Opt Out 2017: Refusing Education as a Police Power

The Opt Out movement is more important than ever. Why? There are several reasons. First, despite what the New York State Education Department (NYSED) is saying, and despite promises that the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will reduce testing demands, this year’s tests already have and will continue to negatively affect students, teachers, principals and parents in numerous ways. The tests still narrow how and what teachers teach, and what students are supposed to learn. Test results will be used to determine school status under the state’s receivership law. This will affect the fate of hundreds of schools across the state, including the possibility of school closure or conversion to a charter school. Further, as NY’s Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) still remains law, this year’s scores could be used to evaluate educators in subsequent years, when the moratorium on the use of test data to evaluate educators is ended.

The undemocratic and harmful Common Core standards remain, and annual testing remains a main vehicle for their imposition. NYSED has also indicated that it plans to require a statewide computer-based testing system. Among other things, this is a means to facilitate the collection and sharing of individually identifiable student data (recall inBloom). Schools continue to be pressured to teach to the test, and some teachers and administrators are pressuring parents to have their child(ren) take the tests.

All of this harms the quality of education and does nothing to solve the real problems that concern parents, educators, students and their communities. A summation of existing research suggests that test-based accountability systems do not serve to improve the quality of education; annual testing has not been demonstrated to help educators do a better job. Yet, state and federal authorities continue to pursue a direction that the vast majority of students, parents and educators have clearly opposed. Test refusal is an important means to block this undemocratic direction and for building public consensus regarding an alternative.

Testing as a Police Power

But there is something far more significant going on.  The particular form of contemporary testing and the particular manner in which it is now being used reveals and is consistent with much larger governance changes.

As has long been recognized by students, parents and educators, the essence of test-based education policy is not accountability but punishment. Punishment is about control, about regulation; the right to punish is a police power. The governance of education increasingly takes the form of policing. More and more, school is about compliance, and more and more, this compliance is organized via tests (and “data”) of some kind.

Tests are less about demonstrating what one knows, understands or is able to do, and more about enforcement of a particular future that no reasonable person accepts or wants. For example, few will argue that schools should narrowly focus on preparing students for “college and career” — parents have long desired an educational experience that is well-rounded, preparing their children not only for work and future study, but for a wide variety of adult roles and activities, including art, music, sports, etc. Much of the opposition to the Common Core originated in the fact that it portended a future for youth limited (at best for most) to being a robot temp worker in the global economy.

Let us be clear: the issue is not whether or not educators should use data to make decisions regarding what is taught and how teachers should go about their work. The issue is that “the data” (whether test score, attendance record, or a student’s “grit score”) has become a means by which students and educators are policed. (Scientists do not use data to punish the subject of their investigation.)

Federal and state policy on use of data is in fact bad science. For example, ESSA demands that states rank their schools on the basis of data such as test scores, attendance, and teacher absenteeism. Mass confusion has been created by NYSED and others who render the issue as one of which indicators are most valid for ranking purposes. Yet, ranking is not nor can it ever be a form of measurement; ranking schools is both fraudulent and harmful no matter what indicators are used (e.g., some are proposing “opportunity to learn” metrics).[1]

All this is a means to block students, parents, educators and community members from having a say and having an active role. This point is made very clear by the data-advocacy of the notorious consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Data and algorithms, they say, should replace human decision making.

Data as Behavior Enforcement

At nearly every turn, “the data” is not used to shed light on a situation, but rather to impose a view of the world consistent with the “reformers’ vision” (e.g., educators should ignore racism and poverty and instead focus on “achievement gaps” and “growth mindsets”). This “data” constitutes the stimulus to which educators are told they must respond. Those who do “what the data tells them” are promised (but frequently do not receive) rewards; those who do not comply face punishment and humiliation.

In other words, the “data” connected with all the testing — benchmarks, formative tests, end of course tests, state tests, nationally normed tests, common core aligned or not — is not about providing information. We are to be data managed, not data informed (a point recently admitted by an editorial in the Buffalo News which proclaims that you “can’t manage what you can’t measure”). In fact, the above pattern now applies to many spheres of life: credit card points and credit scores; health records and the various incentive schemes of insurance companies; the use of social media to regulate conduct. (And the metrics for each scheme are suspect.) All of these are forms of policing, and they are done outside the bounds of publicly legitimated law or public oversight. These are non-public means for regulating behavior.

Because “data” is not a person, emphasis on “the data” masks who in fact is behind all the policing by way of the data. Data appears as neutral and unconnected to forms of power. This hides the fact that more and more of education is being governed by private entities (e.g., technology monopolies) and various executive authorities outside the public sphere and thus unaccountable to the public. The practices now imposed on schools do not emerge from laws legitimated on the basis of public opinion. Public opinion has long been opposed to the test and punish regime. Police power, it should be noted, is not legitimated on the basis of public opinion, as is law. Police power exists to protect the state.

The Next Phase of Opt Out

Already in the works are initiatives to move from annual testing to continuous testing via various digital online platforms (e.g., Chromebooks, iPads). The advocates of “personalized learning” and “competency based education” (all rooted in B. F. Skinner’s radical behaviorism and ideas about “teaching machines”) are poised to “transform” education via online courses, “flipped classrooms,” and data “badges,” motivating students with “scholar dollars” via online dashboards. Their goal is for all students to be connected to a device, all the time (see the push for “one-to-one” initiatives subsidized by public dollars).[2].

Various technology and entertainment monopolies (including Pearson and Disney), venture capitalists and even some major teachers’ unions have signed on to this plan. These plans reduce the role of teacher to data watcher and data responder, where curriculum, homework, essay grades, etc., are assigned by the computer. For advocates of “personalized learning” education is characterized by constant and continuous data collection and manipulation — every keystroke, every mouse click is used by the computer to regulate teacher and student behavior. ESSA promotes “personalized learning” and the digital takeover of schools.

Opt Out needs to be ready. These powerful “reform” advocates are happy to end the discredited and “one size fits all” testing regime. They are happy to end one-time, high stakes tests. Their rhetoric is emancipatory and seductive, and they have vast resources to push their agenda. It is key that everyone carefully examine the “personalized learning” movement. It is the data they want as it is their means of control. For Opt Out, test refusal will become data refusal.

The standard that the Opt Out movement should use to gauge its own progress in bringing about change is the degree to which students, parents, educators and the public have created alternative visions to those of so-called reformers, working out mechanisms for public deliberation, participation and democratic control of education with equal membership and rights for all.


  1. See this, as well as my piece on “Metric Morality.”
  2. See this, this, as well as this

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