Root to Rise: Practicing the Future of the Opt Out Movement

Today I was taking my weekly yoga class. The first thing the instructor asks us to do is set an intention for the day’s practice. My intention was to meditate on where we are at, and where we are going, in the opt out movement, with hopes of finding a way forward.

My instructor focused today’s practice in our feet, on focusing in on how we remain rooted and grounded (in our feet) in order to rise up and achieve higher purpose.

Like a yoga practice, the opt out movement, is exactly that….a movement, It is not a noun …it is an action, based on a basic idea rooted in the principals of socially just, equitable, creative, democratic PUBLIC schools for ALL children. That is our grounding, All our actions must rise from that. Any action that does not ground itself in that intention, or does not move us in that direction, is misspent energy (or a hijacked message).

I also thought about how important it is to trust ourselves. Opt Out, as Peggy Robertson is always saying, is a people’s movement. We do, as most movements, look toward leaders to push us forward, but really it is about us. It is about trusting ourselves to know when something just does not make sense. I am thinking of Stephen Singer’s latest piece on the history of the eugenics movement and the odd notion that civil rights groups would embrace this same testing as a tool for equity. Calling for testing as a tool for equity just seems wrong. It feels wrong. All data suggests this will end badly. It is a distraction from the real focus and the real fight.

So we must, everyone of us, remember to trust out gut, believe what our senses tell us, and use common sense. In this technocratically and technologically driven world of education policy parents and teachers get bombarded with seemingly complex messages about “21st century learning”, grit and tenacity, Student Learning Outcomes that are more complicated that a piece of IKEA furniture. We can lose sight. TRUST YOUR GUT. If: 1) having kids on computer screens for half the school day, 2) demanding we use biased, racist and classist standardized testing in the name of “equity”, or 3) wiping vomit off a test all just seem wrong…IT IS BECAUSE THEY ARE.

ESSA, from its beginning, just seemed wrong. it felt wrong. All the data showed it would end badly.

We do not need complicated formulas to tell us what is right for all children. We know who and what the problem is (corporate technocracy and greed erasing democracy and the public sphere). And we know what the possible solutions are (they’ve been lying around for decades: small class size, full programs, wrap around services, the arts and sports, experienced teachers, culturally rich curricula, etc etc). What we struggle with is HOW DO WE GET THERE? How do we make a movement?

First, we stay grounded. ROOT TO RISE.

Second, realize the ground is shifting beneath our feet. The opt out movement is now several years old (even decades if you recognize the early work of activists like Susan Ohanian and the opt out events of Scarsdale NY back in the 1990’s). In 2011 when United Opt Out first emerged on the scene, we believed it was enough to call for a mass refusal of standardized tests. If the mass call for opting out we are hearing in 2016 had been available in 2011, by now we might have been able to stave off the debacle of ESSA. But now, with ESSA firmly in place, refusal of standardized testing cannot be our only focus. Should parents still refuse the tests? Yes. Of course. But if we think that refusal of the annual standardized testing will alone be sufficient to “starve the beast” we would be wrong. We are refusing IT ALL.  We refuse their policies. We refuse their ideology. We refuse to sell our children to the highest bidder by any means they try.

Because the beast has changed shape. And even if everyone in America refused the end-of-year standardized tests such as PARCC or SBAC, the machinery of the corporate takeover (though dented maybe) remain intact. Because of ESSA, we have a new battle front, and the opt out movement must shift with it. Remember…we have to check our balance, our base, our foundation. Testing refusal is not, was never, the end goal. It’s one means to dismantling the corporate directive of education policy. But in 2016 we must move in other direction simultaneously: ESSA takes us in one of two directions. We must focus on many directions. Either ESSA heightens the grip that standardized testing has on states (see Mercedes Schneider who states, “ESSA tries to lock states into the same 95 percent testing requirement as NCLB.”).

Or, (even IF) it HST takes a “back” seat (reduced end-of-year testing) we are still trapped in a trajectory toward corporate privatization because now testing will be daily and ongoing via competency-based assessment.  It’s probably gonna result in a whole bunch of both. So let’s re-imagine our strategy. We need to tackle competency based instruction, a policy whose roots are grounded in the common core, and was likely the end game to begin with starting decades back. The evidence for that case I quite compelling and irrefutable.

Opting out is a movement. We have to MOVE. Our actions must shift and change with the policy landscape which has shifted beneath our feet with ESSA. Its promise of “reduced testing” was a Trojan Horse. And now the enemy is inside the gates. We can strike our “warrior pose” but remember the yoga rule: The warrior poses always lead with the big toe (the center of balance) and the big toe is the most central piece of the pose. If we are “off” about what we think is the goal or the direction of our movement is we will spend a lot of energy putting ourselves off balance. We can even be lead into distraction from other ways our opponent is planning to strike because our focus may be in the wrong place.

Our “big toe” is not merely testing refusal. Our “big toe”… the guiding focal point, is (as I said in the beginning of this post) socially just, equitable, creative, democratic PUBLIC schools for ALL children. All our actions must rise from that.

Root. And move. Others cannot do it for us. Rise up.



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.

One thought on “Root to Rise: Practicing the Future of the Opt Out Movement

  1. Just as you mention that for Opt Out we must see the ground always shifting beneath our feet, I am frustrated in my inability to express this same issue about those who made us take up this fight in the first place. Not only is the ground always shifting on OUR side, but on our OPPONENT’s side. They (school reformers) change directions on a whim, making a public apology here — and then forcing yet more vicious legislation there. It is school deregulation at its best (worst) when those who wish to stand up and fight back simply cannot see through the whirling smoke. Our willingness to pay close attention and stay on the move is, as you say, the only answer.

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