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Living in Dialogue: United Opt Out Offers an Intimate Portrait of Activism

The administrators of United Opt Out have published An Activist Handbook for the Education Revolution: United Opt Out’s Test of Courage. It should of high interest to advocates for real change in our schools.

One of the benefits of the 2011 Save Our Schools march in Washington, DC, was the way new organizations emerged in the months and years that followed. Many of the activists now fighting for our children’s future met for the first time that hot July afternoon on the grass near the White House. United Opt Out (UOO) was one of the groups that emerged in the months that followed, with a sharp focus on equipping parents and educators with tools and information to opt out of high stakes tests, to starve the testing machinery of the raw material it needs to operate.

In their book, “An Activist Handbook for the Education Revolution,” the seven leaders of UOO make it clear that their vision extends far beyond the act of opting out of tests. They are trying to spark a social movement. The introduction makes this clear:

We share our story for a reason. Stories create action. The UOO story may be a catalyst for other small pockets of resistance out there who are right now asking, Is it possible? Can our small group do this? Can we make a difference? Yes. You can. Read our story and see how six individuals (now seven) with no money, in different locations, from different backgrounds, each working a day job, managed to make something happen.

The book opens with a review of the corporate reform project by Morna McDermott, who closes this chapter with a reminder:

Reformers aren’t afraid that schools are failing. They’re afraid that schools will succeed. Why else do they close programs that work? Why else rob children of the joy of learning? Why else deny the poorest children opportunities for a love of art, dance, PE, and a meaningful well-rounded curriculum? Why else increase rather than decrease class size? Why else starve communities and schools of their resources? Why? They’re afraid that one day we will wake up and discover precisely how powerful this right to a public education is in forging our own destinies.

The book then takes us in a more intimate direction, sharing the exchanges that launched the organization, and the personal histories of the organizers.

Ceresta Smith draws on her experience as a teacher, writing:

After teaching in Miami-Dade County Public Schools for over two decades, I drew the conclusion that there is a concerted effort to keep the American populous ignorant and devoid of the critical thinking necessary to fight back against oppressive laws that serve to enslave most, some more than others, and keep the masses working to enrich an elite few.

Peggy Robertson shares a lesson that hearkens back to the SOS March where I first met many of these folks:

There is something about an event that is needed in order to solidify relationships and determine future plans. Just like an event with relatives, many times well-planned activities go astray. Many times random happenings create new opportunities. The key is being there together, at the same time, to work through these pieces. Together, we can grow stronger. Together, we can solve problems. United Opt Out has gathered much strength from these events. We take this strength, and we send it back out, back home to the communities who can use it to topple corporate education reform.

Ruth Rodriguez brings the perspective of an English learner to the discussion, as she relates how she confronted the MCAS test in Massachusetts:

But for many, limited-English-speaking students who enter MA public schools in the ninth grade are forced to be immersed in English for one year, then take the tenth-grade MCAS. If they don’t pass the test, they cannot receive a high school diploma. This led me to take a stand, and in a room full of over 300 people at Framingham State University, I challenged Governor Deval Patrick, to whom I said face-to-face:

“Governor, I thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve on your Readiness Project with the MCAS/Assessment subcommittee. I’m saddened that you did not accept our recommendation and have decided to continue the MCAS punish-style measures. But I challenge anyone in this room, including you, governor to immerse yourselves for one year in Spanish, and then take the MCAS in Spanish, for that is exactly what you are asking English language learners to do.”

United Opt Out has been a bright light on the path to change for our schools since their beginning. Through the stories and perspectives shared in this book, this light shines through.

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Anthony Cody

Anthony worked for 24 years in the Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science teacher at a high-needs middle school. A National Board certified teacher, he now lead...