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This is the Ethics and Education podcast. I’m Carrie Welsh. Today, we think about opting out.

“I think for us, like, there’s two really series of questions and one set of questions are about the distinctions between individual rights and public goods and opting out. And here I think opting out follows in a long line of other interesting educational issues, from homeschooling to vaccines to school choice, to the choice to participate in various kinds of curricula or not.”

We talked to Professor Terri Wilson at the American Philosophical Association Conference in 2019 (in a sort of busy lobby) about a case study she co-wrote on opting out of state standardized testing.

My name is Terri Wilson and I am an assistant professor at University of Colorado Boulder in the School of Education and I mainly study and teach around issues of philosophy of education and education policy. And most of my research has really focused on areas of school choice but recently, I’ve been interested in following and studying and learning more about parents’ refusals of public education, and in particular, the recent efforts in Colorado and nationwide to opt-out of state standardized testing.

As part of the current project that I’m working on with my colleague Michelle Moses, which is really trying to understand some of the rights and the values at play in opt-out activism, but also understand the different kind of issues of power and positionality in the movement in terms of like: who’s opting out, for what reasons, in whose interests, what consequences does opting-out have—both for particular schools but also for broader issues of equity.

So as part of that, it’s a philosophical project, but we’ve also been trying to do a range of different empirical work and some of that has been interviewing a range of different stakeholders. So it’s included parents, teachers, principals, and also policymakers. We’ve also been trying to hold dialogues with different stakeholders as well, so dialogues with people who are really active in the opt-out movement, dialogues with young people who walked out of their high schools in some cases to protest the tests, and also dialogues in communities in schools to give parents a chance to really think through and talk about the purposes of testing and accountability.

So, in my mind, one of the key things we’ve been learning (and this is not something that we’ve fully thought through yet)–I’ve been calling it, as a paper idea, this idea that context, not ideology drives decision-making. And so I think we’ve been so struck by talking to a lot of parents, that, from media accounts of opting out, and I think how opting out is portrayed on Twitter and on social media and often portrayed by policy-level debates, it seems like there are, you know, at least two distinct sides of the debate, right?

So, on one hand you have parents who are deeply concerned about over-testing and who are motivated to opt-out. But then you have a lot of other groups that have pushed back and said, you know, “actually we really need testing,” right. And of course there are many multiple perspectives here, but I think one thing we’ve really taken up from our work in some of these schools and communities is just that people are very open to considering different reasons why we might question tests, but also different reasons why we might need them. And for us, what people really need is the opportunity to talk through conversation and dialogue about contested issues of assessment, accountability, and tests in public education rather than what we sometimes have, which is, “here’s why you should do it.” Or trying to get people to buy into a policy idea. But I think what we’ve been trying to argue is that people need opportunities for dialogue.

So we wrote this case study—and this case study was written jointly with a doctoral student at University of Colorado Boulder, whose name is Matt Hastings—we wrote this case study to try to think about ways to invite different stakeholders, be they researchers, policymakers, parents to consider the ethical dilemmas of opting out. So rather than to try to solve the issue neatly or to try to present cases where the answer might be quite clear, we really tried to craft the case studies so that it highlighted different features we think of as some of the moral, political, and ethical questions of opting out.

So the case study does draw from real context. It draws from some of our empirical work with talking to principals and parents. So some of the features are certainly true to our context here, but we tried to fictionalize it slightly to lift out a few key issues. And one of the key issues are these issues, I think, of individual interests versus public goods. And so there’s, in “Opting Out,” I think, how some parents are certainly acting with interests to try to influence public institutions and try to advance particular policy positions. So I don’t think their actions can be, simplistically said to be just self-interested, right? But I think that even though they often have deep kind of political reasons for acting, the mechanism of opting out is an individual choice to withdraw from participating in a particular educational activity.

So I think the things that make this an ethical dilemma: I think for us, like, there’s two really series of questions and one set of questions are about the distinctions between individual rights and public goods and opting out. And here I think opting out follows in a long line of other interesting educational issues, from homeschooling to vaccines to school choice, to the choice to participate in various kinds of curricula or not. And so we see opting out as an interesting, um, perhaps unique example of other kinds of forms of refusal of public education. And so for us, we really wanted to highlight what it means to think through what are parents’ rights to control and direct and protect the interests of their children and how their education is experienced, but what also our obligations to public education and in a public education system for goods like equity, justice, equal opportunity, being able to actually measure the differential opportunities that students have in different systems.

So that’s the first broad series of questions. And the other series of questions I think we’ve been very interested in the project is lifting up our issues of power and privilege and race. And so we deliberately chose to locate the case study in a gentrifying neighborhood in Denver and to locate it in terms of a community that was experiencing demographic change and tension around those changes. Because in some ways the opt-out movement surfaces these issues. It’s been not solely but dominated by whiter and wealthier communities. That’s not entirely the case. But in aggregate, that has been the case. And those communities have arguably far, far less consequences of opting out, right? They have in some ways more freedom to opt-out. They don’t have as many accountability sanctions or mandates that fall on them. They receive less federal funding, but their decisions have this aggregate impact on the education of all children. And at the same time, um, in opting out, we’ve seen how national civil rights groups and other education reform groups have pushed back against opt-out efforts in education—in part because of a concern about not getting accurate data about achievement and opportunity gaps and not being able to use that data to advocate for other kinds of more equitable education.

It is a dilemma for multiple stakeholders, but there’s a reason that we decided to foreground the dilemmas that face the principal. And I think for me, one of the big lessons of this project has been how much of the ethical dilemma falls on the shoulders of the principal. So the principal is charged simultaneously with implementing district policy and often answers to district offices that are saying, make these students take the test, but also is in this context where the state has permitted parents to opt out. And the principal is the person who hears the complaints about the test from parents, from teachers; the principal’s the person who has to negotiate these many different perspectives in their school, and in some ways, be the public face or make an argument for the value of testing, even when they might have professional doubts about that. And so, in our research, I think we were so struck by like, the weight of the responsibility on the shoulders of the principal. I think part of writing this case actually encouraged us to reach out to more educational leaders to interview them about those tensions they faced. And so we have been working on this other paper that looks at the experiences of principals in very different districts in Colorado, be it at a suburban district in Denver, but also in rural districts in Colorado, and how they negotiated the sort of opt-out activism in different communities and in very different contexts, right, where they face different accountability demands and different community questions.

Thanks for listening. This episode has a corresponding study guide with a structured academic controversy activity, suggested readings, and ideas for good discussion. You can find that at our website.

This episode was produced by Carrie Welsh and Grace Gecewicz, and edited by Kellen Sharp.