Accountability in Education 

Student outcomes involve far more than proficient standardized test scores, and accountability for outcomes is a shared burden that extends outside the school. Families, communities, businesses and policymakers- these parties and more are all stakeholders in student outcomes and need to meet the challenge of empowering learners in a collaborative way, with each party owning up to their role. Far more than a, “So how can we find someone else to punish to prove we’re doing something?” it needs to be a “What can I contribute to the effort?” approach. After describing my thoughts on the need for this type of collaboration, as well as a more respectful education reform approach, I’ll try to suggest some alternative approaches to education, reform, and accountability. I will do my best to suppress the giant wise-ass living inside of me, but it is highly likely he will peek out a few times. So following is my:

Accountability in education, in three parts (imagine epic echoing sound effects along with some distant crashing thunder-like noise)

The three parts will be:

1) Setting the backdrop for increased collaboration as a priority

2) Setting an approach more respectful of learners and dedicated professionals

3) Setting a framework for meaningful accountability

I will put out each part separately, so for now:

1) Setting more collaboration as a priority

Call me a Van Jones fan. In this interview with Cenk Uygar (of The Young Turks), Van Jones describes the need for unity with so much at stake this election year (i.e. the presidency, congress, The Supreme Court…). He also shares a story about Nelson Mandela and a take on it that I see as pertinent to the school reform and accountability discussion. Nelson after being released from prison after 27 years, during which time both his son and mother died (he was not allowed to attend either funeral), Mandela meets with the Afrikaners regarding the future of South Africa. He could have been justifiably angry, resentful, and critical-insisting on some “accountability”. According to Jones, though, Mandela chooses another approach:

(Jones speaking to Uygur)

“Mandela doesn’t agree with the Afrikaners, obviously. But when he sits down to speak with the Afrikaners, having been in prison for twenty-seven years…he spends the first twenty minutes telling them, in Afrikaans, their own history, and pointing out all the great leadership they have shown in their own history, and says ‘I am sure that a great people like you, can come to a settlement with us. (Jones does a “Whoa…mind-blown” pause here) Now that’s real leadership, where he’s taking responsibility for the whole. I’m saying to my sisters and brothers on the left, I’m not trying to call anybody out, I’m trying to call us up.”

Mandela chose a greater good- one that would bring perceived opposites together for a common cause. He chose (as Jones describes it) not calling others out and standing against them, but instead calling them up in order to achieve greater things for all people, together. Mandela was a man that refused to barter his own freedom until his people were free; a man who then, once free, honored his jailers in their own language, and paid respect to both their history and their potential. This is a thinker who when confronting power, even with the weight of 27 years in prison on his shoulders, suggested something other than the dire results of confrontation. He was offering respect and calling for cooperation.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with priorities and accountability in education?

Well, I was drawn to the way Jones used the story as an example of a “calling up” approach. Unlike Mandela (who actually lived the oppression, was a victim of it, worked against it from the ground level, spent time in jail for it, and while representing an exploited majority was still willing to collaborate with the empowered minority), the current status quo reform and the narrative that powers it is one driven mostly by the empowered minority: wealthy, elite, politicians, and entrepreneurs almost entirely disconnected from the endeavor they assume to inform and improve. As much as the managers of this investor-driven reality try to dismiss that part and portray it all as more of a force that combines their own righteous calling to help save the children combined with the philanthropy of the wealthy- it was apparent from the beginning what special interests had won seats at the table for the shaping of this agenda.

“There is no doubt that the recent focus on evaluating teachers through the use of test scores is bad policy Click To Tweet

The risks and negative impact of this approach (i.e. giving so much influence to “The Big Three”: Broad, Gates, Walton) are outlined in this 2011 Forbes article The Deep Pockets Behind Education Reform, by Erik Kain. One consequence of this approach to education reform, Kain says, has been to focus too heavily on test scores as a means for evaluating teachers and schools. He writes:

“There is no doubt that the recent focus on evaluating teachers through the use of test scores is bad policy. It leads to a narrowing of the curriculum and a widespread teaching-to-the-test mentality that is little better than teaching by rote.”

Yes, we certainly need to do more to ensure better outcomes for a growing number of students, but be serious about a few things as you approach this. If you don’t have the experience that comes from actually doing the job or the capacity to be less “spin” and more serious-consult and collaborate with those who can help you to understand that:

1) If preserving and maintaining your profession, your reputation, and your school is subjected to scrutiny based on test scores in the core academic areas so-called reformers continually focus on, other subjects and studies will be moved to the “back burner”.

2) When other studies are viewed as less important, it is even more likely that “extras” like the arts and music will be reduced (or eliminated entirely)- especially in schools with little to spend budget-wise.

3) If the “extras” are cut in a population that already experiences less enrichment in areas shown to work in a synergistic way to enhance core academics, the disparity in academic and life outcomes between those who have more access to enriched life and school experiences and those who have less is likely to grow.

4) Pretending that disparities will lessen if we abolish tenure, weaken unions and simply make teachers teach better (using tests in core academic areas to hold them accountable) is not the sound pedagogy it is presented as. It is in fact a distraction from more pertinent inequities.

5) You are not a true reformer unless you are willing to address student needs more comprehensively in order to achieve more than just test scores, rankings and labels (that’s being more a “conformer” than a “reformer”).

So let’s start with what is really important; I mean really. 

While academic achievement is absolutely necessary, my hope is that reasonable people understand that both achievement and children are not defined by test scores in the same way they know student potential goes beyond the common assumptions regarding race, culture, zip codes and socioeconomic status. That isn’t to say that core academic abilities are not needed, but holding test scores up as the end-all has led to a lot of time wasted. Time wasted attacking the reputations of teachers and schools, and time wasted artificially inflating the reputations of “choice” schools and their leaders-both while real problems and solutions go ignored.That also isn’t saying that social forces don’t play a role. Thankfully some acknowledgement of those forces is starting to come from those who not long ago would have avoided, denied or deflected what being “college and career ready” might actually mean, and why many students are not there when they arrive.

I’m getting ready to wrap up Part 1, and move on to Part 2 where I try to define the roles in a collaborative reform effort, one where an attempt at a more comprehensive approach isn’t described as “avoidance”, or “backsliding”, but instead as moving past and away from the failure focus that has plagued every side of the topic. Moving towards this more human approach is progress-mature and thoughtful progress that puts the needs and complexity of people and our society before the market efficiency and ease of test-based accountability.

But instead of spending too much time deconstructing the clever euphemisms used by reformers (e.g. “college and career ready”, “jobs of tomorrow”, “failing schools”…), criticisms about the cost of public education, or dealing with cultivated resentment of teacher pensions and salaries and the evils of unions; instead of directly engaging the smear campaigns perpetrated by well-funded telegenic pervert-hunters, broom riding semi-educators posing as experts, bow-tie wearing blowhards or the selective academies of success and the cottage industry that has sprouted up to spin a defense of these people: I am going to use Part 2 to offer ideas for a better approach- a “calling up” approach. Then Part 3 will tackle accountability. Part 3 will be tricky, because my feeling is that “reform” is being played out, still, as an offensive with an objective of painting failures and calling for consequences-but I will give it the ole’ college and career try.

Closing Part 1 (Imagine inspirational Chariots of Fire music)

I started this writing with a description of a Van Jones interview. Later in that interview he hopes for “…a rising up in our own spirit of mature, powerful leadership.” This is what we should be demanding and holding ourselves accountable for. If the best you can do is to continually disparage those trying at a job you don’t can’t or won’t do, then you need to consider joining the calling-up team. I expect it from my own daughters; it is what I aim for in the students I teach, and what I try for as a teacher and union leader in my district. If the path to mature powerful leadership needs my help in clearing it, then clear it I will. Okay…maybe not so much the mature stuff, but I think we owe it to children to model for them and prepare them all for leadership of their own lives-not to be simply weighed measured and judged by those among the unwilling.

But if the Mandela-released-from-prison story is a bit of a soaring morality reach, analogy-wise, I’ll bring it back to the streets before I close out on Part 1:

When Jake Blues was released from Joliet, his journey towards redemption began with little other than twenty-three dollars and seven cents, a broken Timex, his smooth threads, cool sunglasses, and some latex . Seeing that the Blues-mobile he knew had been replaced by an auctioned cop car, and then finding that his band had split up, he was understandably feeling a little lost and hopeless. But the $23.07 given back to Jake when he’d done his 3 for 5 on armed robbery was a start. Getting slapped around and tossed down a flight of stairs by The Penguin was the motivation, and then seeing the light (and James Brown) was the inspiration. He was on a mission from God, and knew more than anything that he needed to get his band back together again.

I’ll let you find out how it ends for Jake. I predict good things for our children if we can get our band together.

Accountablity in education

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