The newspaper in the Lower Hudson Valley of New York (north of New York City) is called Lohud.com. Its reporters have been outstanding in covering education issues in Albany and across the state. Unlike the New York Times, Lohud’s editorialists understand why parents are opting out. Instead of scolding them, as the Times did recently, Lohud calls on state leaders to listen to them and take action to address their grievances. Last year, 5% of the state’s students opted out; this year it was 20%. The New York opt out was so huge that it has received national attention. In some schools and districts (outside of New York City), opting out is the norm, not the exception. If state officials continue to threaten parents who opt out, you can bet there will be more opt outs next spring.
This is what Lohud.com wrote:
It seems that everyone has been trying to analyze the opt-out numbers from April’s state tests in math and ELA. But there’s not much to figure out. There’s no secret code in the numbers, no conspiracy to unravel. If you’ve been following the education wars during New York and the nation’s “reform” era, the meaning of the opt-out numbers should be plain: Growing numbers of parents are not happy with our educational direction.
The big question is not what the numbers show, but what our educational leaders will say or do to satisfy parents who had their children boycott April’s tests — or may do so next April. School starts in a few weeks, and what happens over the next few months may determine the future of the opt-out movement….
At a time when few people come out to vote on school budgets, and many parents are simply too busy to worry about non-essential matters, such a widespread movement cannot be easily dismissed — even if one disagrees with the decision to opt out.
Why did so many parents choose to defy state and federal insistence that the annual math and ELA tests provide essential information? There is no single reason. But several prominent concerns led the way:
Too much focus on new Common Core tests is leading to a narrowing of the curriculum and “teaching to the test.”
The use of student test scores to evaluate teachers may be inaccurate and unfair — and is hurting the morale of popular, proven local teachers.
The tests themselves are poorly conceived and have not been reviewed.
Test results are released too late, during August, to be of help teachers, parents or students.
Testing requirements are unfair to students with disabilities and recent English learners.
There are other concerns, of course. But the overall issue is that growing numbers of parents seem to believe that the trifecta of tougher standards, tougher tests and tougher teacher evaluations is not the answer to improving public education.
Many advocates and commentators continue to insist that the opt-out movement was surreptitiously created and nurtured by teachers unions, sort of like Frankenstein. This is simply not the case. At least in New York, the movement was built over several years — slowly, in stops and starts — by parent groups using social media. Local teachers unions started to publicly back the opt-out idea only in the final months before April’s tests. And NYSUT, the statewide union, did not jump in until the final weeks, after it was clear that Gov. Andrew Cuomo would not allow lawmakers to topple his much-despised teacher-evaluation system.
The eval link
Speaking of teacher evaluations, school officials in the Lower Hudson Valley continue to say out loud what many lawmakers and state bureaucrats quietly know: that community-based discontent over the clumsy, ineffective evaluation system will only grow and will feed — guess what? — the opt-out movement. Bedford Schools Superintendent Jere Hochman, the new president of the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents (and a guy who tries to see things the state’s way) told our Editorial Board last week: “The whole system needs to be thrown out. Start over.”
The Westchester Putnam School Boards Association, in a new statement to the Education Department, condemns recent changes to the evaluation system as “disruptive to our schools, staff and students” and said the current plan “cannot and should not be salvaged.” The group also noted that the opt-out movement has exposed parental concerns about the “nexus” of high-stakes testing and evaluations.
School districts need an evaluation system that continually helps good teachers improve — leading to better classroom instruction — and identifies teachers who need help or can’t do the job. New York does not have such a system.
There’s been a great deal of focus on where large number of parents boycotted the tests and where the movement did not gain much traction. Analysts have emphasized low opt-out rates in both urban “poor” school systems and the state’s most affluent school districts. The state Education Department noted that most test-refusers were white and “more likely to be from a low or average need districts,” in other words, middle-class suburbanites.
But if you talk to educators and parents, there’s no mystery about why opt-out rates were higher in some places than others. In cities with high poverty rates, parents often don’t have the luxury of worrying about education policies because they are too focused on daily concerns and less connected to parent groups. Plus, in New York City, where the opt-out rate was less than 2 percent, test scores have long been tied to school admissions and student promotions. In affluent districts, meanwhile, officials and real estate agents worry that any form of public “discontent” will affect property values.
Yes, the opt-out movement has been driven by middle-class parents, conservatives and liberals, who don’t like the loss of local control over school matters.
It’s disturbing to hear some advocates suggest that parents who opt out are selfish because they are weakening a testing system that reveals the achievement gap facing poor, minority students. Everyone knows that the gap is perhaps the greatest challenge facing American schools. Figuring out how to close the gap is a more pressing question than how to better define it. We hope that the state’s new efforts to assist struggling schools will work out and provide new information on how to close the achievement gap.
Reigning in the opt-out movement will not be easy. Neither Elia nor Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch should expect instant results. It took several years of questionable state leadership before the opt-out movement took hold and gained momentum. It will likely take several years and some major policy changes to win back the trust of parents — and the teachers whom parents trust.