Opting Out: The Story of the Parentsí Grassroots Movement to Achieve Whole-Child Public Schools

reviewed by Stephanie Schroeder - September 10, 2021

coverTitle: Opting Out: The Story of the Parentsí Grassroots Movement to Achieve Whole-Child Public Schools
Author(s): David Hursh, Jeanette Deutermann, Lisa Rudley, Zhe Chen, and Sarah McGinnis
Publisher: Myers Education Press, Gorham
ISBN: 1975501497, Pages: 123, Year: 2020
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The Opt Out Movement, a nationwide group of parents, teachers, and other concerned citizens who resist high-stakes standardized testing and school privatization efforts, has become somewhat of a household name since its inception in the early- to mid-2010s. Opposition to high-stakes testing is an international phenomenon, and opting out—or test refusal, as it is often called—has been the most visible manifestation of this opposition in the United States. High-stakes testing is nested within a host of accountability reforms, largely stemming from the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act signed into law by George W. Bush in 2002 and Barack Obama’s Race to the Top (RTTT) program. So long an unquestioned and taken for granted aspect of schooling, the opt-out movement has made testing highly visible, questionable, and refusable.

Opting Out: The Story of the Parents’ Grassroots Movement to Achieve Whole-Child Public Schools by David Hursh, Jeanette Deutermann, Lisa Rudley, Zhe Chen, and Sarah McGinnis chronicles the emergence and success of the movement in New York State. Focusing largely on the experiences of two parents, authors Deutermann and Rudley, who started Long Island Opt Out (LIOO) and New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), the book explores how a networked group of parents, teachers, and other stakeholders managed to resist high-stakes testing in the quest for “whole-child” schools. By juxtaposing Deutermann and Rudley’s stories within the larger neoliberal context of school reform, the authors have crafted a compelling activist’s handbook that parents, teachers, and other educational stakeholders will find useful as they set out on similar activist journeys. Importantly, it can offer hope in the face of resistance. As Amy Stuart Wells writes in the book’s Foreword:

The larger context of New York and other states with similar stories is…important in helping us understand how our nation became so addicted to standardized testing and why it is so politically difficult to recover, detox, and embrace education reform that supports and democratizes meaningful teaching and learning.” (p. xi)

Politically popular with both Democrats and Republicans, high-stakes testing is one of many interconnected neoliberal reforms that are difficult to simply do away with, as testing is intricately woven throughout education policy.

Opting Out is organized into five chapters, with Deutermann and Rudley’s narratives, interspersed throughout in italics. Chapter 1 focuses on how they became activists by starting LIOO and NYSAPE, shifting from “consumers of education” to active contributors “in shaping education” (pp. 1–2) in response to New York’s education policies. Chapter 2 chronicles the rise of high-stakes testing and the opt-out movement in response to that rise, highlighting the role of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top in fueling teacher accountability models. Chapter 3 is perhaps most interesting to emerging or struggling educational activists, as it highlights the tactics used by LIOO and NYSAPE to build a movement and engage in protest, including how they built and managed social media pages, connected across stakeholders, tailored messaging for the conservative and liberal wings of the movement, and armed parents with necessary information to support their children in test refusal.

In terms of strengths, the uninterrupted parental narratives offered by Deutermann and Rudley are highly compelling. Chapters 1 and 3, where these are most prominent, are likely to offer insight into personal experiences of the movement that has not been readily available in the mainstream press. The political consciousness development Deutermann and Rudley describe as they watched their children suffer in school is similar to other experiences within the opt-out movement across the country, and works to inspire empathy in the reader.  

Chapter 4 moves a bit beyond the origins of the opt-out movement to focus on related, albeit separate issues of technology use, student data collection, and personalized learning programs, which the authors claim “enables corporations to retain control over curriculum, pedagogy, and assessments” (p. 76). It is perhaps the least cohesive of the chapters in the book, and interrupts the flow to Chapter 5, which points to challenges the opt-out movement faces now and in the future.

Chapter 5 is where I see a missed opportunity. The authors take up issues of unfair media portrayals and critiques that opt-out is a “white suburban mom movement” (p. 102). The authors reject these critiques and suggest that pro-testing groups have encouraged racial divisions. They shrug off national surveys of the opt-out movement as having low sample size. They argue that New York City, made up of far more racially diverse students than Long Island, had low opt-out rates due to “how large urban school districts work” rather than due to race (p. 104). Deflecting this criticism rather than engaging in legitimate racial, gender, and class critiques of the movement—and failing to account for the many movements within the movement—leaves the reader with a limited understanding of how gender, race, and class influence educational organizing. This is perhaps the major weakness of the book, as the myopic focus on opting out in suburban New York obscures the origins of United Opt Out National in 2011, urban organizing, and, crucially, the role of Black and Brown activists. This focus also relies a bit too heavily on the narratives of two activists rather than on the substantial body of empirical research about the movement that could be used to substantiate many of the authors’ claims.

Indeed, a more powerful book might share with us a range of student, teacher, and parent voices involved in opting out, as well as a summary of the body of research that emerged over the past five years about the movement. Still, Opting Out shows us that students, teachers, and parents do not have to accept the educational system as it is; they can shape it into what they want it to be. I agree with the authors that “the opt-out movement can provide a model for how to work politically to develop more democratic, humane and equitable educational institutions and society” (p. 22). Anyone interested in seeking that future will find Opting Out helpful, inspiring, and informative.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 10, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23839, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 9:21:54 AM

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