Focusing on the “Opt” in the “Opt-Out Movement”

Like most others, I have had the good fortune to be alive and paying attention enough over the last ten years to bear witness to at least two major revolutions.

I never thought I would see the day when people could actually talk to other people with their wrist watch, and just last month the Supreme Court reaffirmed its’ commitment to the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by safeguarding equal access to the institution of marriage. These are major changes – both of which were propelled by and, in turn, will have major implications for democracy.

Though not as long-in-the-making nor as groundbreaking, I’ve been watching the growing “Opt-Out” movement with a muted – but similar – enjoyment.

Is the Opt-Out Movement Truly a Movement?

The “Opt-Out” movement, where parents block schools from testing their children with high stakes standardized measures, is pretty fascinating. In a sense this small movement is akin to seeing hundreds of thousands of parents across the nation turn to each other with expressions of utter disbelief saying, “Wait … we can do that?”

For so long, parents have sent their children to school without asking many critical questions about what their children experience during the school day, including the decisions that administrators make about curriculum, or how data about their children’s performance on standardized tests are collected and used.

Parental disgruntlement has usually centered around their child’s new teacher, and concerns about particular “trouble-makers” in their child’s class. Research has shown over and over that some parents feel entitled to follow these conflicts through, while others feel disempowered or reluctant depending on their cultural or economic background. (See the book “Our Kids” by Robert Putnam or “Class in Schools” by Richard Rothstein for full descriptions of how this plays out.)

Regardless, disgruntlement is minor and scattered. Parents experience and deal with these conflicts in vacuum, and the conflicts experienced by many individuals separated by space and time could never be regarded as a movement. 

So, the recent uproar about the over use of standardized tests, and calls for opting children out of said tests, in contrast, seems to be something of a revolution in the way that parents understand their role in their children’s education.

Why We are Suddenly Concerned about Over-Testing

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) stipulated in 2002 that all children grades 3-8 & 10th or 11th be tested using a state-administered standardized test. The intent then was to reach “universal proficiency” on those standardized tests by 2014. So, all students in every state had to “pass” these standardized tests by 2014. This was an extraordinary lofty (read: unrealistic), but worthwhile goal.

Most states contracted to private companies to develop standardized tests, and the students’ tests were scored with the designation “Failing,” “Basic,” “Proficient” or “Advanced.” Students’ performances on those standardized tests were spread across the four designations. However, districts with pockets of poverty were more likely to have concentrations in the “Failing” and “Basic” categories, and districts with concentrated wealth and college-educated parents were more likely to be labeled “Proficient” and “Advanced.”

This gap in performance was predictable. Students have performed similarly on standardized tests since the national government started administering National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP – sounds like “nape”) in the 1960s. This gap in performance is the well-documented “achievement gap.”

Getting to “universal proficiency” by 2014, therefore, conveyed the expectation that states could close the achievement gap in 12 years. All schools had to show “adequate yearly progress” or “AYP” toward this goal of universal proficiency. If they didn’t, all sorts of penalties ensued. NCLB required standardized tests as the preferred way to track changes in student performance.

Testing Mania

As lofty as this goal was, when the data from these tests were crunched it became clear that NCLB and standardized tests weren’t closing the achievement gap.

Many very smart people decided that the tests were probably not very good measures of what we want students to learn. (Others decided it was probably the teachers’ fault, but let us leave that for another post.)

So, since the tests were to blame, a few powerful organizations set new guidelines about what American kids should be learning, resulting in the Common Core State Standards or CCSS. With little time to vet the standards, states adopted CCSS and implemented them in their schools.

Then, some very lucky private companies were contracted and got a whole lot of money to design new tests to measure whether students were mastering CCSS. Two tests, the PARCC test and the Smarter-Balanced or “SBAC” test were adopted by most states.

This year, our nation’s schoolchildren in grades 3-8 and 10th or 11th had the sad misfortune of “piloting” these new PARCC or SBAC tests while simultaneously phasing out their state’s old standardized tests. The result was dozens of school days (out of a 180-day school year) spent penciling in bubbles on Scantron sheets and/or clicking through items on the computer.

Add together the state standardized tests; the new, and considerably more challenging, SBAC or PARCC test; for most 10th or 11th grade students their AP test and PSAT or SAT test; and, perhaps their ACT or other college-entrance tests and it’s pretty clear that this year we tested the hell out of American schoolchildren.

Opting Out

This year, the number of parents who said “Thanks, but no thanks” (or more accurately, “Take your test and shove it!”)  to standardized tests exploded155,000 kids opted out of tests in New York alone.

As an education researcher, I lament the lost data. As a parent, I totally get it.

On the one hand, I know our nation’s children are over-tested. According to education expert, Linda Darling Hammond, we as a nation focus more on testing than any other country in the world. We have too many standardized assessments. Some of them generate meaningful data, but others not so much.

On the other hand, I know standardized tests are a source of information about student academic performance. Schools can use this data, but it’s typically used most by education researchers and the national government to help track (some would say exacerbate) the gap in performance between different segments of the American population.

This summer is really the first time that I have thought about it on a personal level, because this school year my oldest daughter is entering third-grade. That is to say, this school year marks the first time NCLB and yearly testing is a reality for me as a parent.

I also live in New Hampshire where our state’s new parent trigger law allows parents to opt-out of any public school curriculum they deem inappropriate. Though our governor vetoed a bill that would allow parents to opt-out of standardized tests specifically, many of our state’s districts are allowing it. It’s probably only a matter of time before NH’s House and Senate override her veto, so I expect the Opt-Out debate to surface again in NH by winter.

My husband and I take parenting decisions on a case-by-case basis. If I had a child who experienced tremendous anxiety over tests no matter how valiant our efforts were to calm her, I would probably pull her out. In that case, the tests would do more harm than good. I defend parents’ rights to protect their children in these cases.

I also happen to think there is a massive level of hysteria around parents opting their children out of testing right now. I don’t judge them, they have their reasons.Their children might react more strongly to taking a test too, where my child doesn’t seem to register a difference between taking a standardized test and taking the teacher’s weekly spelling challenge. Yet, the hysteria overshadows the advantage of standardized testing, which is their power as a source of information and a diagnostic tool about how their child is learning. 

Finally, I hope that the parent veto rights bill isn’t overused in New Hampshire. I have many misgivings about parents telling schools regularly what should be in the curriculum. Parent vetoes convey a certain level of distrust in our teachers and schools and they are often used to prevent teachers from teaching things that are widely accepted by scientists to be true (e.g. evolution and climate change). 

For all of those reasons, we will have both of our children follow the standardized testing schedule in our district for now.

Opting-in: With Reservations & Just for Now

Even having thought through all of this and made a decision (for this year at least), I will do several things to parent my kids through standardized tests.

First, and most importantly, I will make sure my daughter understand these tests are not high stakes for her and don’t measure her intelligence. Standardized tests are not tests of intelligence, and just to be clear, intelligence tests (IQ) aren’t even tests of fixed intelligence

Any standardized test should be treated as a diagnostic tool at most, which can help us identify areas where we can support children’s learning more, and areas where they are already demonstrating mastery of skills and content. So, I’ll try not incite further hysteria in my child when I talk to her about the tests. I hope her teachers and building principals do the same – as far as I can tell they do.

I will definitely be examining the testing results when they are returned, and in this manner the personal and the professional overlap for me since I have the training to make sense of test reports (which don’t make sense to many parents). This information can be useful to parents, teachers and schools, but test makers need to do more in the way of making test results meaningful for all.

I also plan to be very active in the school district to make sure that the standardized testing results are NOT used in a high stakes or inappropriate manner. Standardized test results have been used inappropriately in New Hampshire’s recent past as a result of NCLB, and continue to be used inappropriately in other states now (e.g. as a punitive measure for districts failing to meet AYP or as a measure of teaching quality – both so wrong). NH has a waiver from NCLB so these misuses are unacceptable. 

In short, my children will take the tests for now, because standardized tests are a useful tool when used appropriately, they are no-stakes for my children in New Hampshire, and I can parent my kids through the experience.

Focusing on the “OPT”

But, I have the option to change my mind and opt-out, and therein lies the sentiment that makes me a true geek for democracy and overjoys the social studies teacher still very much alive inside of me.

The Opt-Out movement is a movement, and as such has the power to get more parents involved in very important day-to-day educational decisions. It also has the added benefit of bringing the “public” back into “public education,” because people more so than ever before in recent history, seem to be paying attention to what’s going on in our nation’s schools.

So when the frenzy kicks back in again in the upcoming school year and people are debating who is opting in, who is opting out and who doesn’t really care one way or another… know there is at least one person in the nation who’s happy simply that people are recognizing there’s an “opt” in the discussion.

The children are watching and learning that civic participation in our nation’s schools is a democratic and meaningful act.

2014’s Best and Worst States for Teachers

Ask the Experts

Like any professional seeking an ideally balanced work situation and personal life, educators are no exception. Teachers must be able to make a reasonable living in order to meet the challenges of their positions. To propel the discussion, we asked a panel of experts to weigh in on teacher-related issues and offer advice to both job seekers and local policymakers.

Dianna Gahlsdorf Terrell
Assistant Professor of Education, Saint Anselm College

What are the biggest issues teachers face today?

Teachers are sometimes held solely responsible, and unfairly so, for the quality of education in America. If students don’t perform well internationally or nationally, within their state, their district or the school, Americans want to know where to put the blame, and it often falls on teachers. Of course to some extent the classroom teacher plays a significant role, but there is a host of other reasons for the uneven performance of American schools. So there seems to be a real undercurrent in the discourse that holds teachers accountable, and wants to evaluate a teacher’s quality on the “value” they add to students’ standardized tests scores in a single academic year. This is a considerable, and as I mentioned, rather unfair burden to bear for a novice teacher just entering the workforce.

Relatedly, the amount of support a new teacher receives in his or her job is extraordinarily variable. That is to say, some teachers get a great deal of support through induction and mentoring programs in their schools, while others are left to “sink or swim” with little to no support for improving their teaching skills. We know that the quality and quantity of support in the induction years plays a large part in terms of whether a teacher decides to stay in or leave the profession. With half of the teaching force leaving the profession in the first five years, attrition from the teaching career is a significant concern. So, a school’s mentoring and induction program merits a second look when a teacher is considering a job offer. They should ask the question, “Who will be my mentor and how will I be supported in my first year?”

Finally, I would say the variability in students’ “preparedness for school” – shorthand for the skills, knowledge and behavior students bring into a classroom – can be a real shock for teachers. A new teacher’s capacity to differentiate their instruction for an exceedingly diverse student body is a crucial skill for new teachers and an issue on the national stage just as much as it is at the district level.

How can local officials make their states more attractive to the best teachers?

Local officials should investigate whether new teachers and teachers transferring from other states are provided with the appropriate training and incentives to move to their district. This can be done easily by making sure local officials are current on state policies for certification, and making sure there is a clear link between teacher preparation programs’ expectations for their graduates, and state or district expectations for teacher credentialing.

An easy way to connect schools in a community with high quality novice teachers is to form relationships with particular teacher education programs in the area and to open classrooms of current teachers to pre-service teachers enrolled in those programs. Pre-service teachers can then be “trained up” within the culture of the specific school and gain a better sense of the school and community culture. Local districts that have learned how to do this enjoy the benefit of having “first pick” from a pool of qualified graduates. These are students who already have a great sense of the school and the broader community, and will require less in the way of orientation in their first year of teaching.

There also needs to be greater emphasis for teacher education programs to work with building leaders/principals in local schools to make sure teachers are being trained for the realities they will face in the classrooms in different districts and across states. Higher education institutions are trying to do this by creating networks of pre-service teacher education programs to be sure their programs are responsive to the needs of PK-12 schools, and state and local officials can support these initiatives by simply asking how they can make the “PK-20” alignment more seamless.

Another way to recruit high quality practicing teachers or career changing teachers into the community is to offer incentives like reduced costs to “tuition into” the district. In some cases, the strongest teachers live in a community outside the community that is trying to recruit them. With private schools, teachers are often offered a significantly discounted tuition rate. With public schools that allow people from other communities to “tuition in” to the school, it seems a good and simple budget-line investment would be to reduce the cost for the teacher to tuition his or her children into the school. When you have a high quality teacher who wants to bring his or her children into the district, reduced tuition costs are a win-win, as the school is showing an investment in the teacher and the teacher, with his or her children now in the districts’ schools, has the added investment of creating a better educational reality for his or her own children.

Are unions beneficial to teachers? What about to students?

Yes. Unions get a bad rap, but in some communities signing on with a union is a requirement of signing a contract with the district. In other words, if you’re not represented through the union the district will not extend you a contract. In my experience this is a good thing, because the union provides representation for novice teachers while they’re primarily focused on developing their practice.

In my second year of teaching, a student’s parents threatened to sue me and the district if I did not reexamine a grade I had issued to the student. You can imagine this is a terrifying predicament for a new teacher, but a reality in our highly litigious society. My union membership allowed me free access to counsel so I could continue to hold students accountable for the quality of their work, and to teach ambitiously knowing that, even without tenure, I would not be cast out to pasture when a true problem arose.

In the sense that unions protect ambitious teachers with high standards, unions are good for students. Of course, it makes a much better headline to show all of the unethical conduct that teacher unions appear to condone and even defend – and in those cases it’s clear that teachers unions aren’t always working in the best interests of students. What gets lost in that portrait of unions are the many teachers, like myself, who have tangible experiences that provide evidence of the fact that when unions support good teaching they’re also supporting student learning.

What tips can you offer young teachers looking for a place to settle?

The interests of a typical, young 20-something teacher are quite different from the interests of a family person, a veteran teacher or a career changer, so it’s difficult to offer advice to all of these different subpopulations entering a school as a teacher. The population with whom I have the greatest experience are the “young” teachers you reference in your prompt.

Most times, teachers are just looking for a job – this is true in particular certification areas like Elementary Education and secondary history and English teaching where the candidate pool exceeds job opportunities. In those cases, my best advice is just to find a classroom teaching job, and know you may be working in a community in which you do not see yourself long term. They also must understand that just because they’re in this position now, doesn’t mean they’re bound to that grade, school, district or even state long-term. Classroom teaching experience is preferred to non-experience, and they’ll be able to trumpet the skills they built in those initial years in their next job search. At that point, it’s more appropriate to be looking for a “place to settle.”

In any case, the best advice I have is that teachers should know that if the first job doesn’t feel like a “fit” that does not mean that the career is not a “fit.” They should understand that it may take some time before they find the right school community and culture – a place where they feel at home. Hopefully, that place will have a building principal or curriculum leader who has the development of his or her faculty at heart, and who can see the young teacher’s potential may not just be in the classroom, but could be with a different role within education. This speaks to an earlier response where I noted that a teacher looking for a job should ask the question, ““Who will be my mentor and how will I be supported in my first year?”I would add here “How will I be supported in my career?”

The preceding is an excerpt from an interview I did in 2014 with WalletHub. For the full story by Richie Bernando, WalletHub Contributor, including ratings of each state based on WalletHub’s methodology, please follow this link.

Teacher tracking: Higher ed group worried about proposed legislation

Proposed federal legislation that would track teachers and the institutions that educate them after graduation has the New Hampshire Institutions of Higher Education Network concerned about its implications — specifically, that it’s too difficult to implement and that it will discourage teachers from working with special-needs populations for fear that there won’t be enough evidence to prove the teachers are making progress.

Dr. Dianna Gahlsdorf Terrell, secretary of the IHE Network and professor of education at Saint Anselm College, said that on a federal level, there is increasing interest in teacher progress and regulating teacher education programs.
“They are being looked at in terms of, ‘how do we control what they are doing more?’” Terrell said.
The proposed legislation is still being drafted. It would see training institutes like Saint Anselm track teachers after graduation and into the classrooms by examining how their students perform, Terrell said.
“We’re not … equipped with the resources like that to track our graduates in their own classrooms,” she said. “It’s statistically sort of shady, the further and further you get out.”
Terrell likened it to Harvard Medical School having to track its graduates into their practices and measure them based on patient health status. Doctors who choose to work with cancer patients, for example, see a higher mortality rate in their caseloads. “It’s cumbersome for us to follow our teachers out of the classroom. It’s a stretch to say that everything that happens in the classroom is because of a teacher,” Terrell said, noting many other factors are at play.
She said it is even more statistically invalid to trace it back to the program in which the teacher was trained.
The federal government currently measures the quality of schools as a whole based on children’s scores on high-stakes standardized tests, like the Smarter Balanced test. The new legislation would put more of an emphasis on individual teachers — if a teacher doesn’t add value over the course of the year, the teacher’s quality will be called into question. “There are a lot of teachers who work with populations where it’s tough to move the needle,” Terrell said.
Terrell gave the example of the Head Start program, where it’s harder to gauge and show success on measures with standardized tests because of socioeconomic and learning challenges. “The implications [of the legislation] for teachers are [that] it’s not a good way of showing their quality. It’s going to dissuade people from working in populations with high needs,” Terrell said. “The ones that deal with the most at-risk kids are going to be the most at risk for not showing progress.”
The impact on institutions that statistically aren’t producing enough effective teachers could mean the loss of accreditation from the state and loss of Title I funds from the federal government.

As seen in the March 19, 2015 issue of the Hippo.