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Portraits of Protest in Florida: How Opt-Out Makes the Personal Political


by Elizabeth Currin, Stephanie Schroeder & Todd McCardle - 2021

Background/Context: Opting out of high-stakes standardized tests, a phenomenon so widespread in the United States as to be regarded as a movement, is nevertheless a misunderstood and often maligned force in educational politics.

Purpose: This article offers a counternarrative of opt-out activism—a more thorough and vivid account of what we view as an unfairly maligned movement with tremendous potential for improving and preserving our nation’s schools.

Participants: In-depth portraits introduce three members of the Opt Out Florida Network: Cindy Hamilton, an unabashed leader whose children have graduated; Sandy Stenoff, her partner in protest whose children remain in the system; and Susan Bowles, who grapples with conflicting roles of pedagogue and protester.

Research Design: As a critical ethnography, this study uses a qualitative approach to expose and challenge the unjust treatment of the opt-out movement, guided by the following research questions: 1) How do opt-out activists understand and explain their journeys to activism? 2) What experiences, concerns, and commitments guide them in their daily fight against high-stakes standardized testing?

Data Collection and Analysis: Using transcript data from focus group and 1-on-1 follow-up phone interviews, the research team composed and analyzed narrative portraits, which offer models of resistance to neoliberal education reform.

Conclusions: Contrary to their portrayal as passive, anti-test, anti-accountability parents solely focused on their own children, the opt-out movement is an active community of highly informed individuals dedicated to effecting positive change in education. The nuance of narrative captures the messy realities of activism, illustrating how parents and teachers must work together, guided by a view of citizenship as shared fate, to fight for more equitable and educative schools.

Opting out of high-stakes standardized tests, a phenomenon so widespread in the United States as to be regarded as a movement (Brehm, 2017; Hairston, 2017; Heughins, 2015; Heverin, 2015; Kamenetz, 2015; Mattingly, 2015; Rosenfeld, 2016; Sundstrom, 2018; Wang, 2017), is nevertheless a misunderstood and often maligned force in educational politics. From Arne Duncan’s derision of “white suburban moms’” inflated views of their children’s abilities (Strauss, 2013) to the NAACP’s rejection of the movement (Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, 2015), opting out has been a controversial activity with unclear purpose and value.


Our prior experiences as public school teachers—which is to say high-stakes standardized test administrators—prompted our interest in the opt-out movement, and as qualitative researchers, we openly empathize with members’ critique of neoliberal education reform. When that critique is obscured, disparaged, or ignored, the movement cannot fruitfully advocate for more equitable and educative public schools. Thus, we have studied one of the movement’s hot spots—the Opt Out Florida Network (OOFN)—for five years, guided by the critical ethnographic principle that “how people are represented is how they are treated” (Madison, 2005, p. 4). In that time, we have showcased the OOFN in myriad ways: analyzing the group’s racial and gender dynamics (Currin et al., 2019; Schroeder et al., 2018), their informed critiques of high-stakes standardized testing and vision for a more democratic alternative (McCardle et al., 2018; Schroeder et al., 2020b), how the OOFN experienced the 2016 election and subsequent confirmation of Betsy DeVos (Schroeder et al., 2021), and the moral dilemmas parents and teachers face when acting against prescribed roles (Schroeder et al., 2020a).


Our qualitative focus on the OOFN supplements national, quantitative studies of the opt-out movement (Pizmony-Levy & Cosman, 2017; Pizmony-Levy & Green Saraisky, 2016), as well as other state-level explorations (Abraham et al., 2019; Wang, 2017). While we have previously demonstrated the breadth of the OOFN by examining the voices of leaders as well as over 200 parents, teachers, and community members, here, we take a deeper dive, using analytical portraits (Anderson, 2011) of three OOFN activists. Given our prolonged engagement with the OOFN and our transparent empathy with their cause, our participants have graciously permitted us to use their real names: Cindy Hamilton, an unabashed leader whose children have graduated; Sandy Stenoff, her partner in protest whose children remain in the system; and Susan Bowles, who grapples with conflicting roles of pedagogue and protester.


As we share their unique yet intersecting journeys from personal concern voiced at the dinner table to more public protest to committed involvement in educational politics, the purpose of this article is to provide a counternarrative of opt-out activism—a more thorough and vivid account of what we view as an unfairly maligned movement with tremendous potential for improving and preserving our nation’s schools. Inspired by Hagopian’s (2014) charge to “examine the conditions of public education and the effects of education reform” that would encourage “thousands of parents throughout the nation” to participate in the opt-out movement (p. 14), this article centers on the following research questions: 1) How do opt-out activists understand and explain their journeys to activism? 2) What experiences, concerns, and commitments guide them in their daily fight against high-stakes standardized testing?


Rubin et al. (2019) recently invited scholars to explore how “parents act individually in the interests of their own children and collectively on behalf of broader community or societal interests,” particularly in ways that elucidate parents’ understanding of the “private interests … that drive and benefit from the expansion of neoliberal policy” (p. 13). The portraits in this article readily answer this call. Despite differing routes to resistance, Cindy, Sandy, and Susan became critically conscious of their connectedness—and the entrenched interconnectedness of public education, educational corporations, and educational politics. Their portraits attest to the messy nature of grassroots resistance and, in turn, democratic citizenship, thus rectifying narrow and oversimplified accounts of the opt-out movement.


Reading these portraits of protest through a lens of citizenship as shared fate (Stitzlein, 2017) complicates commonplace critiques of the movement as self-serving or passive. Building on extant counternarratives of opting out (e.g., Abraham et al., 2019), we examine the experiences of two parent activists—Cindy and Sandy—alongside teacher activist Susan, which expands an empirical literature base dominated by portraits of teacher activists. Surfacing “the roots of this new civil rights movement to defend that students and teachers are more than a score” (Hagopian, 2014, p. 14), this article positions three unique voices of the OOFN as humble blades of grass bound together in powerful protest.


LITERATURE REVIEW


We begin with an overview of what we term the Opt-Out Master Narrative (OOMN), which conflicts with empirical literature on the opt-out movement in the U.S. Situating that scholarship within broader conversations about teacher and parental activism reveals how our approach can merge those fields.


THE OPT-OUT MASTER NARRATIVE


Media coverage of the opt-out movement has congealed into what we consider the Opt-Out Master Narrative—that of the “white suburban moms” who realized “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were” (Strauss, 2013). Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s infamous description of parental pushback to the Common Core State Standards has contributed to the dominant view of the movement as a homogeneous group of selfish moms who opt out flippantly, with no larger aim beyond protecting their children from failure. Pizmony-Levy and Cosman (2017), citing public opinion data from a national sample of more than 2,000 adults, found “more than a quarter of respondents (26.7%) suggested that parents take part in the movement because their children do not do well on standardized tests” (pp. 5–6). In short, Duncan’s story sticks.


This endurance of the OOMN both feeds and is fed by the media. Indeed, perhaps due to the movement’s gender and racial imbalance—85% of opt-out members nationwide are reported to be women, and 92% are reported to be white (Pizmony-Levy & Green Saraisky, 2016), mainstream media has not treated the movement kindly or accurately (Brehm, 2017). Opting out has been associated with a “coddling epidemic” driven by “misguided, misinformed” parents who are too involved and overprotective (Rosenfeld, 2016). Widely accused of being “anti-test” (Kamenetz, 2015), the movement actually opposes standardized tests’ high stakes or punitive consequences.


Despite that stance, teachers and educational organizations have contributed to the OOMN. One teacher referred to opting out as a “passive response” (Mattingly, 2015), downplaying the risky activism of parents and children. Another, echoing Rosenfeld’s (2016) coddling accusation, claimed the opt-out movement teaches students “if they do not like something or if it seems too difficult, then they do not have to do it” (Heughins, 2015). Beyond news bites and blog posts, official statements also undermine opt-out activists. For example, despite mutual opposition to over-testing and high stakes, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) disagreed with the movement’s focus on direct action, as opposed to engagement with policymakers (Heverin, 2015). Likewise, a representative of the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) suggested opting out “stalls innovation by inhibiting effective monitoring and improvement of programs” (Sevier, 2016). Compounding these critiques, the movement’s homogeneity invites assumptions that members are simply too privileged (Hairston, 2017) and thus fail to acknowledge the alleged value of standardized tests for marginalized groups (Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, 2015).


Confirming Madison’s (2005) warning about misrepresentation, the OOMN ultimately harms students. For example, a Florida First District Court of Appeal judge who struck down an earlier ruling in favor of an alternative route for fourth-grade student promotion evoked the OOMN by saying, “I just can’t fathom a parent going and telling little Johnny on their way to school, ‘I don’t want you to try today.’ That’s ridiculous” (Larrabee, 2017). Given the detrimental impact of misconstruing the movement, coupled with evidence that a sizable share of the public admits to little or no understanding of the movement’s aims (Pizmony-Levy & Cosman, 2017), we urge a deeper, more nuanced dive.


AN EMERGING OPT-OUT COUNTERNARRATIVE


Contrary to their portrayal as passive, anti-test, anti-accountability parents solely focused on their own children, the opt-out movement is an active community of highly informed individuals dedicated to effecting positive change in education. In Florida and elsewhere, they reject high-stakes testing, advocating instead for “multiple measures of authentic assessment that are used to inform instruction and which do not result in punitive consequences for students, teachers, and schools” (Opt Out Orlando, n.d.). In creed and in deed, the opt-out movement sharply contradicts the Master Narrative.


Underscoring that contradiction, the portraits in this article tell a more accurate story of the opt-out movement. Similar efforts are evident in the critical discourse analysis offered by Abraham et al. (2019), Wang’s (2017) discussion of the movement’s paradoxes, Smith’s (2018) attention to the movement’s civil disobedience, and Sundstrom’s (2018) rejection of a monolithic notion of opting out. Unlike pithy news bites or press releases, critical scholarship can tell a truer tale, while also furthering our understanding of educational activism.


EDUCATIONAL ACTIVISM


Scholars often distinguish between teacher activism and parent activism, which overlooks how parents, teachers, and parent-teachers collaborate within the opt-out movement.


Teacher activism, embodied by “educators who work for social justice both inside and outside of their classrooms” (Picower, 2012, p. 562), ranges from public strikes and protests to resistance at the classroom level or on social media (Albin-Clark, 2018; Dunn, 2018; Oyler, 2017). Studies of activist development suggest no one is simply born an activist: rather, activism stems from personally experienced or witnessed injustice (Andrews, 1991; Casey, 1993; Marshall & Anderson, 2009; Montaño et al., 2002; Teske, 1997). Consequently, scholars often turn to the nuance of narrative. Catone (2017) recommends “mining [activists’] biographical histories and trajectories of political development” (p. 130), a popular scholarly strategy (Collay, 2010; Kokka, 2018; Napolitan & Bowman, 2018; Weiner, 2013). However, despite frequent acknowledgment of activist coalitions, extant scholarship does not blend narratives of teacher and parent activists, a gap Pizmony-Levy and Cosman (2017) cite as especially striking in opt-out scholarship.


Historically, parental involvement in educational activism has centered on race, from white mothers’ actively resisting integration (McRae, 2018) to African-American parents’ advocating for desegregation (de Forest, 2008). Even today, Fennimore (2017) argues, “White middle-class culture” often rejects “the strengths and potential contributions of nondominant families” (p. 160), and parent activists with cultural capital (Horvat et al., 2003) may not act on behalf of all students (McGrath & Kuriloff, 1999; Posey-Maddox, 2013; Wells & Serna, 1996). Moreover, many teachers prefer “positive and deferential” parents (Lareau & Horvat, 1999, p. 37) and may not be amenable to parental activism (Stanley, 2015).


Given this complexity, Mitchell and Lizotte (2014) urge scholars to “critically evaluate the ‘roots’ in grassroots movements” (p. 66). However, despite strong and growing scholarship on teacher and parental activism, in-depth portrayals of parents and teachers working in tandem are rare. This article bridges that gulf, capturing the diverse dissent of the opt-out movement.


CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK


As explained below, counternarrative theory and the concept of citizenship as shared fate shaped our interpretive lens.


COUNTERNARRATIVES


Critical race theorists use counternarratives to “capture experiences which have been unaccounted for, dismissed, or obliterated” (Muñoz & Maldonado, 2012, p. 294). Though the technique originated to promote racial justice, Solórzano and Yosso (2002) endorse its use any time a dominant narrative “distorts and silences” (p. 29). Education researchers thus turn to counternarrative in the current climate of “market-driven hyper-accountability” (Henning et al., 2018, p. 22), when outsiders play an outsize role in schools’ stories. In the OOMN, powerful individuals—judges, journalists, federal officials, and organizations—overgeneralize and misconstrue the efforts of parents, teachers, and community members to band together for educational change.


To dispute that limited perspective, we present a fuller account of the OOFN “grounded in actual life experiences” (Patton & Catching, 2009, p. 716). Because stories themselves offer “personal entry points” (Brindley & Crocco, 2009, p. 6), counterstories serve as models of resistance. Thus, the portraits of protest in this article demonstrate how to engage in activism for and alongside fellow citizens.


CITIZENSHIP AS SHARED FATE


The OOMN, which narrowly conceives of the movement as dedicated to parents’ own children’s success and devoid of concern for the larger community, saddles members with a highly individualistic take on schooling, ironically ignoring their vocal antipathy for neoliberal education reform (Schroeder et al., 2018). Neoliberal conceptions of citizenship position education as a means of attaining individual success, couched in the larger purpose of preserving the nation’s global standing through standardized test performance. Whereas neoliberalism is “inherently dehumanizing” (Smith, 2018, p. 202), the portraits presented here emphatically suggest otherwise, illustrating citizenship as shared fate.


According to Stitzlein (2017), when citizens see themselves as “bound together,” they are more likely to “uphold democracy” and promote “future well-being” (pp. 182–183). This worldview requires optimism: those who view citizenship as shared fate believe “things can and do improve through our sincere effort” (p. 200). Citizens who acknowledge their shared fate also exhibit “dangerous citizenship,” marked by “intentional, critical action, behaviours designed to instigate human connection, true engagement with everyday life, meaningful experience, communication and change” (Ross, 2017). This concept, we argue, is a far more fitting description of the opt-out movement than the OOMN.


DATA AND METHODS


The insights in this article stem from data collected between 2015–2017 as part of two separate studies approved by the University of Florida Institutional Review Board (IRB201500409, IRB201700461). Per critical ethnography, we set out to observe potential participants over an extended period of time (Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007) by joining 10 OOFN Facebook groups named after counties and school districts statewide. Preliminary observations helped us create a survey and draft interview protocols, and our support for the OOFN earned the trust of gatekeepers (Krathwohl, 1993), who posted the link to our survey, which elicited 208 responses. Several respondents indicated their willingness to participate in a face-to-face or focus group interview. Subsequently, we conducted eight 1-on-1 phone interviews and two face-to-face focus group interviews, using a similar semistructured protocol (Merriam, 2009). In total, we interviewed 25 members of the OOFN, i.e., 12% of our survey respondents.


Initially, we wondered what led individuals to the opt-out movement and elicited the OOFN’s specific aims and broader vision for public education (McCardle et al., 2018; Schroeder et al., 2018, 2020b). From there, spurred by Facebook interactions during the contentious 2016 election cycle to revisit our findings, we contacted our original 25 interviewees, five of whom participated in 1-on-1 follow-up phone interviews. The findings of our follow-up study are reported elsewhere (Schroeder et al., 2021). Here, we focus on Cindy, Sandy, and Susan, looking across original and follow-up interview data with the following research questions in mind: 1) How do opt-out activists understand and explain their journeys to activism? 2) What experiences, concerns, and commitments guide them in their daily fight against high-stakes standardized testing?


Cindy and Sandy are parent activists who founded the OOFN, while Susan, a teacher activist, made national news for refusing to administer a state-mandated exam (Alvarez, 2014; Strauss, 2014). Consonant with our literature review, this intriguing combination enabled us to explore the unique and intersecting journeys of accidental activists: people who are not born activists but who become activated through everyday engagement. While an “elite stratum of society” currently determines how students are assessed (Hagopian, 2014, pp. 9–10) and consequently shapes the OOMN, we seek to amplify the marginalized and misrepresented voices of the OOFN.


Indeed, the goal of critical research is to move beyond understanding, so these portraits, which illustrate the OOFN’s collective efforts to remedy injustices they have witnessed and experienced, ultimately aim to improve such unjust conditions (Madison, 2005). As former K–12 teachers, we are familiar with oppressive educational policy and openly empathize with our participants. This transparency facilitated member checks, wherein we presented a draft manuscript to participants to ensure we had faithfully captured their perspectives (Merriam, 2009). As a resounding endorsement, all interviewees permitted us to use their real names.


Though Sandy rightly noted, “Everything we do and everything you referenced … is already a matter of public record,” reiterating her courage and conviction, we also view the absence of pseudonyms as indicative of the care and attention we devoted to these portraits of protest. As a means of shaping transcript data into meaningful and accessible narratives (Anderson, 2011), particularly so as to “avoid deficit tropes” (Brooks, 2017, p. 2240), portraiture is an analytical strategy closely aligned with our counternarrative aims. Indeed, Catone (2017) argues, “portraiture’s focus on an expansive search for goodness, as opposed to the diagnostic identification of pathology, takes on significant importance in an education reform context” (p. 19). Building on his application of portraiture to the phenomenon of teacher activism, we extend its use to parental activism, concurring that such a task is critical in the current zeitgeist.


Having coded our transcript data for prior manuscripts, composing the actual portraits was a fluid, organic process. One author took the lead, following the narrative technique of uniting participants’ own words with “intermediary story-like information” to guide readers while simultaneously keeping analytical memos (Chakraborty, 2017, p. 2967). The rest of the team annotated the portraits, and all authors discussed and refined their interpretations. Cognizant of the sometimes atomizing effect of portraiture (Freund, 2015), we intentionally looked across the portraits and invite readers to do the same.


As with any study, though, we cannot wholly prevent limitations. Our choice to highlight three particular women necessarily excludes other voices in the movement. Moreover, our use of analytical portraits bars us from universal knowledge claims about opt-out activists. Nevertheless, we stand by the affordances of portraiture to counter the OOMN.


PORTRAITS OF PROTEST


Sharing Smith’s (2018) opprobrium for the “inherently dehumanizing” nature of neoliberalism (p. 202), we offer the following portraits of protest to humanize three unique blades of grass jointly rooted in the grassroots opt-out movement.


CINDY: “I AM NOW WOKE.”


As a cofounder of the OOFN, Cindy served as a gatekeeper for our initial study, encouraging members of the 20+ Facebook groups under her purview to participate in our survey. We have witnessed, benefited from, and appreciated her leadership firsthand. Cindy proudly identifies as an “education activist,” though she recognizes people come to the opt-out movement for personal reasons, “because of how it impacts their own kids.” Her story followed this trajectory, too: “I could see my children were all really identifying themselves and their academic achievement with test scores instead of what they were actually learning. … They were getting little out of their public school education.” Opposed to this metrics-driven climate, Cindy took action.


Though her children are now adults, her activism continues: trying “to mobilize parents,” she explains, is a full-time job. She monitors Facebook groups daily, and increasingly so during testing season, which she tellingly calls “opt-out season.” In the movement’s early days, that meant spending “six to ten hours a day answering questions, making sure parents had the resources they needed.” As the OOFN has grown, the leadership has expanded to more than 60 administrators across the state, enabling Cindy to delegate. She explains, “the sustainability of a grassroots movement is all about raising up leaders.” In addition to fostering the movement’s human resources, Cindy has also been instrumental in creating guides for opting out, whether pinned Facebook posts, shareable files, or pamphlets distributed statewide.


Cindy’s self-described “daily grind” does involve some “hand-holding,” especially for parents of third graders. Though Cindy would like to see more parents opting out from kindergarten on, the statewide high stakes associated with third-grade promotion send copious converts her way, which necessitates answering “the same questions every year.” In these interactions, she strives “to encourage people to understand that this is a protest. It’s not about their special child who they don’t want to be subjected to testing; it’s about the bigger picture of stopping the high stakes.” That “bigger picture” is “not as simple as your school board being a bunch of assholes.” This is Cindy’s way—an unapologetically blunt desire “for people to understand the bigger picture, which really is that this is not just an education issue; it’s a social justice issue.”


While Cindy’s personal experience with the school system manifests in a political clarity she endeavors to spread, she recognizes the path to the opt-out movement is not always linear. Some parents, for example, “because their own kids are being hurt and they’ll do anything,” turn to vouchers or charter schools as a quick solution. Explaining the negative impact such measures have on public schools is, she reasons, “our biggest challenge.” Indeed, in our follow-up interview, Cindy raised a new concern: as reform trends like competency-based education (CBE) catch on, “there will be nothing left to opt out of except public education.” CBE means “everyone’s on a device of some kind, testing all day, all the time,” which enables opting out to be “co-opted.” The lack of public discussion about CBE frightens her most, indicating “they’re going to do it all behind closed doors.” Her experiences have taught her “if you don’t protest, you don’t get paid attention to,” yet she takes some comfort in this subterfuge as a sign that the OOFN “has created a sort of panic among the reformers.”


Reflecting on the OOFN’s efforts, Cindy beams, “as soon as you Google high-stakes testing or the [state assessment], we pop up.” Despite her concerns about CBE, she remains optimistic about increased web traffic and the emergence of new leaders, who share her skepticism of school choice:


Everybody doesn’t understand what is then going to happen to your local neighborhood school when everyone has a choice, because choice isn’t choice, and what happens to you when you’re in a charter school and the charter school fails? What happens when they refuse to offer services for your learning disabled child? … There’s a lot of things people don’t think about when they think choice is a wonderful thing.


Answering tough questions and enlightening fellow parents weighs on Cindy, who longs “to get people to understand the depth of the issues.” Cindy’s pride and vision are thus tempered by cynicism, a nagging awareness that “people don’t want to know the depth of the issues. They choose ignorance for the simple sales pitch, … and that’s a hard thing to reconcile and then try to figure out messaging that can get beyond that.”


Even so, Cindy focuses on “helping people understand the legislative process” and encouraging parents to question education policy. Above all, she strives to communicate “the value of a public protest” and the fact that “real protests, they are not pretty.” She empathizes with the instinct to “run like hell,” particularly for parents, like her, who have crossed the graduation finish line, yet Cindy avers, “I just don’t see myself as ever not caring about public education.” Having seen Cindy’s leadership in action, we can attest to her description of activism as a sort of “responsibility.” She explains what is at stake: “I am now woke. It took me a long time to get this awoken, and if I now turn it off, … if I ignore it, I think I have failed, as, you know, my purpose as a human being.” Cindy’s activism is at the core of her humanity, and that tenacity qualifies her to be an OOFN leader, but she admittedly cannot do it alone. Personal convictions demand collective political action.


SANDY: “IN OUR HANDS, INFORMATION IS POWER.”


Sandy is Cindy’s partner in protest: she, too, identifies as an “education activist” and even a “community organizer,” roles that, in her view, align with her primary occupation as a stay-at-home mom. The personal and political are intertwined in Sandy’s lived experience; she even paused in the middle of her most recent interview to take a call from her child’s school, explaining, “my daughter’s in the middle of opting out, and they don’t know if she’s supposed to log in and out of Session 2 and 3 if she’s already logged out of Session 1.” As both informed parent and concerned citizen, Sandy took care of the situation and clarified for the interview, “she’s logging in and out to protect the school.” Navigating these hurdles is part of opting out.


Unlike the others portrayed here, then, Sandy currently has a child in K–12. Whereas she is now in a position to inform her daughter’s school how to accommodate opting out, an experience with her son once left her feeling uninformed and powerless. When he happened to be sick on test day, he earned a score low enough to bar him from IB Biology. The draconian consequence stunned her, for “he had never been at risk, and he did not need to be in a remedial class,” yet administrators pointed to state mandates and claimed their hands were tied. This “revelation” spurred Sandy to act, not just at the local level, but all the way to the Florida Department of Education. Serving on a task force examining “ramifications of high-stakes testing,” Sandy contributed to a white paper that landed on the governor’s desk. When that effort ultimately failed, Sandy realized, “teachers were already silenced and it was going to be up to parents to do something.” With Cindy’s help, the OOFN was born.


That Sandy has a “relationship” with the Department of Education is truly remarkable, but she treats it as part of her duty as both parent and citizen. Parents, she reasons, are understandably “most concerned with their own children’s education,” while state officials are laser-focused on mandates, “and those two things are sometimes mutually exclusive.” Unafraid to bridge that divide, Sandy nevertheless acknowledges a shift in her reception in Tallahassee. Once treated to “reasonable responses, factual responses,” by 2016, “the brick wall went up, and there was pretty much radio silence all year long.” Undeterred, Sandy reassures herself, “they realize that in our hands, information is power … so we just have to go around them and get the information in other ways.”


Specifically, Sandy is interested in information that facilitates “opting out in a way that won’t harm students.” She admits, “kids have been harmed by opting out. … Even though we believe [third-grade retention] was against the law, it’s happened, and the kids were harmed.” Sensitive to the role young people play in achieving the movement’s aims, Sandy also recognizes the movement’s collective efforts to protect them:


We have a lot of really amazing parents. … Everybody is a volunteer. Nobody is compensated for this. People are up all hours of the night reading legislation … [and] trying to keep our eyes on what’s going on in Tallahassee.


Still, Sandy knows there are far too many who “have no idea.” But as a parent herself, she empathizes: “We’ve been there. Kids get home. ‘How was your day?’ ‘Fine.’ That’s it. End of story. Kids don’t want to talk about it. Parents don’t want to talk about it. Nobody’s got the energy to deal with it.”


Sandy, however, has energy in abundance, and she applies her resolve toward the trifecta crucial to the opt-out movement’s success: “effort, attention, and awareness.” She channels her activism in multiple directions, working with state and national advocacy groups—like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Fund Education Now, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Network for Public Education—and various media outlets, in addition to communicating with approximately 40 OOFN groups. She is also keen to point out teacher educators must acknowledge how “current systems of government and education policy run counter to what they’re teaching is good education practice.” Wondering “how future teachers can stand up to that,” she admits it is no small task: “How do you teach in a way that you know is meaningful for your students, effective, respectful, ethical? How do you do that in a system that doesn’t support that? I don’t know. I don’t know.”


That place of not knowing is uncomfortable for Sandy, who associates knowledge and power. She allows her discomfort to motivate her, and she remains optimistic: “I’m really hopeful when new parents come into the movement and are hungry and eager and passionate and angry. They need to be angry!” For Sandy, righteous indignation fuels opt-out activism, especially when born of a personal, parental concern and connected to broader civic aims. Sandy insists, “you know, by law [children] deserve that: they deserve a free and appropriate education. That’s what the law says.” She sympathizes with parents who are new to the movement and “seem so helpless,” yet she attributes her certainty and clarity of purpose to having “to dig and find out.” She insists, “Parents just need to be aware. I don’t think parents are fully aware of the extent to which their kids are being assessed beyond the teacher doing an assessment.” Simply telling the parents, she reasons, will not yield results.


Consequently, and also because of the encouraging growth of the OOFN, Sandy, like Cindy, reports “less hand-holding … walking [parents] through the opt-out process, because we just can’t do that on an individual basis anymore.” Instead, they rely on a network of deputy leaders, “who are amazing, who are very well informed,” and who draw on local knowledge of district politics to help parents “navigate … past the bully letters that are really just hot air.” Sandy is proud of “helping others to empower others,” a strategy she sees as instrumental to the movement’s growth.


As for the OOFN’s long-term prospects, Sandy wavers between hope that their “voice will become louder and clearer”—ideally through parent-teacher partnerships—and fear that the enemy is too great. Like Cindy, Sandy identifies multiple enemies—including charter schools, privatization, and CBE—and has largely given up hope for “common-sense legislation.” She trusts a consistent focus on “how [high-stakes testing] affects individual students and education in general, especially public education” will see the movement through. In other words, the personal and political must both play a part, which worries Sandy:


It still always surprises me that there are so many people who’ve never heard that you can opt out of the test, because it’s just part of what we do every day. It’s easy to assume that people just must be aware of this, but they’re not because the schools aren’t volunteering this information.


Even so, she blames parents “for not knowing,” a statement that might be shocking were it not from a fellow parent. In her hands, information is power, and she knows it.


SUSAN: “I DON’T WANT TO SAY ‘HOPELESS.’”


As a teacher in the movement, Susan differs from the others portrayed here. Indeed, we heard about Susan before our study was underway when her refusal to give kindergarteners what she considered a developmentally inappropriate assessment made national news (Alvarez, 2014; Strauss, 2014). The OOFN treats her brave resistance as canon, as when Sandy cited her to explain,


if a teacher has to speak out, there is a way that they can do it and be protected. They have to only speak to the facts. They have to be very public about this, so that, you know, you get public sentiment on your side, but they can only speak to the facts. They can’t inject their opinion into this. They can say, “in my professional opinion,” but they can’t say, “my personal opinion.”


While Susan might agree with Sandy’s description of her as “forthright” and conscientious, she would likely rebut her “protected” status. She is palpably aware of consequences, underscoring the extent of her courage.


At one time, she was “an ostrich,” avoiding both politics and conflict, “until I decided not to give that test, and then I realized I’m going to have to deal with legislators because that’s who’s making these stupid policies.” As with Cindy and Sandy, the personal became political. When she joined the movement, following her famous boycott, the OOFN


rallied to my support and they kind of brought into focus for me that this testing … was just a little piece of the problem. I was experiencing just a little piece of the problem in kindergarten, but it was just so much bigger than that.


This resonance fed Susan’s own “passion”—a word she uses again and again to describe her involvement with the opt-out movement.


Susan channels that passion into strategic activism, committed to staying “on the right track to try to make a change.” Allowing personal concerns to motivate political efforts, she focuses on her opposition to the developmentally inappropriate aspects of education policy, such as converting recess to computer-based test prep. This strikes at “the heart of kindergarten” and prevents teachers from “honor[ing] children for who they are and where they are in their development.” Susan admits, “I feel like I can speak to that better than anything else.” Indeed, she can:


The new standards are just too age inappropriate. We’re asking kids to do too much at too young an age … when they really should be gently easing into school. [Kindergarten is] supposed to be a transition year … but we’re asking a lot of the little five-year-olds.


Susan also cites testing’s troubling ties to budget cuts, particularly for populations with special needs. Policymakers, she maintains, “really don’t care much about the kids … the bottom line is the money.” As a veteran kindergarten teacher, she believes school should be “meaningful,” whereas high-stakes standardized testing is at odds with “what’s best for kids.”


These strong feelings motivate Susan to act: “I do make phone calls, and I do write letters, and I do sign petitions.” An “ostrich” no longer, Susan even overcame her polite avoidance of profanity to join the Badass Teachers Association. She admits, “I don’t like the name of it. … I’m a kindergarten teacher!” Still, she recognizes the power of online communities: sharing information, validating concerns, and generating ideas for resistance. For teachers like Susan, that may mean speaking out at faculty meetings and making others aware of impending legislation or modeling how to get in touch with legislators and professional associations. However, these efforts do not always yield immediate results.


Indeed, Susan aptly describes the current climate’s “demoralizing” and “disheartening” impact on educators:


I think I feel pretty discouraged, and I don’t want to say “hopeless,” but maybe powerless over making any difference. … We try to do things, and we try to talk to legislators, and you still get these wackadoodle bills … so it’s really frustrating that the politicians, the legislators, they just don’t seem to be understanding the realities of the classroom and really have much respect for teachers.


Susan has our respect, and we are inspired by her refusal to say “hopeless.” Opting out, she believes, has transformed her into “a better citizen,” and as a teacher activist, she shows students


You can have a voice. Whether or not it’s heard is another thing, but … the more people who use their voice, then the more power you have. … If you don’t speak up, you will never get change, so if you want change, you will have to do something.


Undeterred when the personal becomes political, Susan maintains, “You have to just keep hoping.”


DISCUSSION


These portraits, while unique, reveal instructive commonalities among activists in the OOFN. Countering the OOMN depiction of members as flippant and self-interested, Cindy, Sandy, and Susan shift from personal concern for their own children or students to more political and public advocacy. Just as Cindy shuddered to see her children “really identifying themselves … with test scores” and Sandy pointed to the “revelation” she underwent when her son was unjustly barred from an IB course, Susan supplied countless examples of her deeply personal concern for “the heart of kindergarten.” These women, as “dangerous citizens,” take anger and concern, combine it with knowledge and facts, and turn it into action, exhibiting a “praxis-inspired mindset” (Ross, 2017).


Crucially, their actions also demonstrate a sense of citizenship as shared fate (Stitzlein, 2017): Cindy emphasizes “raising up leaders” above and beyond meeting her own needs; Sandy articulates parents’ responsibility to speak out when “teachers [a]re already silenced”; and Susan describes her individual dilemma as but “a little piece of the problem.” Their involvement with the OOFN catalyzes this broader view, reminding them, as Cindy reminds us, “this is a social justice issue.” Moreover, Sandy’s efforts to forge coalitions with the ACLU, LULAC, and the NAACP attest to how she, like Cindy, sees “the bigger picture,” validating Brown and Stern’s (2018) claim that “mutual precarity” can be fruitful (p. 192). Making those connections is challenging, much like Susan’s realizing, “I’m going to have to deal with legislators.” Because opting out makes the personal political, neither Cindy nor Sandy nor Susan shies away from civic responsibilities.


Still, we must acknowledge the slightly defeated tone permeating these portraits, which speaks to the complexity of education activism. Cindy and Sandy’s frank assessments of CBE show how even when opting out is working, the neoliberal machine creates a new battle line. Likewise, Susan’s frustration with the incessant ratification of “wackadoodle bills” illustrates how engaging with policymakers must ever remain on the activist’s to-do list. While these darker shades in their otherwise vibrant portraits give us pause, we take comfort in their commonality, which indicates the presence of citizenship as shared fate. Moreover, the pathos of their portraits challenges their one-dimensional portrayals in the OOMN.


Beyond the portraits’ similarities, their differences also contradict the OOMN. For instance, despite the common misperception that opting out happens on a whim, Cindy and Sandy use extensive legal knowledge gleaned from time-consuming research to ensure an informed membership. Susan engages in the movement a bit differently, having stumbled upon the OOFN when her personal experience as a kindergarten teacher prompted her famous foray into activism. She is not as prolific a Facebook poster, but she consistently shares knowledge with colleagues and engages in traditional activism via phone calls, letters, and petitions. Whatever their style, in contrast to the OOMN, these women are far from flippant.


Moreover, these portraits contradict the notion that opt-out members are interested in protecting their own children to the exclusion of other goals. Cindy and Susan have no children in public school, and yet protest for the future of public schooling. Like Sandy, Cindy and Susan recognize the broader political implications of their deeply personal concerns.


CONCLUSION


Given our goal to counter the OOMN with a deeper dive into the movement and a more nuanced view of its members, it is fitting that each portrait exhibits tempered optimism. Like our participants, we, too, wonder whether the opt-out movement is effecting lasting and large-scale change, especially with the temptation to opt out of public school altogether, a path that prompted one of our original participants to decline a follow-up interview. As critical researchers, we also acknowledge the unjust status quo can be “sustained at a much more grass-roots level by our neighbors, school boards and even friends” (McRae, 2018).


Nevertheless, these portraits offer a nuanced view of three equity-oriented activists. Cindy explains, “if you don’t have a network of social justice activism in your personal life, you’re not going to get people to show up and hold signs.” Rather, by integrating personal and political concerns, we have to “wake up and be willing to do more than read Facebook posts. We have to join together.” As scholars, we are also citizens of shared fate and should join together to craft similar deep dives into the opt-out movement nationwide. What, for example, might we learn from the men in the movement? The members of color? How might nuanced views from state to state provide fresh insights? While national studies and large-scale online surveys paint helpful broad-brush portraits of the movement, fine-grained studies of individual activists provide necessary context for understanding the bigger picture. If, as Smith (2018) suggests, “grassroots movements are nourished by the tumult of their time” (p. 203), thoroughly documenting the stories and struggles of individual blades of grass can, like the portraits featured here, help us imagine how to join their efforts for more democratic and liberating public schools.


Hagopian (2014) claims, “Parents, students, educators, labor leaders, and activists will need to inspire an education revolution if we are going to defeat corporate education reform” (p. 27). Portraits of protest from across the country can provide tinder for that revolution and push back on inaccurate portrayals in the mainstream media. To subscribe to the OOMN is to dismiss these parents as ridiculous or selfish and to ignore the higher, civic purpose of their deeply personal and passionately political protest.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 5, 2021, p. 1-22
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23666, Date Accessed: 10/18/2021 1:24:17 AM

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About the Author
  • Elizabeth Currin
    University of South Carolina
    E-mail Author
    ELIZABETH CURRIN, Ph.D., is a teacher educator at the University of South Carolina. Her work with practitioner-scholars in the Curriculum Studies Ed.D. program aligns with her scholarly interest in teacher research, particularly in terms of how teachers’ stories both intersect with and challenge historical and popular culture narratives about education. The Journal of Practitioner Research recently featured her extensive review of teacher research literature, entitled “From Rigor to Vigor: The Past, Present, and Potential of Inquiry as Stance.”
  • Stephanie Schroeder
    Pennsylvania State University, University Park
    E-mail Author
    STEPHANIE SCHROEDER, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of social studies education at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park. Her research interests include elementary teacher education, democratic approaches to education, and elementary-level social studies. Specifically, her work focuses on the cultivation of civic agency in teachers and students, as well as the educative impacts of civic and political engagement, particularly in online spaces. A recently co-authored manuscript, “Expanding the Learning Network: How Teachers Use Pinterest” was published in the Journal of Research on Technology in Education.
  • Todd McCardle
    Eastern Kentucky University
    E-mail Author
    TODD MCCARDLE, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Eastern Kentucky University. His research interests include the roles of diversity and issues of social justice in public schools and teacher education programs, as reflected in a recent article in Education and Urban Society: “Race Tracks: Career Aspirations and Feelings of Isolation in the Mainstream Classroom.”
 
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