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Why Did They Protest? Stability and Change in the Opt-Out Movement, 2016–2018

by Oren Pizmony-Levy & Nancy Green Saraisky - 2021

Background/context: One of the most prominent educational social movements in the United States during the past two decades has been the opt-out movement, in which parents and caregivers refuse to have their school-aged children sit for federally mandated tests. Although early responses by government officials framed the movement in terms of race, class, and gender, in truth we know little about the actual motivations that drive opt-out activists. We also know little about the extent to which the movement was affected by recent seismic changes in the political and policy spheres (e.g., the election of Donald J. Trump and the collapse of the Common Core State Standards).

Purpose/objective: In this study, we build on social movements theories to examine who was opting out and why, as well as whether these participants or their motivations changed over time. By doing so, we seek to build upon the existing literature by synthesizing the two primary theoretical perspectives on social movements and activism – uniting the focus on the social psychological determinants of individual activism with the focus on the role of external factors.

Research design: Our analysis is based on data from two waves of the National Survey on Opting Out. The first survey was conducted from January 20 to March 31, 2016 (n=1,611); the second was conducted from March 7 to May 18, 2018 (n=1,298). The National Survey asked respondents to indicate the main reasons or motivations for their participation in the movement. With these data we use descriptive statistics and multivariate analysis to examine the extent to which participant motivations changed between 2016 and 2018. As part of this process we also examine the association between sociodemographic backgrounds and motivations.

Findings/results: The results of our analysis show both stability and change in the opt-out movement between 2016 and 2018. Although the data reveal certain sociodemographic changes in the composition of the movement, these changes in demographics do not fully account for shifts in activist motivations over time. We also find that much of the variation in motivation across key social categories (e.g., political ideology, teachers/nonteachers, and parents/nonparents) holds over time.

Conclusions/discussion: In contrast to common perceptions of the opt-out movement, which often portray parental concerns over their child’s achievement as the predominant motivation for participation, our study reveals that activists in the movement indicate they are motivated by political and ethical ideas. Participants in the opt-out movement are more concerned with collective problems, such as the well-being of teachers, broad curriculum, and privatization of public education, than with individual challenges. Given the massive changes that took place in the political and policy spheres during our period of study, the degree to which activist motivation stayed constant is notable – suggesting that many of these motivations are insulated from politics.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 5, 2021, p. 1-30
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23611, Date Accessed: 7/24/2021 4:35:58 PM

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About the Author
  • Oren Pizmony-Levy
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    OREN PIZMONY-LEVY, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University. He holds a Ph.D. in sociology and comparative and international education from Indiana University-Bloomington. His research and teaching focus on global educational movements (GEMs) and schools. One line of research examines the accountability movement and its role in the emergence of international assessments of student achievement (e.g., TIMSS, PIRLS, and PISA). Another line of research examines education activism in the United States and abroad.
  • Nancy Green Saraisky
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    NANCY GREEN SARAISKY, Ph.D., is a research associate and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University. She received her Ph.D. in political science and comparative education from Columbia University, where her studies were funded by the National Science Foundation. Recent projects focus on the relationship between data, politics, and policy as it relates to educational assessment, both domestically and internationally. She also researches education activism and the rhetoric of education policymaking.
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