Sunday, October 16, 2011

Occupy DOE—Opt Out of High Stakes Testing

United Opt Out National is calling for the occupation of the federal Department of Education  next year, from March 30 to April 2, to bring an end to high stakes testing and corporate profiteering from public education. The movement encourages parents to use “opt out” rules (available in many school districts) to keep their children home when standardized tests are given.

Unlike the Occupy Wall Street movement, United Opt Out has a concrete list of demands. Furthermore, unlike the occupiers’ nebulous desire to “make the rich pay,” United Opt Out’s demands are relatively modest and could actually be achieved quickly with the right pressure by parents, students and teachers.

Some of their demands include
  • An end to high stakes testing and punitive policies (particularly when they punish students or influence teacher pay and job security)
  • An end to corporate interventions in public education and education policy
  • An end to corporate run for-profit charter schools that divert public funds away from public schools
  • Restoration of librarians to all schools and communities
  • Student-to-teacher ratio of 25 to one (or lower)
  • Increased nursing and on-site health services
  • Free daycare and preschool     
  • Fully funded arts and athletics programs

How Can Opt Out Win Its Demands?
The most effective way to end high stakes testing is if no (or very few) high stakes exams are given. Having students and their families opt out is one means to this end and this has been the emphasis of the Opt Out movement.  However, teachers could also refuse to participate. Considering how many fewer teachers than parents would need to be organized to achieve the goal of no (or few) tests given, this seems like a much more effective approach.

Of course teachers could face reprisals for insubordination and failing to do their job, which is one reason the unions have not backed this tactic. However, teachers risk reprisals for most job actions, including strikes, a risk they were once more willing to take over issues concerning student safety and wellbeing, pay and working conditions. Furthermore, when large enough numbers of teachers or any other group take a collective risk, it is much harder for the authorities to punish them. A few teachers refusing to give the test could easily be reprimanded or fired, but 80-90% of teachers doing this in a given district are unlikely to be fired, as it would be impossible to replace them all.

When one considers how devastating high stakes exams are to both students’ wellbeing and teachers’ working conditions, it would seem like an obvious cause worth fighting for and worth taking risks for. High stakes exams take away class time from content standards, critical thinking and real learning. Many schools and districts have replaced arts, music and even science with test preparation and reading and math support classes to help struggling students meet the demands of the tests. And despite this, increasing numbers of schools are still being deemed failures under NCLB.

Schools that have been deemed failures are under phenomenal pressure to improve test scores quickly. Consequently, teachers are saddled with reforms that require them to work longer and harder, without extra pay or any evidence that the reforms will solve the problem. At the same time, schools have been downsized due to budget cuts, forcing teachers to do even more to cover for the decreased staffing, often at lower pay.

High stakes testing is certainly not the only factor devastating teachers’ working conditions, but it is a significant one. And it is one that the teachers’ unions should be fighting through concrete and coherent job actions, like strikes or simply refusing to participate.

What Is The Connection Between Occupy Wall Street and High Stakes Testing?
The Opt Out movement has endorsed the Occupy Wall Street movement. They have called for an end to the Wall Street occupation of public education. While their website does not list specific influences of Wall Street on public education, there are ample examples (see here, here and here). Bottom line: Wall Street bankers, hedge fund managers and financial speculators have been investing heavily in private, for-profit charter schools, education management organizations (EMOs), and curriculum and textbook publishing.

However, like the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Opt Out movement has obscured the actual economic relations in this country, and the world, by focusing on Wall Street. Capitalists in general (not just Wall Street) have been attacking the public sector in part to weaken the last remaining stronghold of unionism (36% of public sector is unionized vs. 7% of the private sector, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics). This is another reason why the unions should be much more active in resisting high stakes testing.

Capitalists are not only interested in destroying the unions. They are also always on the lookout for untapped (or moderately tapped) sources of profits, which is exactly what the private sector is. Rather than the government monopolizing the public sector, capitalists want to control it and profit from it. The consumers (i.e., taxpayers) and their demand for public services are not going to go away. In fact, they are obligate consumers and the government could even coerce them to pay more in taxes, which would mean even greater potential profits for the private companies that run “public” sector enterprises.

High stakes testing and NCLB are part of the overall strategy to increase the profitability of public schools for private business. Schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress on their test scores for three or more years can be compelled to purchase tutoring services from private companies, convert to charter schools (that can be run by private, for-profit EMOs), and purchase canned curriculum from big publishing houses (see No Capitalist Left Behind). This does not even take into account the hugely profitably testing industry.

It also doesn’t take into account the numerous other ways that corporate profiteers are skimming off tax dollars from public education in order to turn huge profits. School cafeteria concessions, for instance, are dominated by a few large transnational corporations like Sodexo and Aramark. Seed, candy and tchotchke companies exploit student fundraising needs by offering overpriced, mass-produced junk that students can sell to parents, neighbors and teachers and keep a portion of the sales income for their clubs, bands or travel plans. Tech companies are selling districts millions of dollars’ worth of assessment, management and accountability software.

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