What Bill Bennett Got Wrong and Right About New York’s Opt-Out Movement and Teacher Unions

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Today at The 74 Bill Bennett suggests that the opt-out movement in New York is driven solely by  teacher union leaders and allies who have spent millions of dollars on robocalls, emails, forums, and other tactics. Their motivation to increase test refusals this year is engineered to undermine “tough, high-quality standardized exams” that “will hold their members accountable and make the possibility of grade inflation more difficult.” It’s  “a move by teachers unions and far-left policy leaders to completely abolish any serious accountability within student assessments.”

Certainly, the union campaign to eliminate links between student outcomes on benchmarked tests and teacher evaluations is a major driver in New York. But it’s not the only one, nor the only reason why this year’s opt-out rates  appear as high as last year’s, at least in white suburbs. (Best estimates, still preliminary, are that students are opting out in Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester counties at about the same rate as last year while other regions —  school districts around Rochester and Albany, for example — are showing lower rates. Minority and lower-class students throughout the state are mostly opting in.)

It’s not just teacher union propaganda. Bennett underestimates the power of white suburban middle/upper class parents.

I’m allowed to say this because I’m a white suburban middle-class parent.

We often suffer from the “head in the sand” syndrome.  My colleague Tracy Dell’Angela explains, “we are never going to embrace school improvement as a national priority if we keep thinking the status quo is working just fine for most of America—that school reform is only needed in marginalized communities or in schools where ‘parents don’t value education.’”  Contrary to the suburban zeitgeist, many of our kids “are washing out of their four-year colleges and licking their wounds with a few courses at our local community college.

This is new information to many of us.

But word is getting out and New York parents are fast learners. Many  most likely read last Sunday’s New York Times Education section. In one article  Dr. Jeffrey Jenson Arnet describes changes in “emerging adulthood”:

“The changes that are happening,” he says, are permanent structural changes that have only sped up all over the world.” The biggest change is the move to an information economy that requires even more education and job-hopping in one’s 20s.  A college degree, he adds,  “may be the biggest determinant of whether [young adults] launch into a sustaining career.”

The world isn’t flat. Paradigm shifts happens. If our K-12 schools don’t adequately prepare our children for college (or career, for that matter), then their odds of success dwindle far more rapidly than they did when we were kids. That’s why education reformers argue for higher expectations for both students and teachers, reduction in the grade-inflation trend, and consistent standards aligned with what students need to master in order to make a successful transition from childhood to adulthood.

Education Post and Education Reform Now just put out a study. Here’s what researchers found:

  • Over half a million rising college freshmen – 1 in 4 students – had to enroll in remedial coursework their first year in college
  • Nearly half of first-year remedial students are enrolled in colleges beyond the community college sector. 
  • On average, students take 2 remedial classes their first year. But at private non-profit four-year colleges, high-income students take 3, one more than low-income students. 
  • First-year remedial students seeking a bachelor’s degree are 74 percent more likely to drop out. Those who do graduate take nearly a year longer. 
  • In aggregate, over half a million families had to pay $1.5 billion and borrow over $380 million for remedial coursework. 

These are facts, not propaganda, and one reason why educators committed to student success were appalled when new N.Y. Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said she’d opt her kids out of standardized tests (she walked that back quickly, but the damage was done) and, earlier, when Gov. Cuomo reversed his once-steady course on standards and accountability.

William Bennett is right about NYSUT, AFT, and allied groups. But parents aren’t pawns in a union-engineered chess game. Word is getting out that our schools are inadequately preparing our children, and parents are fast studies. We’re getting our heads out of the sand.

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