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Social Media Utilization in Discourse Coalitions: The Opt-Out Movement in Ohio

by Michael P. Evans, Andrew Saultz & Sue Winton - 2021

Background: While journalists claim social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been central to the growth of the opt-out movement, there is a lack of empirical research that examines its use by participants. We address this gap by highlighting findings related to the usage of social media by opt-out participants in Ohio.

Purpose: This study examines how the ideologically diverse participants in the Ohio opt-out movement utilized social media to support their activism.

Subjects: 183 Ohioans who opted their child(ren) out during the 2014–15 academic year completed a survey about their reasons for opting out. Fifteen of the survey respondents were also interviewed.

Research Design: This mixed methods study uses both survey data and qualitative interviews as sources of evidence.

Results: The findings show participants utilized social media for networking, knowledge acquisition, knowledge mobilization, and support. Social media was a valuable tool for coordinating the efforts of participants.

Conclusions: This study demonstrates how social media supported the development of a discourse coalition by enabling connections among actors with diverse political and philosophical beliefs and extending valuable networking opportunities across district and state lines.

Parent activism is a form of family engagement that has been on the rise over the past two decades (Evans, 2019; Fennimore, 2017). Persistent challenges in education, such as inadequate school funding and achievement gaps, combined with policies that are increasingly distanced from local control have motivated a growing number of families to take on the role of education activists (Warren, 2014). A recent example of parent activism is the growth of the opt-out movement as a response to high-stakes testing, the Common Core Standards, and other accountability-based policies. The opt-out movement refers to families refusing to allow their children to sit for standardized tests that serve as the centerpiece for current education policy reforms. In New York State in 2015, “at least 165,000 children, or one of every six eligible students, sat out at least one of the two standardized tests this year, more than double and possibly triple the number who did so in 2014” (Harris & Fessenden, 2015). Similar trends occurred in states across the country, with various political constituencies being organized by diverse advocacy groups such as the progressive United Opt Out National and more conservative FreedomWorks (Williams, 2014).

While there is evidence that diverse supporters of the opt-out movement have forged strong coalition ties (Wang, 2017), the priority motivations of participants are myriad, including dissatisfaction with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the increased role of the federal government in public education, the lack of accommodations for students with special needs, and a general dislike of the high-stakes testing culture (Pizmony-Levy & Green Saraisky, 2016). This diversity suggests that some participants may be strange bedfellows; in other words, participants do not share ideologies or the collective identities commonly found in social movements (Diani, 1992; Whittier, 2014). There are several examples of ideologically opposed stakeholders interacting on social issues like prison reform, environmentalism, antipornography, and same-sex marriage. Whittier (2014) refers to these examples as collaborative adversarial movements. However, opt-out participants, while often possessing ideological differences, have not been explicit in their opposition to one another’s agenda. Thus, we contend that participants in the opt-out movement are better understood as members of a discourse coalition.

According to Hajer (1997, 2006), discourse coalitions are made up of diverse policy actors who mobilize the same storylines in struggles over policy meanings. Storylines are brief statements that summarize and disguise complex narratives about what the world is and should be like (Hajer, 2006). Members of discourse coalitions do not necessarily know one another, share beliefs, or participate in policy change efforts in a coordinated way (Hajer, 1993). Yet, they assume they understand a social practice similarly and mobilize the same storylines in efforts to change policy. In the case of the opt-out movement, the shared storyline is that the current use of standardized tests has a negative impact on children. Hajer’s understanding of discourse coalitions differs from social movement theories that assume actors must have shared beliefs to come together and push for policy changes that serve common goals.

Research using national level data, including state to state participation rates, indicates that the opt-out movement is not a monolith (Pizmony-Levy & Green Saraisky, 2016). While Ohio is not among the states with the highest rates of opt-out participation, it does provide an interesting context for exploring this phenomenon given the state’s role as a bellwether in national politics (Rubin, 1997). Ohio is an example of how participants from diverse ideological backgrounds have converged in response to high-stakes testing policies. This convergence may in part be attributed to the use of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which has been central to the growth of the opt-out movement (Loewus, 2015); however, there is a lack of empirical research related to how social media specifically supports or enables education activism. In this article we address this gap by highlighting findings related to the usage of social media from our broader study that asked: “What are the motivations and interactions of opt-out participants in Ohio?” Specifically, we explore the following research question: “How do participants in a discourse coalition utilize social media?” This article contributes new knowledge regarding the use of social media in education activist efforts by offering insights on how the medium is used in discourse coalitions as opposed to social movements.



The opt-out movement is a powerful example of education activism and the impact that families can have on education policy. Much of the opt-out movement arose in response to frustration with the rise of accountability-based policies and the reduction of local control. For many opt-out participants, the development and implementation of the CCSS was a turning point for the growth of the movement (McDermott et al., 2014). The CCSS were developed by a group brought together by the National Governors Association in an effort to coordinate academic standards across states (McShane, 2014). The initial goal was to bring together people with subject area expertise to develop rigorous standards (Jochim & Lavery, 2015). The Obama Administration incentivized adoption of the CCSS through the Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers (Saultz et al., 2016). Adoption of the CCSS also required states to adopt new tests, which were structured around the new state standards (McShane, 2014).

Critics on the political right worried that the CCSS represented an expansion of the federal government in educational policy (Hess & McShane, 2015). While the initial efforts to establish the new standards were driven by governors, the U.S. Department of Education, under the leadership of Secretary Arne Duncan, publicly supported the new standards. As a result, many perceived this as a federal initiative (Hess & McShane, 2015). On the political left, many progressives worried about the increased amount of time required for students to take the new tests, the role of the testing companies in the assessments, and the continued shift to more test preparation (Jochim, 2015). The concerns on both the political left and right led to increased criticism of the federal government and of NCLB (Saultz et al., 2017). As states began implementing the CCSS, they faced more families and policymakers questioning the new standards, increased test time, and the expanded role of testing companies (McDonnell & Weatherford, 2013).

In a national sample of people who opted their children out of standardized tests, Pizmony-Levy and Green Saraisky (2016) found that families were concerned about the corporate role in education and the CCSS, that teachers were being evaluated based on students’ test scores, and that standardized tests took too much time away from instruction. Participating families believed that opting out was a way to both protect their children from a harmful educational environment and express their dissatisfaction with accountability policies in education. Opt-out activists understood that student participation is central to the success of accountability-based policies and that refusing to test is a powerful tool.

Of course, the opt-out movement is not without its critics. The federal government is heavily invested in the success of these policies, and some civil rights groups, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the National Council of La Raza, believe that testing is critical for ensuring that schools and districts are meeting the needs of all students (Wang, 2017). Given that opt-out movement participants are predominantly White and tend to be more affluent and well educated than the general public school population (Pizmony-Levy & Green Saraisky, 2016), some stakeholders worry that the needs of minority and low-income students may be overlooked if testing accountability is removed.

To date, there is a wide variation in opt-out participation rates across states (Pizmony-Levy & Green Saraisky, 2016). There are a number of contextual factors that influence participation rates, including state and local policies related to opting out, the presence of strong teacher unions, and organized leadership at the grassroots level. In 2015–2016, data pertaining to the scope of the opt-out movement in Ohio were not publicly available, so the research team collected this information via phone contact with district personnel (n = 436 or 71% of the districts in Ohio). These interactions were not interviews but direct attempts to collect information about opt-out participation. In addition, we looked at district-level data regarding diversity, socioeconomic status, and academic performance obtained via the Ohio Department of Education’s annual reports (Table 1).

Table 1. District-Level Opt-Out Sample Demographics







Opt-Out %










































Through these efforts, we found that opt-out participation was 2% of the total eligible test-taker population in Ohio. While the overall percentage of opt-out participants in Ohio is not as high as it is in some other states, we found that the majority of districts in the sample (83%) experienced at least one opt-out and 9% of the districts in our sample had more than 5% of their student population opt out of at least one high-stakes exam. The 5% threshold is important because NCLB required the participation of 95% of the eligible testing population. Within these high opt-out participation districts ( > 5%), and in contrast with media accounts that describe the opt-out movement as being predominantly based in suburban locales, we found that rural districts (49%) and small towns (29%) comprised the majority of the sample.


To take part in activist work, especially in activities that might be perceived as high risk, people must be highly motivated and feel supported (McAdam & Paulsen, 1993). According to Castells (2015), people are typically motivated by their emotions and when confronted by a perceived injustice they experience anger. He writes, “if many individuals feel humiliated, exploited, ignored or misrepresented, they are ready to transform their anger into action, as soon as they overcome their fear” (Castells, 2015, p. 15), and this is typically accomplished “by connecting with each other, by sharing outrage, by feeling togetherness, and by constructing alternative projects for themselves and for society at large” (Castells, 2015, p. 229). Also important for helping people overcome their fear is the knowledge that other people will be there to provide support. Today, this type of connectivity is in part facilitated by the Internet and its unprecedented large-scale horizontal network that allows for the development of autonomous communication and the sharing of counternarratives.

Initially the role of social media in activism was met with skepticism. Critics like Malcolm Gladwell (2010) questioned whether relationships could be forged that would be strong enough to allow for participation in high-risk activism. Others lamented the rise of “clicktivism,” a disparaging term used to describe superficial, fleeting, and low-impact online campaigns (Shulman, 2009). However, recent studies indicate that participation in social media is not a replacement for activism, but rather a powerful tool that can supplement activist efforts (Karpf, 2010).

Activists are increasingly using social media as a communication tool to coordinate collective action, share important information, and foster collaboration (Evans, 2013; Shirky, 2011). Activist networks typically include both on- and offline elements, and social media platforms like Twitter allow information to reach a broader and more diverse range of network participants (Gerbaudo, 2012; Grabowicz et al., 2012). The ability to share information beyond an individual’s immediate social circle is essential for the success of a social movement. Social media allows for the sharing of information that might not otherwise be covered by the mainstream media. The success of Black Lives Matter is one example of how social media can serve an unmet need by providing alternative sources of information and documentation (Bonilla & Rossa, 2015; Lau, 2017). For example, in the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, people were able to share images and counternarratives of the protests by using hashtags on Twitter. The use of hashtags allowed people all over the world to both find and share information beyond what was available through traditional news outlets. Castells (2015) notes how movements may start in a specific context or occupy a specific space, “but they are also global, because they are connected throughout the world, they learn from other experiences … they keep an ongoing global debate on the Internet, and sometimes they call for joint, global demonstrations in a network of local spaces in simultaneous time” (p. 223). This type of growth occurred with Black Lives Matter, and a similar pattern can be identified in the opt-out movement, albeit from the local to state and national level.

Recent research indicates that social media is an important tool for activists in the Internet age. Examples such as the Arab uprisings in 2010 and the Occupy movement demonstrate that social media tools can be used to scale up actions quickly. However, there are also indications that these movements are difficult to sustain because they typically have weak infrastructures (Juris, 2012; Tufekci, 2014). Within the world of education activism, the opt-out phenomenon is relatively unique in terms of its rapid growth and scope. Early research on the movement indicates that it serves as a rallying point for individuals with a broad array of concerns. The use of social media has clearly been an important factor in helping to spread information about opting out (Loewus, 2015). Well-known groups like the Badass Teachers Association and United Opt Out possess a strong social media presence with tens of thousands of followers, but there are also numerous local activists who are active on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

The existing research on social media usage in movements assumes the need for a high level of group identification for collective action (Lim, 2012). Consistent with research on social movements, social media is perceived as an important communication tool that can foster collective identity development (Gerbaudo & Treré, 2015). Of course, collective identities within movements are dynamic; however, we argue that elements of the opt-out movement in Ohio are more accurately described as discourse coalitions. This study extends the research on both education and digital activism by examining how ideologically diverse participants in a discourse coalition utilize social media to support their work.


This article uses data collected from a larger project focused on families in Ohio who participated in the opt-out movement. This mixed methods study utilizes a QUAN-QUAL sequential explanatory approach (Ivankova et al., 2006). This approach was used to gain insights regarding statewide trends in the opt-out movement and in-depth details related to the ground-level experiences of opt-out participants.


We surveyed 183 Ohioans who opted their child(ren) out during the 2014–15 academic year. The survey was created by our research team and is an adaption of the annual Gallup/PDK survey on national attitudes toward public education. Our survey included demographic questions, questions about perceptions of the opt-out movement (e.g., participation rates), views on educational policy areas (e.g., teacher evaluations, standardized testing, Common Core), views on school performance, and rationale for why the family opted out of testing (see Table 2). Since information on who opted out of testing is not publicly available, we used a snowball strategy with Ohio-based parent groups that supported the opt-out movement and used social media. While this sample strategy was not representative of the public, or even the opt-out movement, it did allow us to get information directly from families who opted out of testing. Unfortunately, this was the only way that we could connect with opt-out participants due to privacy concerns voiced by districts. We utilized Qualtrics software to allow the participants to complete the survey online. We recognize that 183 participants reflects a low response rate relative to the numbers of families who opted out in Ohio (2% of the student population), but we were limited in our ability to yield higher returns based on our distribution model.

Table 2. Individual Level Opt-Out Survey Demographics (n=183)



What is your gender?







What is your age?











Which of the following best represents your racial or ethnic heritage?


Non-Hispanic White


Black, Afro-Caribbean, or African American


Latino or Hispanic


Asian/ Pacific Islander


Native American or Alaskan Native







What is the highest level of education you have completed?


some high school


high school graduate


some college


college graduate


some postgraduate work



What was your approximate annual family income in 2014?


under $30,000










$200,000 or above



Thinking POLITICALLY and SOCIALLY, how would you describe your own general outlook?


very conservative


moderately conservative


neither conservative nor liberal


moderately liberal


very liberal



The descriptive analysis informed the development of an open-ended interview protocol that was used in the qualitative part of this study. In this phase, the researchers conducted 15 semistructured interviews with survey participants (see Table 4). The semistructured protocol focused on the areas of motivation, opt-out interactions, information gathering, additional opt-out activities, and future actions (Appendix A). We contacted all 83 survey respondents who expressed a willingness to participate in a follow-up interview and completed 15 one-hour interviews. The final qualitative sample had less representation of rural communities and was slightly more affluent and conservative than our overall survey sample (Table 3). All identifying information was removed and this paper uses pseudonyms for the participants.

Table 3. Demographics of Qualitative Interview Participants











College grad

Grade 5


Moderately liberal




College grad

Grade 7


Neither conservative nor liberal




College grad

Grade 2, 5, 7


Moderately conservative


Small Town



Grade 5, 7


Very conservative


Small Town


College grad

Grade 5
Grade 7


Neither conservative nor liberal




College grad

Grade 8


Moderately conservative




College grad

Grade 5, 7, 10


Neither conservative nor liberal





Grade 6

200K +

Moderately liberal




High school

Grade 5


Very liberal





Grade 7


Neither conservative nor liberal


Small Town


Some postgraduate

Grade 3


Very conservative




Some college

Grade 4, 5






College grad

Grade 8


Very conservative





Grade 5

200K +

Very liberal




College grad

Grade 4, 8

200K +

Moderately conservative

The qualitative data were transcribed and analyzed using the online research software Dedoose. Qualitative data analysis was an iterative process. Merriam (1998) describes this process as “making sense out of data … consolidating, reducing, and interpreting what people have said and what the researcher has seen and read—it is the process of making meaning” (p. 178). In Phase 1, two team members read the same three transcripts independently and identified excerpts that corresponded to themes drawn from the extant literature (e.g., opt-out actions, identity formation, motivations, knowledge construction, and communication). We placed excerpts in codes named for the themes. In Phase 2, we met to compare and discuss our coded data. This discussion enabled us to confirm that we understood the codes similarly. We then reread the three transcripts together to identify additional themes present in the data. We also identified and placed excerpts into codes named for these additional themes. Next, we independently coded 6 transcripts using the 26 codes we identified in the first two stages of the analysis process (see Appendix B). To address our research question on how social media is used within discourse coalitions, we focused on excerpts where social media overlapped with the themes from our broader study. Discussion of social media was present in all 15 of the interviews we conducted.



Our sample of opt-out participants in Ohio is generally more conservative than the national population of opt-out activists. In the national survey of opt-out participants, 43.8% identified as Democratic, 16.9% identified as Republican, 33.4% identified as Independent, and 5.9% selected Other Parties. In terms of political ideology, 45.8% were categorized as liberal, 34% described themselves as “Middle of the Road” and 20.2% were conservative (Pizmony-Levy & Green Saraisky, 2016). In contrast, in our sample of Ohio opt-out participants (n = 168), 49.4% identified as conservative, 26.8% identified as liberal, and 23.8% described themselves as “Neither conservative nor liberal” (see Table 2).

Table 4. What Factor Most Compelled Your Family to Choose to Opt Your Child out of Testing?



(n = 63)


(n = 28)

(n =40)

The increased role of the federal government in education




The Common Core




The amount of time my child spends in testing and test preparation




The narrowing of the curriculum




The anxiety these tests cause my child




The use of high-stakes test to evaluate teachers and schools




Our survey respondents were also motivated by a wide range of issues (see Table 4). Survey participants were asked what factor most compelled their families to choose to opt their child out of testing (n = 131). Across political affiliations, the amount of time dedicated to testing and test preparation emerged as a shared concern. Among conservative respondents, the role of the federal government in public education and concerns about the CCSS were also important issues. The motivations for more liberal respondents were more diffuse, with the second most common concern being the use of high-stakes testing for the evaluation of teachers and/or schools (30%), and a three-way tie between Common Core, the narrowing of the curriculum, and student anxiety related to testing, all cited by 12.5% of the sample. Respondents who identified as neither conservative nor liberal also had diffuse motivations, but were more likely than liberals to cite the increasing role of the federal government. For a complete list of descriptive statistics on our survey sample, see Table 2.


Our findings suggest that social media was an important tool for families who participated in the opt-out movement in Ohio. Beyond basic communication, participants indicated that they used social media in a variety of different ways, including networking, knowledge acquisition, knowledge mobilization, and support. These categories were not mutually exclusive but were closely related and informed by one another.


Social media provided a means for participants to interact with other opt-out parents and stakeholders outside of their immediate social circles. At the local level, this allowed parents in larger school districts to be aware of what was going on at other schools in the district. One participant drew the distinction between “coffee friends” and “Facebook friends.” Kate stated:

I'm Facebook friends with a lot of people that I might not see every day and our kids are all in different schools. I think there's a large group of people who might not be coffee friends, but they're Facebook friends. So at least you know what's going on at the school.

This is an example of what Granovetter (1973) calls weak ties. These are relationships that may be distant or have limited interaction, but they provide important access to novel information that bridges structural holes in an actor’s social network (Burt, 2005). The influence of weak ties was also reflected in the survey data. When individuals were asked where they got information about opting out, 78.4% reported using social media. Further, 67.66% of the respondents reported getting information from parents of other students in comparison to 55.09% who got information from friends. This suggests that opt-out parents needed to look beyond their immediate social circle for information regarding opting out (see Figure 1).


Figure 1. Where Survey Respondents Obtained Information About Opting Out

Beyond the local level, participants also reported that social media helped to extend their networks to the state and national levels. Interview participants discussed how they were connected with other communities around the state via Facebook and how they used these connections to share resources and information. In 2014–15 only 2% of Ohio students opted out of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment, and these students were distributed across a wide range of districts. As previously mentioned, 83% of the districts in Ohio had at least one student participate in opt-out. Only 10% of the districts had an opt-out rate of 5% or more. Thus, social media became an important tool for connecting this dispersed population.

Social networks also extended to the national level where respondents were connected to major groups like the Badass Teachers Association and United Opt Out. These groups provided additional resources and research about Common Core and high-stakes testing. Despite being at the national level, they were perceived as accessible because of social media. As Kathleen noted:

There are so many different people across the country that through social media you can quickly connect with … [One prominent national blogger] writes a post about education … about all kinds of things. You read what she has written, you type her a little message at the end and usually she’ll respond, they even take personal Facebook friend requests so I’m a friend of hers through Facebook.

Social network expansion was identified as a key benefit for the participants in our study. With regard to network composition, it is also worth noting that the participants described their networks as politically and philosophically diverse. In Ohio, where much of the organizing was taking place at the local level, participants described being exposed to numerous different opinions which sometimes contributed to internal tensions.

The tensions impacted how some participants interacted with other actors in their social media networks. Megan commented:

I tread lightly in these groups because of the political situation that exists. Generally, I will either say, “That article doesn’t hold a lot of weight with me. Here’s another article that makes some good points,” or I just let it go.

Other participants described how they were very cautious about how they participated in social media conversations. Anne discussed how she tried to only share indisputable facts as a result of the tensions that she observed on social media:

Our problem is we have all these parents, you say one thing, trying to be helpful, and it's amazing the backlash you can get. Like one thing that you think is going to clarify something they're saying, you can get 20 replies on it. … For me, it's just easier to not intervene unless I feel like I really need to fix a problem.

Despite occasional conflicts based on these differences, participants remained involved because of their commitment to the storylines that high-stakes testing was bad for public education. Jill described one online group in which there were lots of differing opinions, yet people managed to coexist:

People will post controversial items. Somebody might say I’m not giving that a lot of credibility because it’s based on a rant or the post might stand but there won’t be a ton of comments on it. There’s also a group who will all “like” the post. You can see those are the people who wear tinfoil hats. And there’s a group of people who just don’t even comment or dignify it with a response.

For the moment, the overarching shared interest in stopping high-stakes testing is enough to bind the network together. As Kate remarked, “It may be a very narrow patch of ground, but I think that there is common ground.”


One benefit of expanded social networks is that they provides access to additional information. As detailed in Figure 1, survey participants used social media to gain information about opting out. The interviewees confirmed this finding. They also discussed how they used social media to learn about other education issues. According to the participants, they appreciated how information was crowdsourced and curated on Facebook pages. Kate expressed her appreciation for the individuals who were “willing to get the information and make it easy for the rest of us who chose not to spend the time doing it.” Social media offers some efficiency, but there was also a recognition that the Internet was not always a reliable source of information. When participants were pressed on how they knew what information was legitimate, they did not describe a systematic vetting process, but relied instead on their personal instinct as to what was valid. One participant, Mary, described her process as follows:

I think there’s a sniff test. I look at the way an article’s written. If it’s laced with Obama bashing or claims that this curriculum comes from the Muslims, then I’m pretty sure that’s not a credible source. If it’s citing research studies or from a university, then I’m thinking that’s a reasonable source. I also want to listen to what people have to say from their experience. There were a couple of superintendents, one from Florida and one from New York … so I thought these are actually people that are implementing it, I should listen.

While the knowledge gained through social media had limitations, it was perceived as being valuable for two reasons. First, it was easy to access. Over half of the participants described their frustrations with finding information on the Ohio Department of Education website. Melissa described the site as a “rabbit hole.” She explained further, “The website is ridiculous. They never delete old posts, so you don’t know if what you’re reading is the most current thing.” Second, there were concerns that schools, districts, and the state would not provide a balanced portrayal of issues because test participation is linked to funding and teacher evaluations. Parents were told by schools that the new tests would help students and teachers, but participants saw little to no evidence of these benefits. As a result, these individuals began to seek out additional information sources online to supplement their knowledge.


Social media helped people transform the knowledge that they acquired into action. At its most basic level, social media allowed participants to coordinate recruitment and participation for events related to the opt-out movement. This included events like town halls and school board meetings. Social media was perceived as the most efficient way to spread the word about these events quickly and build community.

While the act of opting out is itself a form of expression, participants in the opt-out movement were active in other ways (see Figure 2). They shared their opinions on social media, talked to other families about opting out, contacted elected officials and signed petitions. Participants in the qualitative interviews described participating in town halls and rallies and traveling to Columbus to meet with state legislators.


Figure 2. In What Opt Out Movement Activities Have You Participated?

Social media helped participants turn research into concrete strategies for action. For example, when there was pending legislation participants could use Facebook groups to learn about the issue, determine which political stakeholders were important to contact, and access a template for a letter or phone script. These templates or scripts were typically created by a small group of individuals and then posted online for other people to adapt.

The majority of the participants talked about how social media was able to help with the opt-out process itself. There was frequently confusion on behalf of both school administrators and families about how to formally request that a child be opted out of the tests. The confusion resulted in some participants making their own process. Megan described one such situation:

Our community doesn’t have a process for opting out and their go-to is, “There is no law that says that you can opt-out!”, to which our go-to is, “There’s no law saying that we can’t!” With the help of others we created a refusal form which I posted on the forum. Now, I’m having people contact me. Some that I know, some that I don’t, asking, “Could you email this form? What do I do?”

Kathleen appreciated the formality of the sample letters; “They put up a refusal letter this year. It makes points about safe harbor legislation and there is a resolution at the bottom. I like those resolutions … it makes it look really official.” Castells (2015) writes that “the big bang of social movements starts with the transformation of emotion into action” (p. 13). Social media in the opt-out movement helped to harness caregivers’ emotion and then facilitated a process of channeling emotion into action by offering a supportive community and ideas about how to move forward.


Participants believed that there was a lot of fear and apprehension surrounding opting out and that the social media community became a source of support for individuals immersed in the opt-out process. These fears were not unfounded. In February of 2015 the state of Ohio had issued a guidance document to school leaders about how to respond to families who wanted to opt-out, including a discussion of potential negative consequences. At the district level there were reports of school administrators telling families that students who opted out might potentially miss out on extracurricular activities, risk placements in classes, fail to be promoted to the next grade, or be forced to sit silently during testing periods.

Families who experienced this sort of resistance or who were fearful of these consequences could turn to the online opt-out community for support. Kathleen described one facet of this support:

Different districts will handle opt-out refusals in different ways and sometimes parents will come back with a letter from the school that might say, “If you do not allow your child to be tested then they will not be moving on.” We post these letters, so there are people who continue to learn about what’s going on and to help people respond to these questions so when they (school administrators) say “Well you can’t do this or that and you can’t even opt-out” the families know what to do.

The online groups shared this information to combat what some participants perceived as a form of intimidation. According to the participants, the sharing of these stories helped to strengthen their resolve. Courtney commented about the tactics of some administrators stating, “It worked to some degree, but it was almost like the more they bullied and the stronger their efforts were, the more determined I was to point out to everybody I could, ‘No, this isn't what you think it is. It's misleading.’” As in community organizing, the activists sometimes benefited from instances of conflict with authority as it served to motivate people to action. Mary shared one such anecdote describing the following incident:

The support is definitely there. There was a parent just yesterday that was complaining that because her child was opted out that the child was not going to get to go to a dance. Everyone was getting tickets to a dance if they had a high score on the practice test, and they did well or whatever. Her and her husband wrote a very strongly worded letter to the principals and she complained about it and online we were all saying, "This is crazy." Turned out the next day, a bunch of parents called that school and complained and they changed it so all kids can go to the dance.

The creation of a supportive community is critical for the success of the opt-out movement. In order for most individuals to participate in activist efforts they require strong relationships that give them the confidence to act. Social media helps to facilitate this supportive community by connecting people and letting them know that they are not alone.


This study analyzes how participants in a discourse coalition utilized social media. The opt-out movement in Ohio is driven by a politically diverse group of families with an overarching concern about the impact that high-stakes testing policies are having on their children. From the perspective of these families, local school districts and government agencies have failed to provide an effective or compelling rationale for why an increase in testing is necessary. Social media utilization further reinforced and disseminated narratives about the negative impacts of these accountability-based policies. The storyline that high-stakes tests have a negative impact on children brought participants with diverse ideologies and motivations together. Social media provided opportunities for networking, acquiring new knowledge, mobilizing information, and receiving community support.

In contrast with activist activities in social movements where the participants share political ideologies, the opt-out families in Ohio possessed divergent beliefs. Research on the use of social media suggests that individuals typically create echo chambers, engaging primarily with like-minded people, on political topics such as elections or political speeches (Boutyline & Willer, 2017). However, social media interactions become more heterogeneous when focused on less political topics like the Super Bowl or during times of crisis like the Boston Marathon bombing (Barberá et al., 2015). Yet in the case of the opt-out movement in Ohio, we found evidence of interactions across political ideologies, and participants discussed negotiating these differences. Participants typically ignored or avoided discussing their ideological differences in social media spaces and prioritized the overarching shared storyline that high-stakes testing negatively impacts children (Hajer, 1993). Over time, if opt-out participants forge a more ideologically defined group identity, it may result in increased tensions as some individuals will likely resist losing control over how they are perceived as group affiliates (Rose, 2000).

In this study, social media provided participants with access to an expanded network of information sources. This was particularly important for the participants in our study because in comparison to states like New York and New Jersey, the opt-out movement in Ohio is relatively small. Wang (2017) describes the emergence of two large and distinct coalitions in support of the New York opt-out movement, one being led by teachers and one with parents at the forefront. In New York these groups managed to create coalitions by focusing on the shared policy solutions that emphasized inducements, rights, and power. In Ohio teachers played a less prominent role in the opt-out movement, so the majority of the organizing came directly from families. Social media provided access to new knowledge and support, resources that may have otherwise been more difficult to receive given that many opt-out participants in Ohio resided in rural districts where only a handful of families were involved. Political action as it relates to public education is not intuitive for most families (Evans, 2014), so the novel and practical information accessed via social media was highly valued by opt-out participants.


During an era in which the United States is deeply divided by political ideologies, and when stark examples of these divisions occur on social media platforms, the opt-out movement in Ohio suggests that social media can serve as a valuable tool for discourse coalitions. While social media may serve as an effective tool for bringing discourse members together around storylines, research is needed to understand its potential to change dominant societal discourses that provide the context for specific policy change efforts. It will be interesting to see how the opt-out movement in Ohio and at the national level evolves as more concrete policy solutions begin to emerge. For example, a reduction in the amount of time dedicated to testing, a proposed policy alternative, is unlikely to satisfy families who oppose the federal government’s role in public education. In fact, many states have already changed their statewide standardized tests since the initial Common Core implementation. Social media has the potential to serve as an effective mobilization tool for diverse education activists, but more research is needed to better understand its role in creating and sustaining policy change.

Our research also suggests that many education policy decision-makers would benefit from listening thoughtfully and responding to the concerns that are being raised by families in the opt-out movement. Creating multiple opportunities and modes of communication may help to restore some of the trust that has started to erode between schools and publics they serve. In particular, school leaders should view findings that opt-out families want to learn and share knowledge about opting out as a sign that they need to do more to engage families in discussions related to standardized testing.


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Interview Protocol

Number of children and grade level:
Describe when and why you first consider opting out?
What is your primary motivation for opting out of standardized testing?

Describe any worries or concerns that you had about opting out? What helped you to overcome these concerns?
Who did you speak as you went through the decision-making process?

Do opt-out families in your community interact and support one another? Can you provide examples?
Potential follow-up if necessary:
Please tell us about any conversations that occurred between yourself and school officials as you went through the opt-out process.
A. Supt.?
B. Principal?
C. Guidance?
D. Teacher?

What other sources of information do you consult while making your decision? What was the most impactful (influential) piece of information that you learned from these other sources?

In addition to opting out of standardized testing can you describe any other actions that you have taken in support of the opt-movement? (e.g., letters to elected officials, speak to other parents, etc.).

Next Steps:

What do you hope to accomplish through your decision to opt out?

What are your plans regarding opting out in the next academic year?
Have you considered explored other schooling options for your children (why or why not)?


Qualitative Data Coding Schema





Balancing Relationships/Identities


Confidence (Self-Efficacy)






Personal Resources



Local Actions


State Actions





Policy Framing


Public Discourse


School Response


Social Media



1. Emotional Support

2. Technical



Bad Assessment


Child Consent/Request


Culture of High-Stakes Testing




Lack of Transparency


Students Responses to Testing



Knowledge Confirming


Knowledge Creation


Knowledge Dissemination


Knowledge Gathering


Legitimacy (for advocacy purposes)

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 5, 2021, p. 1-26
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23678, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 4:07:12 AM

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About the Author
  • Michael P. Evans
    Miami University (Ohio)
    E-mail Author
    MICHAEL P. EVANS, Ph.D., is an associate professor of family, school, and community connections at Miami University (Ohio). Dr. Evans’s research is focused on grassroots approaches to family and community engagement.
  • Andrew Saultz
    Pacific University
    E-mail Author
    ANDREW SAULTZ, Ph.D., is an associate professor of educational policy and director of the education and leadership PhD Program at Pacific University. Dr. Saultz studies the politics of education, the intersection of education, health, and economic policy, and school segregation.
  • Sue Winton
    York University
    E-mail Author
    SUE WINTON, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the faculty of education at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Winton’s research examines policy influences and practices and their implications for critical democracy.
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