Opting Out

Steve Nelson | 2017 | Steve Nelson is the author of First Do No Harm: Progressive Education In A Time Of Existential Risk (Garn Press). Hardcover, paperback, and ebook now available. Paperback book ON SALE, 20% off on Amazon, $14.35.

By Steve Nelson

It’s like being Stephen King, waking up and finding Cujo in your bedroom.

As an educator and writer I’ve railed for several decades against metrics, standards, data, computers for kids, assessments, benchmarks, digitized learning, high stakes, Common Core, NCLB, RTTP and countless other acronyms.   I confess – I rail a lot.

And so it was that Cujo arrived.  Everything I railed and moaned about from the comfort of my laptop came to vivid life in an instant.   My granddaughter Maddie is in her second week of first grade. My wife and I “retired” to her community in large part to be near her and her little brother. We pick her up every day from school. 

Cujo arrived in an email from Maddie’s teacher to my son:  “This is just a friendly reminder that i-Ready testing is tomorrow!  This means that all of our students will be taking a state-wide computer based reading test for the majority of the day, so please make sure your child gets a full breakfast and plenty of sleep tonight to set them up for success! Thanks so much for your support!” 

i-Ready is a product of Curriculum Associates, one of the rapidly growing, for-profit purveyors of assessment and curriculum for young children. They are a spawn of and closely aligned with the Common Core. I don’t suppose they are evil, but this technology-based approach runs counter to everything I care about in education.

It’s scalable. Ugh. It uses colorful images and trite manipulation to capture kids’ attention. Ugh. It gathers vast amounts of data. Ugh and whoa!  It reduces real, living children to data points above and below developmentally meaningless benchmarks. It makes reading, for many small children, an unpleasant, judgmental task, rather than a liberating, unfettered joy.  i-Ready is one small cog in an impersonal, mechanized tech industry that is overtaking schools. It is the nightmarish, 21st century apotheosis of the factory model that has dominated American education for more than 100 years. 

My once abstract antipathy is now deeply personal. As I write, Maddie is spending her day in front of a machine instead of drawing, daydreaming, playing and discovering. It literally makes me cringe. So what to do? She’s not my child, but fortunately, my son and partner share my concerns. 

Here’s what he did and what I recommend to any parents (which should be all parents) who do not want their children in front of a screen serving as guinea pigs for tech entrepreneurs.

He wrote a polite email asking the teacher about opting-out of such activities in the future. He inquired as to her personal view of i-Ready and the assessment process. He offered to have a meeting and discuss it more thoroughly. I’m sure the teacher is obligated to participate in the state/district program. Perhaps she is skeptical and can be a cautious ally. Or, much worse, perhaps she thinks it’s terrific education. Either way, they need to know her views and try not to put her in an untenable position.

Every family has the right to opt-out of experiences that are not good for children and not good education policy.  If I had my way, the protest in front of the school would start tomorrow morning. Luckily, I don’t have my way.  But the only way this highly commercialized, wrongheaded approach to early childhood education will be halted is for parents and caregivers to say a resounding “No!” 

As you and your child begin the new school year, be alert for i-Ready or other testing. Be strong and confident enough to question, press through the inevitable propaganda, and participate in a growing movement to Opt Out. Young children should be allowed to be children, not be reduced to data points poking at a screen.

About Steve Nelson

Steve Nelson has been Head of School at the Calhoun School, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, since 1998.   Calhoun is one of America’s most notable progressive schools and serves 750 students, from pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade.  Calhoun is particularly well regarded for its commitment to diversity and social justice. Since 1997 Steve has been a columnist for the Valley News, the daily newspaper in the mid-VT/NH area on both sides of the Connecticut River.  He has been a regular contributor to the Huffington Post since 2010, writing about education and politics.   Before assuming his current position, he worked as an administrator at Vermont Law School and Landmark College.  He is an avid violinist and also served for six years as President of a performing arts school in the Midwest.

First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk

Author: Steve Nelson
Book: First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk
Garn Press (264 pp.)
$24.95 hardcover, $14.95 paperback (ON SALE), $9.99 e-book, $2.99 on Amazon when you purchase the print book
ISBN: 978-1-942146-48-3
Buy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound (local bookstore) | Indigo Books | Waterstones | Books-A-Million
eBook: Amazon

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