Students or State? The Conflicted Allegiances of Principals and the Opt Out Movementó A Brief History
by Katie Zahedi, Jamaal A. Bowman & Harry Leonardatos - 2021
This commentary is part of the special issue on the Opt-Out movement.
In 2011, disturbed by the New York State Education Departments use of student test scores to evaluate teachers, two high school principals, Sean Feeney and Carol Burris, drafted an open letter, An Open Letter Regarding New York States APPR Legislation, which critiqued New Yorks imposition of test-based accountability and was subsequently signed by one third of the principals in New York State (Feeney & Burris, 2011). This public critique of the new teacher evaluation predicted that the use of test scores to evaluate teachers would increase competition to unhealthy levels, spawn systemic stress for students and teachers, corrode needed levels of cooperation, and create an unhealthy relationship in which low-scoring students would become a perceived threat to the job security of the teacher. The state disregarded the articulated objections.
Unable to influence the New York State Education Department, eight principals wrote another open letter, An Open Letter to Parents of Children Throughout New York State Regarding Grade 38 Testing, addressed the parents of school children, exposing the oppressive state posture and warning parents of the anticipated negative impact of the assessments on students and schools (Burris, 2013). This was a unique document because principals, who were collectively unable to effectively challenge state decrees, acted on moral grounds to alert parents about the impact of standardization and excessive testing. This public critique of our state and national supervisors was the lone route of redress in a context that continued to mandate compliance with policies, without allowing democratic input from school leaders. The state assumed that imposing standards and testing for accountability could drive improvement and that democratically engaging educators in the process was not necessary. The State Education Departments reliance on forced compliance backfired, leading to refusal to take the tests in the opt-out movement.
Responsible for implementing mandates from the New York State Education Department (NYSED), principals are situated between the competing requirements to comply with education law and to protect the well-being and rights of students. School districts are subject to state directives but are also responsible for enacting the best educational practices. Some principals tried to advise the state but were unable to interrupt the flow of state mandates. The pursuit of constant measurement through tests combined with student learning objectives tied to formulas, proved a nonsensical process and yet has become normalized in schools. In an article published by Teachers College Record, two principals contended that racing to the top meant meaningless compliance with uniform test-based accountability measures that have no clear purpose in school improvement. Instead, these policies caused institutional stress that resulted in principals either becoming activists against the state, cynically going along with bad policies, or operating in unconvinced submission (Leonardatos & Zahedi, 2014).
The assumption that underlies the imposition of test-based accountability is that competitive achievement is worthwhile even if equity and student well-being are sacrificed. Jal Mehta describes the process of demanding accountability as devolving from Professionals above Politics to Results or Else (Mehta, 2013a, p. 111). The fact that school districts accepted this domination caused fear and fragmentation within the school culture(s) under their governance. Forceful policies issued with a results or else form of domination were not only unsuccessful, but detrimental. Principals had conflicted allegiance between the state mandates and best practice for students. These conditions within schools underlie the lack of confidence of thousands of families in the state assessments.
As mandated directives were issued, democratic sensibilities in schools were disregarded and trust in the NYSED weakened. Even so, many educators were afraid to speak up and so complied with directives that were clearly unworkable. Democratic assumptions were bluntly offended by orders for compliance bolstered by a range of threats from unfavorable public ratings to loss of funding. The distress in underfunded districts already struggling with structural classism and racism were immediately clear. Ensuing conditions had a calamitous impact on children of color, low-income families, special education students, and English language learners. The level of force used by the state caused stress, confusion, and cynicism among teachers and principals.
Under these undemocratic conditions, parents began to opt their students out of the New York State assessments. Principals and school districts responded to parental requests along a continuum that ranged from punishing children for opting out to allowing (and perhaps even encouraging) opting out. Operating within the reach of the punishing arm of the state, principals and school districts faced threats that low participation rates would identify their schools as ineffective, resulting in loss of district funding and negative evaluations. In this situation, they had to decide how to accommodate parents and students opting out. One vigorous critique that has been made against neoliberal education reforms is that they appear to seek accountability by measuring all kinds of issues, notably through tests, yet there appears to be almost nonexistent accountability for democracy (Carr & Thésée, 2018, p. 6).
Education policy in support of increased testing in New York was shaped by trends in global education reform. With no particular mandate for children, on a global level, the OECD spearheaded PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), which began to drive what some have called the emerging regime of global educational governance, driven more by concerns about expanding economic markets than by educational needs or wants (Meyer & Benavot, 2013; Sahlberg, 2011). Against the increasingly coercive use of PISA to test and rank international student performance, the OECD PISA Open Letter was written to the Director of PISA, Andreas Schleicher, and was eventually signed by hundreds of educators and scholars in the U.S. and worldwide (Meyer & Zahedi, 2014).
All public schools are faced with demands for reform, but underfunded schools, in need of more support, have instead been further burdened by expensive, unfunded state mandates. The principals open letter to the NYSED addressed the problems with standardization and the exacerbation of issues with democratic schooling and equity under standardization. Public schools thrive when diversity is met with the humanizing force of leaders who care for the equitable conditions of students. Harmfully reductive of all children, test-based accountability is more problematic when used to rate/assess children of particular demographics, e.g., English language learners, students of color, minorities, and economically disadvantaged.
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RttT) have been the trademarks in place throughout the escalation of test-based accountability. As foretold in the open letters, the role of principals in protecting the well-being of their schools has been deeply perturbed by the escalating stress levels of students, generalized disrespect for the teaching profession, and the interruption of stability and normalcy within schools in New York State. All these have contributed to public rejection in the form of opting out of assessments.
The attack on public schools was unexpectedly forceful, such that fear, anxiety, and a loss of hope were prevalent in schools. As policy was being reshaped by the neoliberal introduction of market forces into public schools, relentless demands for new accountability measures were sent in rapid-fire memos and dictates from NYSED. Each escalation led to unworkable conditions, and these policy distortions resulted in agitation and an erosion of democratic conditions in schools (Zahedi, 2016). The market logic tied to efficiency and measurability created distortions in education policy that play out in schools to the detriment of students and teachers. (Mehta, 2013b; Meyer & Benavot, 2013; Ravitch, 2013).
Schools are blamed, not only for the standard of education but for a totality of educational and life outcomes that have structural causes beyond the school. Jal Mehta discusses the history of U.S. education being vulnerable to market logic and political scapegoating, as a weak feminized field. Teachers are and historically have been a target of the male-dominated market and political realms, which shift the blame for socioeconomic problems on schools, while dodging accountability for their weighty share of responsibility for socioeconomic outcomes. Political and corporate collusion in scapegoating schools is not new:
The combination of the nations longstanding regard for business methods and, values and seeming perpetual crisis of quality in schooling, and the weak organization of the teaching profession has repeatedly resulted in the insertion of external logics that promise to rationalize the educational field. (Mehta, 2013b, p. 4)
All of the concerns indicated by the two cautionary open letters written by principals in New York were manifested in problems within the lived experience of New York schools. While test-based reports provide helpful snapshots of individual and collective performance, they are harmful if they are overused and decisions are made without substantive analysis. Meaningful judgments about students should never be reduced to numbers. Both principals and teachers were aware of the dangers of excessively competitive test-based accountability. Parents were also concerned and opted their children out of the tests in response. The need to temper competition with care for school culture and community-building is enjoined by educational theorists who recognize cooperation as a more appropriate and successful driver of change (Fullan, 2011).
The field of education is awash in data as a way to explain progress and outcomes, yet reductive, data-based decision-making about complex educational issues, including individual student performance, is problematic. Importantly, the concerns that educators and parents raised at the local level resulted in the movement to opt out of state assessments. The same concerns found in the Principals Letters in New York were raised at the global level in The OECD PISA letter. Heinz-Dieter Meyers conclusion about the emerging global governance regime applies, mutatis mutandis, to the overuse of assessment data in New York State:
The key is that useful quality monitoring requires both the context-sensitive judgments of peers and democratic accountability of the monitors. The emerging global accountability regime lacks both. (Meyer, 2016, p. 16)
Burris, C. (2013). An Open Letter to Parents of Children throughout New York State Regarding Grade 3-8 Testing. Retrieved from New York Principals: newyorkprincipals.org
Carr, P., & Thésée, G. (2018). Seeking democracy inside, and outside, of education: Re-conceptualizing perceptions and experiences related to democracy and education. Democracy & Education, 25(2), Article 4. https://democracyeducationjournal.org/home/vol25/iss2/4
Feeney, S. C., & Burris, C. C. (2011). An open letter regarding New York State's APPR legislation for the evaluation of teachers and principals. New York Principals. http://www.newyorkprincipals.org/appr-paper
Fullan, M. (2011). Choosing the wrong drivers for whole system reform [Seminar Series Paper No. 204]. Centre for Strategic Education. https://edsource.org/wp-content/uploads/old/Fullan-Wrong-Drivers11.pdf
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Mehta, J. (2013b). The penetration of technocratic reform logic into the educational field: Rationalizing schooling from the Progressives to the present. Teachers College Record, 115(5), 1-36.
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Meyer, H.-D., & Benavot, A. (Eds.). (2013). PISA, power, and policy: The emergence of global educational governance. Symposium Books. https://doi.org/10.15730/books.85
Meyer, H.-D., & Zahedi, K. (2014, May 5). Open letter to Andreas Schleicher. Global Policy. May 5, 2014. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1QdxG15Bh-60488BD1qY26eaLVO19TwL_/view?usp=sharing, Republished in the Guardian May 6, 2014.
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Zahedi, K. (2016). What is decency within the context of democracy and education? In P. Carr, P. L. Thomas, B. Porfilio, & J. Gorlewski (Eds.), Democracy and decency: What does education have to do with it? (pp. 320). Information Age Publishing.