Opting Out: The Issue is to Change the Direction of Education

One of the most significant outcomes of the Opt Out movement has been the transformation of individual acts of test refusal (a legitimate reaction to palpably harmful educational practices imposed by the state) into a social movement centered around empowering parents, students, educators and their communities. The Opt Out movement is a movement that says it is unacceptable to ignore the voices of parents, students, educators and community activists. It emerged as a response to the state refusing to head these voices. It emerged as a strategy to undue the marginalization that has been institutionalized. It emerged as a non-partisan effort and exemplified the idea of publicly coming together to form an opinion, giving rise to a collective will. This took place through public meetings, big and small, and building organizations across the state and the country. It emerged as a means to have a say. It emerged as a demand that public schools must serve the interests of those who attend and work in them, as well as the interests of the society as a whole.

The demand to have a say is not merely a response to the erosion of the inherited forms of democratic governance of public schools (“local control”) that has taken place over many decades.[1] The power of the Opt Out movement originates from the wisdom of collective experience: the key problem to solve, the problem underneath all the other problems, is the problem of decision making itself, that is, who sets the direction of our educational institutions? What purposes are they to serve ? If the purposes schools are directed to serve are wrongheaded, one does not begin by revising policy developed to serve those wrongheaded purposes. One begins by changing course.

If the purposes schools are directed to serve are wrongheaded, one does not begin by revising policy developed to serve those wrongheaded purposes. One begins by changing course.

Parents reacted to the stupid and confusing homework, inappropriate content, humiliating tests, irrational “benchmarks”, and the double-speak and threats of some administrators because these things symbolized that education was headed in the wrong direction and did not serve their children’s interests. It did not emerge because the state simply made a policy mistake. Put another way, the Opt Out movement has been decades in the making as parents, students and teachers have become increasingly upset by the direction education has been headed. The opposition to high-stakes testing is decades old. The opposition to narrowed curriculum is decades old. The opposition to privatization is decades old.[2]

Proponents of “reform” have mocked challenges to the corporate takeover of public education for offering no solutions. These critics of the testing, we are repeatedly told, are simply change averse, fearing accountability and innovation in equal measure. Editorials read as if unions cause global warming, and the achievement gap remains because we have failed to transfer public assets into the hands of edupreneurs fast enough.

These charges are of course not true. Educators and parents have many concrete solutions, which are consistently and dogmatically rejected by the high priests of reform. Current policy actually serves to erode trust in educators to advance the interests of their communities and society as a whole.

But what “reformers” mean by “solutions” is limited to technique, or policy: the etymology of policy suggests the notion of policing. So, if you don’t think standardized tests should count for 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, how about 20 percent? Maybe it should be 19.98 percent? Across the country such modifications are being introduced. While these changes are favorable to teachers and students, they do not effect or alter the direction education is being headed. This point is key. The questions these “reformers” want to debate, in this case, is how should the state police and punish teachers. They are afraid of the growing challenge to the purpose they are directing education to serve.

In a recent post, Carol Burris suggested a “sea change” has occurred with the appointment of a new Board of Regents Chancellor in New York State. Burris predicts that the new leadership “will push for much more than a ‘name change’ in the Common Core standards, and ensure that revisions are deep and real.” Is this a victory? Anything short of a complete rejection of the Core and all that comes with it cannot be properly considered a substantive change in direction because the Core is admittedly about “shifts” in both what is taught and how it is taught. Is the appointment of Betty Rosa welcome? Absolutely. Did this change occur because of Opt Out? Most likely. Is it a “sea change”? I don’t think so. Commissioner Elia, while softened, still points education in the same narrow, harmful direction, offering only what amount to policy tweaks.

Note how these “leaders” say it will take time to make the changes that have been demanded for years! Patience was nowhere to be found when reformers rushed to adopt the Core without review, when they insisted “reform can’t wait”. When it comes to the demands of parents or teachers, we’re always told to be patient. But when Wall Street speaks, or Gates opens his wallet, there’s no time for deliberation. We must act now! Opt Out’s power rests in its ability to withhold consent and push for new direction; it is premised on not settling for a “less” harmful set of policies that amount to a slow, rather than fast, death.

One might even argue that policy talk of “revisions” might serve to undermine the very thing that has been built in recent years: unwavering opposition to the Core regime en total. Why accept “revisions” to something that the movement and research has shown to be inherently flawed and undemocratic? The Core is so mired in political repression, thoughtless allegiance and corporate intrigue that it looks like an outline of a cheap dystopic novel one finds in the airport! The Core’s conception of “career and college ready” is fraudulent and its standard for determining readiness invalid and harmful. It is not a serious starting point for curriculum, pedagogy and assessment in the 21st century and should be rejected.

To take just one more example of how we need to keep our focus on direction, we are told Rosa will ensure that, “Testing will no longer be the sole measure of school quality.” (Susan Ohanian suggests we simply look to happiness to see how things are going.)

But what is the purpose of “measuring” the “quality” of schools in the first place? How does this agenda fit into larger social trends of major concern to everyone? One cannot evaluate proposals to determine school quality outside a discussion of the overall direction of education, the purposes it is being directed to serve. If these “measures” of school “quality” function to rank schools like football teams, to justify what schools are put on a receivership list, for example, then such “measures” should be rejected, no matter how nuanced the rubric, no matter how many “indicators” are used.[3]

If the purpose of education continues to be about transforming human beings into drones for “the workplace” or the military, we have not solved any problem.

If the purpose of education continues to be about transforming human beings into drones for “the workplace” or the military, we have not solved any problem. Allowing for “multiple measures” does nothing to address the real issue. A school that is good at serving the narrow demand of global competition will look quite different from a school that is good at preparing youth for democratic governance. “Good” can never be neutral — good for whom, good for what? It is an illusion that one can evaluate the skill and knowledge a student has obtained outside the purpose such skill and knowledge is to serve.

Thus, part of the strategic confusion of the “reformers” is to trap the movement against the corporate takeover of public education into narrow policy debate and away from organizing to change the direction of education, and the purposes it is to serve. So while of course the details of policy matter and should be analyzed and debated, they must be situated within the more fundamental discussion of what direction education should be headed and what means we have at our collective disposal to achieve that direction.


Flanders, L. (2016). The fight against high-stakes testing: a Civil Rights movement. Retrieved March 31, 2016, from http://www.truth-out.org/progressivepicks/item/29948-is-the-next-civil-rights-movement-against-high-stakes-tests
Garrison, M. J. (2013). The lawlessness of reform: RTTT, Common Core, and the radical restructuring of assessment governance. Retrieved December 4, 2013, from http://www.markgarrison.net/archives/2174
Garrison, M. J. (2015). The significance of receivership. Retrieved March 31, 2016, from http://www.markgarrison.net/archives/3220
Garrison, M. J. (2012). The Common Core “Standards” are the global competition warriors’ “product specifications.” Retrieved April 1, 2016, from http://www.markgarrison.net/archives/1159
Mehta, J. (2013). The allure of order: High hopes, dashed expectations, and the troubled quest to remake American schooling. New York: Oxford University Press.
Nichols, S. L., & Berliner, D. C. (2007). Collateral damage: how high-stakes testing corrupts America’s schools. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press.
Tyack, D. B., & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: a century of public school reform. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Ziebarth, T. (1999). The changing landscape of education governance. Denver: Education Commission of the States. Retrieved from http://www.markgarrison.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/THE-CHANGING-LANDSCAPE.pdf


  1. See ; for a now classic representation of how policy elites discuss limiting popular control, see .
  2. While many becoming active in the last few years might feel worn out, the Opt Out movement is an outgrowth of and originates in a much longer period of growing opposition to the direction education and society are being headed. Opt Out has been a great advance when examining things from the long view. Educators have long critiqued and opposed technocratic solutions connected to testing . Also see: .
  3. While much attention is paid to the Core and teacher evaluation, New York’s receivership law remains one of the most significant and harmful changes to governance, with executive power increasing and arbitrariness normalized .

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