change- agents of the Civil Rights movement is beginning to cave in. The opportunities and the changes in societal thinking that they forged at their own very personal expense are eroding again. The tides of free market capitalism and conservative big business agenda are rising to the steps of every school in America. If you think your school and your child are safe … just give ‘em time. Me?  I will not sit back and wait for the tides to come and swallow us up. So I keep digging.  So I beseech all parents: Jump in. Grab a shovel. It’s time. Sincerely, Morna McDermott McNulty Parent, Activist, Educator

Published by educationalchemy

Morna McDermott has been an educator for over twenty years in both k-12 and post secondary classrooms. She received her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focus on arts-based educational research, from The University of Virginia in 2001. Morna's teaching, scholarship, and activism center around the ways in which creativity, art, social justice, and democracy can transform education and empower communities. She is currently a Professor of Education at Towson University.

2 thoughts on “How Has Education Activism Changed You? In Honor of United Opt Out

  1. absolutely delighted to stumble across your blog…I feel that we all need to become activists not only for our children but for the whole future of this country. Your blog is awesome and your piece on Finland and why the facts of success are ignored hits the nail on the head.

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