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The Opt-Out Movement and the Reform Agenda in U.S. Schools

by Oren Pizmony-Levy , Bob Lingard & David Hursh - 2021

In this editorial, the authors situate the opt-out movement in the broader context of resistance to the global educational reform movement and its specific playing out in the USA in relation to the opt-out movement. The editors review the 11 articles and commentary and discuss the contributions of the collection as a whole to the literature. They note the contribution of the special issue to the literature on the application of social movement theory to educational politics and the literature on resistance to the global education reform movement.


Test-based accountability is now the cornerstone of education governance in the United States and in many countries around the globe (Anagnostopoulos et al., 2013; Darling-Hammond et al., 2014; Lingard et al., 2017; Ranson, 2003; Suspitsyna, 2010; Webb, 2011). This trend is evident in the ever-increasing number of educational systems and economies that participate in Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and other international large-scale assessments (Eriksson et al., 2019; Lingard & Sellar, 2016; Pizmony-Levy, 2013). Through comparison and ranking, these assessments facilitate policy borrowing and learning between education systems (Pizmony-Levy & Torney-Purta, 2018; Steiner-Khamsi & Waldow, 2012, 2018). A more recent manifestation of test-based accountability is the growing reliance on national assessments of what students know and can do in various subject areas (Benavot & Tanner, 2008; Kamens & Benavot, 2011; Lingard, Thompson, & Sellar, 2016). Indeed, many nations have introduced national testing as a complement to international large-scale assessments (Kamens, 2013).

The introduction of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in the early 2000s signaled a dramatic shift in the use of standardized tests in the United States (and abroad). Previous efforts, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), had relied on a sample of students at Grades 4, 8, and 12. NCLB required states to test all students each year from Grades 3 through 8 in mathematics and English language arts and then once more in high school. This move from sample to census testing has had significant effects on schooling. Further, NCLB required states who received Title I funding to participate in state NAEP at grades 4 and 8 every two years. The introduction of the Race to the Top (RTTT) grant by the United States Department of Education in 2009 furthered this shift. RTTT encouraged states to join one or more of the new assessment consortia that were developing assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards in mathematics and English language arts that had been agreed to by most state governors. RTTT also supported policymakers interested in measuring teacher effectiveness using student standardized testing. In other words, RTTT encouraged the use of data from standardized tests to measure how much academic growth students experience over the course of the school year, with these measures informing teachers professional development, compensation and benefits, and tenure. RTTT also required the creation of data infrastructures to make multiple data sets interoperable and useful for the management of schooling systems. There was edu-business involvement in the creation of such infrastructures, which raised a number of issues around data security and privacy.

Scholars have situated test-based accountability in the broad context of changes in the workings of the state, in public policy and education reform movements. Stephen J. Ball and his colleagues, for example, argue that test-based accountability is part of efforts to apply private-sector discourses and practices to the public services, such as education (Ball, 2017; Gewirtz & Ball, 2000). Often called New Public Management (NPM), these efforts rely on privatization, choice, competition, and accountability to address educational problems. At its core, NPM reflects the changing nature of governance in which policies are often made not through a democratic process in which citizens can influence their representatives, but by a variety of powerful actors, including edu-businesses, at the center of epistemic policy networks (Ball, 2012, 2015; Hursh, 2016; Lingard et al., 2016; Meyer & Benavot, 2013; Rizvi & Lingard, 2011; Verger et al., 2016). The restructurings arising from NPM saw an enhanced significance of data and the steering of schooling systems at a distance through data, including student test data.

Sahlberg (2011) posits that test-based accountability is part of a global education reform movement (GERM) which, it has been argued, is the globalization of an Anglo-American mode of educational accountability (Lingard & Lewis, 2016). A product of the broader neoliberal agenda in education, GERM includes the creation of school markets and competition between schools, the introduction of private-sector management practices in schools and systems, and the introduction of new modes of educational governance linked to the restructured state. GERM also emphasizes literacy, numeracy, and standardized testing in both their usage for various accountability purposes and policy steering. To date, scholars have examined the impact of test-based accountability on education policy (Nichols & Berliner, 2007; Ranson, 2003; Sellar, 2015; Webb, 2011), public discourse about and public opinion towards education (Baroutsis, 2016; Pizmony-Levy, 2017, 2018; Pizmony-Levy & Bjorklund, 2018; Pons, 2012). While the past decade has seen a steep rise in scholarly interest in and research about neoliberal education reforms, attention to emerging resistance to these reforms has been scarce. Tett & Hamiltons (2019) edited collection, Resisting Neoliberalism in Education, and Riddle & Apples (2019) collection, Re-Imagining Education for Democracy, are notable exceptions here.

To fill this gap in the literature, the authors of this special issue of Teachers College Record examine the opt-out movement in the United States. The opt-out movement brings together educators, parents and community members to challenge test-based accountability because of its perceived effects on the quality of the schooling provided, and the perceived abuse of educational authority by state and federal governments (Hursh et al., 2020). The movement came to national prominence in 2015 when 20% of New York State public school students did not sit for the annual state standardized tests. However, protests were not limited to New York State. Within the United States, there has been an uptick in opting out observed in 11 other states: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Maine, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin (Ujifusa, 2016). Outside the United States, there are indications of growing dissatisfaction about national standardized tests. In Australia, for example, the state-based teacher unions and the federal body, the Australian Education Union, have led opposition to NAPLAN (the National Assessment ProgramLiteracy and Numeracy), which tests all Australian students at Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 in all schools (government, Catholic, independent) in May each year. This opposition has led to a number of reviews of NAPLAN, one of which is currently underway. In Israel, parents in several localities have boycotted the national standardized tests for primary and middle schools in Israel, known as Meitzav (a Hebrew acronym for Growth and Effectiveness Measures for Schools). The National Forum of Parents Associations called on the Ministry of Education to suspend and revise the Meitzav.

Although the enthusiasm has declined, the opt-out movement continues to gain attention from parents, teachers, policymakers, and scholars alike. One way to gauge interest in the movement is to track Google searches for information about opt out and related terms. Figure 1 illustrates this trend from 2004 through 2019, with peaks in the spring when standardized tests take place. A large number of searches of opt-out related terms are evident since 2013, with the highest peak in the spring of 2015.

Figure 1. Trends in Google search of key terms “opt out” and “state test,” 20042019


Note: Data for Figure 1 come from Google Trends. Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for the United States between January 1, 2004 and December 31, 2019. A score of 100 is the peak popularity for the term, whereas a score of zero means the term was less than 1% as popular as the peak.

Analysis of media coverage of the opt-out movement from January 2010 to January 2016 in the national newspapers The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today showed that there were 59 stories on opt-out in that period, 40% published from 20112014, 50% in 2015, and 9% in 2016 (Chheda, 2017). Of those quoted in these stories, 24% were parents, 10% were teachers, and 29% were policymakers. Most of these stories supported the opt-out movement. Most of the stories referenced opt-out in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, with some references to opt-out in 33 other states and in the District of Columbia.


The special issue includes 11 original articles and an additional commentary about the role of principals in the opt-out movement (Zahedi et al., current issue). Taken together, the articles provide a more holistic view of the opt-out movement in the United States, whereas much of the literature has focused on opt-out in New York State (see Hursh et al., 2020). This is one of the main contributions of the collection as a whole.

One way to read this collection of articles is by level of analysis and location; this is the order in which the articles appear. The first two articles examine the opt-out movement on a national level (Wilson et al., current issue; Pizmony-Levy & Green Saraisky, current issue). The next five articles and the commentary focus on the opt-out movement in New York State (Chen et al., current issue; Rivera-McCutchen, current issue; Wang, current issue; Paquin Morel, current issue; Casalaspi, current issue; Zahedi et al., current issue). The number of articles dedicated to New York State reflects scholarly interest in the context where the opt-out movement was most successful in terms of mobilizing parents. The final four articles each focus on the opt-out movement in a specific state (Evans et al., current issue [Ohio]; Currin et al., current issue [Florida]; Szolwicz, current issue [Arizona]; Supovitz, current issue [New Jersey]).

Another way to read this collection is through the lens of theory. The articles in this collection offer multiple perspectives on the opt-out movement. Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of the articles situate the opt-out movement within social movement theory (Casalaspi, current issue; Chen et al., current issue; Evans et al., current issue; Paquin Morel, current issue; Pizmony-Levy & Green Saraisky, current issue; Wilson et al., current issue). These articles contribute to the small but growing interest in social movements in the field of education. These articles also deal with how new technologies, especially social media, have become important to successful social movements in the twenty-first century, demonstrating the democratic potential of such media. Richard Paquin Morel (current issue) draws on the extensive literature exploring the cultural process of framing (e.g., Benford & Snow, 2000), and David Casalaspi (current issue) uses literature exploring the consequences of social movements (e.g., McAdam & Boudet, 2012). Two articles apply organization/policy theory to the case of the opt-out movement: Yinying Wang engages the advocacy coalition framework (e.g., Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith, 1993), and Jonathan A. Supovitz utilizes integrative implementation theory (e.g., Matland, 1995). The remaining articles rely on diverse theoretical frameworks, including critical race theory (Rivera-McCutchen, current issue), counternarrative theory (Currin et al., current issue), and political spectacle framework (Szolowicz, current issue).

The articles in this special issue use a diverse set of research methodologies to address different aspects of the opt-out movement. The authors have approached their work with traditional quantitative methodology (surveys and multivariate analysis) and qualitative methodologies (interviews, focus groups, critical ethnography, discourse analysis, and content analysis). Authors have generated data using the most cutting-edge tools, including social network analysis of press releases and documents (Wang, current issue) and clustering of frames used in Facebook pages of opt-out groups (Paquin Morel, current issue). Taken together, the articles demonstrate the importance of combining research methodologies and different theoretical perspectives to understand complex social phenomena such as the opt-out movement.


What we see with the opt-out movement is a grassroots social movement that has utilized social media very effectively (Evans et al., current issue; Paquin Morel, current issue). As opposed to the controlling, surveillance-oriented usage of social media (Zuboff, 2019), what we see with the opt-out movement instead is its grassroots, democratic potential. The website of NYS Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), for example, provides a manifesto for grassroots organizing that gives emphasis to local activism and the significance of social media to such activism.

The cases represented in this special issue also demonstrate the significance of the local administration of schooling in the United States (Supovitz, current issue; Szolowicz, current issue). This has enabled the growth of the grassroots, local effectiveness of the opt-out movement (e.g., Long Island Opt-out, where in some counties opt-out has exceeded 50% of students). There have of course been broader coalitions of these local groups at the state and national levels (Chen et al., current issue; Green Saraisky & Pizmony-Levy, 2020; Wang, current issue). It should be said, though, that much of the agenda that the opt-out movement has been responding to had its gestation in federal changes to schooling policy, from NCLB through to RTTT, treated above, and the demand for the development of interoperable data infrastructures to manage data as a way to steer schooling systems. Under the Trump presidency, this federal involvement has been more focused on privatizations of various kinds, including the expansion of vouchers and charter schools, with a seemingly weakened focus on the testing regimes.

While the opt-out movement has been predominantly progressive and liberal in political orientation, it has also involved Republican voters. The latter were opposed to high-stakes testing because of its apparent denial of states rights and unwanted impact on the local administration of schooling (Pizmony-Levy & Green Saraisky, current issue). This reflects the way in which historically schooling and democracy have been conjoined in the United States. The perhaps uneasy coalition between Democratic and Republican voters in the opt-out movement has been seriously challenged by the Trump presidency. The effectiveness to date of the opt-out movement has resulted from its tight focus on the damage caused by high-stakes testing and from its structuring as a non-party-aligned coalition. The more activist element of the movement, though, has always had a broader political agenda (Chen et al., current issue). It is interesting that the grassroots social movement manifesto on the NYSAPE website notes the necessity of the movement in New York State being politically nonpartisan. The Trump presidency has to some extent challenged the likelihood of such nonpartisanship.

The corporate reform agenda in schooling (Hursh, 2016; Verger et al., 2016), which includes census high-stakes testing and complementary top-down, test-based mode of educational accountability, seeks to constitute parents and community members as simply consumers of schooling in a quasi-market. What the opt-out movement very clearly signifies is the desire of parents and community to be active citizens, rather than simply consumers of schooling. What we see at one level, then, is resistance to neoliberalism in education and its potential undoing of the demos and citizenship (Brown, 2015; Hursh et al., 2019; Tett & Hamilton, 2019). Broader opposition and resistance potentially divide the membership of the opt-out movement, while also providing a source of coherence as a political project around citizen activism. The act of opting out of the high-stakes tests and challenging affiliated policies was in one sense about opting in as active citizens.

The articles also demonstrate, then, that the opt-out movement was not only opposed to high-stakes testing and the accountability regime linked to this, including its use for teacher accountability and career progression. Rather, there has been broader opposition to the corporate reform agenda in which high-stakes testing and related top-down models of accountability have been linked (Hursh, 2016). Additionally, there has been concern about the impact of high-stakes testing on the breadth of the curriculum provided. The largely middle-class membership of the movement (Pizmony-Levy & Green Saraisky, current issue) were critical of the testing as it reduced the breadth of the curriculum and the quality of the curriculum experience.

The more activist membership of opt-out was also concerned about the privatized data infrastructures created in response to President Obamas RTTT and subsequent Every Child Succeeds Act. There were deep concerns about data privacy and potential onselling by the edu-businesses involved to third parties for profit (Lingard, 2019). The move to online curricula and pedagogy and assessment in some schooling systems has also become increasingly concerning to parts of the opt-out movement.

Reference has been made to the middle-class character of the membership of opt-out and, this is documented in all articles in this special issue. The question of race is also significant here and is dealt with in the articles by Rosa Rivera-McCutchen (current issue) and Terri S. Wilson et al. (current issue). The highly gendered nature of the movement is also commented on in a number of articles (Currin et al., current issue; Szolwicz, current issue). Several of the articles also document the paths to activism of many of these highly educated women in relation to opt-out in various parts of the United States.

About half of the membership of opt-out is teachers (Pizmony-Levy & Green Saraisky, 2016). This is interesting and reflects the ambivalence, particularly during the Obama presidency, of the teacher union movement to the RTTT reform agenda, including testing and accountability, which the president sold as a new civil rights movement aimed at improving opportunities and the quality of schooling for the Black population. It is also important to note that the movement worked closely with teachers and used their expertise to mount the arguments opposed to high-stakes testing. It is interesting that the manifesto for a grassroots social movement outlined on the NYSAPE website makes the point that no teacher bashing is allowed (NYSAPE, 2021).

Earlier we noted the local character and focus of the opt-out movement. Differences here are significant. For example, in Arizona the local focus was on the local control of schooling and parental privacy rights (Szolwicz, current issue). As already noted, though, the move to high-stakes testing was a result of federal initiatives in education. The states were required to respond to and implement this agenda to be eligible for federal funding. To be fully effective politically, the opt-out movement needs to complement its effective local focus with broader targeted political work at state and federal levels. However, and as already noted, under President Trump federal involvement has focused more on further privatization of schooling rather than on high-stakes testing. It might also be the case, as argued by David Casalaspi (current issue), that the movement has been clear about what it is opposed to, even though there are narrower and broader agendas here with impact on the political membership of the movement, but not as clear about what it stands for. There is a clear need, then, for the articulation of a positive political agenda, that is, one which articulates what the movement is opposed to, but also, and importantly, what the movement stands for. Casalaspi also raises the question of what the opt-out movement has actually achieved in his contribution to the special issue (see here Hursh et al., 2019, pp. 9799).


This special issue provides a collection of quality recent scholarship on the opt-out movement in the United States. Perhaps more research is required to document the mid- and long-term impact and success of the movement in ever-changing political contextslocal, state, national and indeed global. The warning from the U.S. Department of Education in 2015 that states with high rates of opting out would face possible federal funding sanctions is indicative, though, that the movement has succeeded to a certain extent. A 2017 public survey showed that two thirds of Americans had heard about the movement, but only one fifth had heard a fair amount or a lot about it (Pizmony-Levy & Cosman, 2017). More than half of those surveyed noted that they understood what the movement was about well or very well. Three in ten Americans supported the movement, while almost half opposed it. These figures represent the successes of the movement, but also suggest that more work is required to increase the effectiveness of opt out and its broader policy impact on education in the United States. Furthermore, these data are possibly another manifestation of how divided the United States is on many matters of contemporary public policy concern. These divisions are not only about substantive policy matters, but also about the appropriate involvement of various levels of government (federal, state, local) in schooling policy development and enactment in the federal political structure. The articles also demonstrate the necessity of the opt-out movement working to be more inclusive of Americas diverse populations rather than remaining a white middle-class movement. The development of a positive agenda by the movement would be useful in that respect.

The articles together provide insights into contemporary grassroots social movements that utilize social media. There has been limited education policy research to date that uses social movement theory. We have noted how the GERM has seen high-stakes testing and test-based modes of accountability introduced in many nations across the globe. As such, the articles, while providing most useful insights for activists in the space of education policy in the United States, also provide insights for activists elsewhere. The articles also demonstrate how formal political structures carry real significance for effective political activism. The centrality of localism in U.S. schooling has been evident in the success of the opt-out movement. In contrast, for example, in the Australian federal political structure where schooling is the Constitutional responsibility of the states and territories, political activism has been much more focused on the centralized state and federal sites of policy making, as there is very limited local involvement in schooling.

As alluded to, the political contexts of the activism evident in the opt-out movement continue to morph and change. The move from the Obama to the Trump presidency with different schooling agendas is a good case in point with impact on the targets of the movement and capacity to mobilize particularly in a nonpartisan way. The COVID-19 pandemic has also had impact. This is particularly evident in the strengthened place of the new technologies and edtech businesses in providing schooling for students at home. In New York State, Governor Cuomo has appointed a committee to review the possibilities postpandemic of a new mode of school delivery framed by/in the interests of the edtech companies. There are real implications here for the broader agenda of the opt-out movement as taken up by the progressive arm of its membership that always had a bigger agenda than just high-stakes testing. The pandemic has also had very real impact on high-stakes testing. In Australia, for example, the national census test on literacy and numeracy taken by all students was suspended for 2020. This has offered a space to evaluate the importance of teacher judgments and assessments. At the same time, the pandemic has also opened up further possibilities for the corporate reform agenda in schooling and for online, computer-adaptive testing. There is still much work for the opt-out movement at the very moment its coherence and strength appear to be weakening.



We would like to thank most sincerely colleagues around the globe who provided detailed reviews and feedback on all manuscripts considered for this special issue. We extend our appreciation to reviewers for their efforts, expertise and generosity: Monisha Bajaj, Aspa Baroutsis, Lesley Bartlet, Joe Digrazia, Sonya Douglass Horsford, Nancy Green Saraisky, Joe Henderson, Jeff Henig, Luis Huerta, Nicholas Limerick, Kalervo Gulson, Aaron Pallas, Fabio Rojas, Carolyn Spreen, Greg Vass, and Jennifer Watling Neal. Thank you!


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 5, 2021, p. 1-15
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23658, Date Accessed: 3/2/2022 2:23:23 PM

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About the Author
  • Oren Pizmony-Levy
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    OREN PIZMONY-LEVY, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University. Trained as a sociologist, his research focuses on global educational movements (GEMs) and schools. One line of research examines the rise of international large-scale assessments of student achievement (e.g., TIMSS and PISA) and public response to this movement. Currently, he co-leads a research-practice partnership with the New York City Department of Education to investigate and inform environmental and sustainability education in public schools.
  • Bob Lingard
    University of Queensland
    E-mail Author
    BOB LINGARD, Ph.D., is a professorial fellow in the Institute for Learning Sciences & Teacher Education at Australian Catholic University and an Emeritus Professor at the University of Queensland. He has published widely in the sociology of education and his most recent books include Globalisation and Education (Routledge, 2021) and Globalizing Educational Accountabilities (Routledge, 2016). He is the editor of the Routledge Book Series Key Ideas and Education, a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, and a former President of the Australian Association for Research in Education.
  • David Hursh
    University of Rochester
    E-mail Author
    DAVID HURSH, Ph.D., is a professor of education at the Warner School of Education, University of Rochester. Over the last two decades, most of his research and writing has focused on how neoliberalism, by emphasizing markets, competition, and quantification, has undermined quality teaching and learning. He has also researched and written about sustainability and environmental health in the United States and Africa, which led to a year-long appointment as a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.
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