How to Make Sense of the Opt-Out Phenomenon

By 05/11/2015

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There’s been a lot of pontificating lately about how to interpret the opt-out movement and the message parents are trying to deliver. The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley believes that “soccer moms” are mad at Common Core. Jay Greene, channeled by Riley, blames the diminishment of parental control. Rick Hess fingers the reformers’ social justice agenda, which is at odds with the interests of middle class suburban parents.

These guesses are as good as anyone’s because the truth is: We don’t know. To my knowledge, nobody has surveyed a representative sample of the opt-outers; nobody knows for sure what’s motivating them. So let’s pause for a moment and examine what we do know. In other words, let’s establish the fact base.

1. A whole lot of parents in New York State opted out their kids of state exams this spring. According to New York State Allies for Public Education, almost 200,000 students did not take the tests; in several districts, that number was as high as 70 percent.
2. A handful of New Jersey districts also saw sky-high opt-out numbers, such as Montclair with 40 percent. But in the state as a whole, relatively few parents opted their kids out.
3. New York and New Jersey are among the few states where this year’s test scores might “count” in teacher evaluations.
4. New York and New Jersey are also the only two states (to my knowledge) where teachers’ unions put serious money into campaigns to encourage parents to opt out.
5. In the rest of the country, opt-outs have been exceedingly rare. In Louisiana, for example, less than 1 percent of those taking the tests have opted out.

The question, then, is what makes New York (and a few towns in New Jersey) different from the rest of the country?

Here’s where Jason’s argument falls apart: Common Core is almost everywhere. Soccer moms are found almost everywhere. Yet the rebellion he describes is limited to one specific area.

As for Jay, maybe the loss of parental control is a real issue, but why do parents in Montclair, for example, feel that their power is being usurped much more so than parents in other states? Again, it can’t be Common Core, or testing, or school accountability policies, because those are almost universal.

To Rick’s point, it certainly seems likely that many of the parents in New York and New Jersey who opted out belong to the political left. The opt-out movement didn’t recruit a conservative (even a New York conservative like Rudy Giuliani) to do robo-calls encouraging parents to pull their kids out of testing. They recruited Zephyr Teachout, an uber-progressive who lost to Andrew Cuomo in the recent Democratic gubernatorial primary. So when he writes about parents who don’t like the reform agenda around achievement gaps and addressing inequities in the distribution of teacher effectiveness, I’m not sure we’re talking about the same parents.

A better way to make sense of the fact pattern, in my opinion, is to see clearly the role of the teachers’ unions in New York and New Jersey. In these deep blue states, they were able to rally their allies, especially left-leaning parents, to make a statement. The unions, it is clear to me, are motivated by their antipathy to test-based teacher evaluations. (An enmity for which I have sympathy.) Why parents answered the call—and what message they are trying to send—is the known unknown. And whether unions in other states can achieve similar success rallying their allies is another important question that will be answered, one way or the other, in the spring of 2016.

– Michael J. Petrilli

This first appeared on Common Core Watch.

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