New York Times education reporters Kate Taylor and Motoko Rich published a story this week on the burgeoning Opt Out Movement. As the oldest paper of record in the United States, the Times has been slow to report on what has been a largely local story that has now evolved into a statewide and even national phenomenon. While this is understandable given its role in the national discourse, what is not understandable is the way the story was framed into something unrecognizable to most participants in Opt Out. The article briefly mentioned parent led groups working with teacher unions, but a reader with no prior experience on the matter would easily leave the article entirely convinced that Opt Out is both union promoted and union generated.
Secky Fascione, director of organizing for the National Education Association, the largest nationwide teachers’ union, said reining in testing was the union’s top organizing priority. In the past month, Ms. Fascione said, chapters in 27 states have organized against testing, including holding rallies; petition drives; showings of “Standardized,” a documentary critical of testing; and sessions telling parents they have a right to keep their children from taking tests, as tens of thousands of parents around the country have done.
“Does it give us a platform?” said Karen E. Magee, the president of New York State United Teachers. “Absolutely.”
Ms. Taylor and Ms. Rich would be right to note that union leaders like Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers and Karen Magee of the New York State United Teachers have recently given vocal support to Opt Out. It is also true that other union affiliates have taken action in the past several months to support parents who choose to opt their children out of taking the PARCC or Smarter Balance testing that are rolling out nationwide this year. Further, it is true that many of the unions find themselves in deep conflict with state capitols and with the Federal DOE where policies using those tests for teacher evaluations have originated.
But it is singularly misleading to frame this conflict as one that originates with the unions.
Diane Ravitch of New York University reported on her blog that one of the founders of United Opt Out, Peggy Robertson, had this to say in response to the article in The Times:
When United Opt Out National began over four years ago we were simply a facebook page with a file for each state. Within hours our FB group page was flooded with opt out requests and now we have opt out leaders all over the country and grassroots opt out groups popping up everywhere. I think Florida has 25 at this point – probably more since I last checked – and mind you they did this all on their own. UOO has simply been a catalyst and a support. What is even more fascinating, and sad, is that UOO has reached out to the unions many times, and never received a response. You will notice that United Opt Out National is rarely mentioned in recent articles. I think that’s because we represent the people. The power of the people.
Sadly, it cannot be claimed by the reporters in question that they did not know the parent origins of the Opt Out movement, either:
If the Opt Out story is only now growing of interest to the national education reporters of The New York Times because now national and state level unions, having seen where a significant portion of parental sentiment is heading, have begun to help amplify the message, that is fair, although perhaps short sighted depending upon your perspective. However, to leave readers with the impression that a movement which has been growing for four years and which has resulted, this Spring, in over 175,000 test refusals in New York State alone, is working at the behest of the national teachers’ unions is not only disrespectful of parental leadership, but also it is disrespectful of facts. While their voice and influence is welcome, union leadership followed the parents on this issue.
President Weingarten’s and President Magee’s support has been welcomed this Spring, but as Ms. Robertson pointed out, unions have been asked to assist before with much more tepid responses. While disappointing, that is also not expected. Union leaders generally have to preserve an ability to speak with policy makers, so a degree of caution in promoting a movement that aims to pull the rug out from under test based accountability and spark a confrontation with those implementing that policy is expected. What has changed is that in New York, Governor Cuomo decided his reelection “mandated” was to charge like a mad bull through teaching as a profession, and nationwide, the Common Core aligned PARCC and Smarter Balance examinations are debuting — to not exactly glowing reviews. Nationwide, increasing numbers of parents are tiring of annual standardized testing becoming a goal in and of itself instead of taking a proper role in monitoring the education system. No amount of condescending horse pucky from educational “leaders” will change that.
So the real story in Opt Out is that unions are coming around to support a parent led and developed movement. While Ms. Taylor and Ms. Rich do acknowledge that some union leadership is not really on board, they missed the serious split within New York’s UFT — New Action Caucus may have put up a motion to support Opt Out, but that motion repeats an earlier attempt by the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) Caucus to pass a similar resolution in March. Here’s Lauren Cohen of P.S. 321 raising the resolution. This is an ongoing and contentious debate within the UFT not presented in the article.
So why miss the back story and leave readers with the impression that parents are a vehicle for union grievances? I have to agree with Bruce Baker of Rutgers who commented:
The real story of how we got to April of 2015 with hundreds of thousands of opt outs in New York and many thousands more across the country is a messy one. It involved parental volunteers, activists from a wide variety of political affiliations, a growing body of research on the damage of test-based accountability and the unreliability of using tests to evaluate teachers, and, yes, growing union grievances. It is a story that would have to include the reluctance of union leadership to be seen in front of the issue to the frustration of both parents and rank and file members. It would be about the slow convergence of many forces at work in our education system, including the shadowy world of deep pocketed oligarchs who leverage astonishing sums of money into even more astonishing influence regardless of the people’s will.
But that isn’t neatly dualistic. That isn’t the story certain influential people want to read. So we get this.