Accountability without Equity

About John Kuhn

John Kuhn is a public school administrator in Texas and a vocal advocate for public education. His ”Alamo Letter” and YouTube videos of his 2011 speech at a Save Texas Schools rally went viral, as did his 2012 essay ”The Exhaustion of the American Teacher.” He has written two education-related books, 2013’s Test-and-Punish (Park Place Publications) and 2014’s Fear and Learning in America (Teachers College Press).

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I thought Texas officials had created a monster when they unveiled Franken-STAAR, and I was right. But they unleashed another monster besides a convoluted piece of legislation. They unleashed a beast of public schools activism the likes of which Texas hasn’t seen since the authors of our Declaration of Independence slammed Santa Anna for providing educational opportunities for the children of cronies but not settlers. Elitist education policy has never sat well with Texans, and today’s reformers let slip along the way that all this testing wasn’t ever really about improving education, but about privatizing it. They got trustees and moms and local chambers of commerce riled up, and these regular folks who value public schools started peeling back the layers. As the heat turned up, one of the primary architects and biggest cheerleaders for endless state testing swore he and his buddies would never back down from the STAAR with all its punishing convolutions. But he did back down.

How could he not? Everyone in the state besides him, a Pearson lobbyist, and possibly our new education commissioner—everyone else realizes what a scam has been perpetrated against our kids, our teachers, and our towns. The House gets it. They hear the message. They zeroed out testing in their budget.

The former education commissioner gets it. He called the system a “perversion of its original intent.” He said that testing is the “heart of the vampire.”

Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken gets it. He said the current system doesn’t hold schools accountable for educating; it only makes them beholden to a single test.

Representative Hochberg got it. After Premont ISD cancelled sports to avoid closure, Hochberg ran the numbers. Premont was a low Target Revenue district. Over the years, Premont had been denied literally millions of dollars that many other districts got year after year, all over Texas. Hochberg made a chart, and it showed that the average Exemplary school gets $1000 more per pupil than the average Unacceptable school.

This, my friends, is called accountability without equity. It is as morally indefensible as having two kids run a race, and celebrating the winner (and denigrating the loser) by announcing the race’s outcome prominently on the front page of the paper, without ever once mentioning that the race organizers themselves provided the winner with more and better racing attire and training equipment.

No one has ever explained how one-size-fits-all outcomes are appropriate when there are great variations of resources on the inputs side. As Hochberg said, this “calls into question the entire punitive nature” of our school accountability system. A rancher would never beat a cow for gaining too little weight if he knows he’s feeding it half as much as the rest of the herd. But our legislators have been gleefully doing this very thing for years; in the process, they have eroded public support for the very hard work done by public school teachers all over the state.

Accountability without equity is a failure of our leadership to adhere to basic human standards of honesty.

Accountability allows the state to pass the buck for inequities it’s been defending since the protesting students in Edgewood walked out of their decrepit building in 1968. Accountability lets Austin blame the predictable effects of inequity on schoolteachers.

It’s a setup. How can Texas punish schools that it denied equal resources to? How can Texas look its people in the eye and say some schools are better than others—are “exemplary”—without admitting that it gives some schools access to more resources, higher pay for teachers, newer computers, bigger buildings, more programs, smaller class sizes, and more student supports.

Maybe they didn’t have exemplary instructional practices; maybe what they truly had all along was an exemplary funding level.

The new accountability system—like the last one—pretends that it’s comparing apples to apples. Let me assure you, when one school district has a Target Revenue of over $12,000 per pupil—and another one gets $4000 per pupil—the new performance index and these new letter grades are still a yawning injustice. These students in underfunded schools—mostly poor children and their teachers—will be labeled as failures, because they will teach and learn in schools that have been actively, deliberately denied equitable resources but are held to the same rigid standards as their better-equipped peers.

I can stand a lot of things, but I can’t stand unblinking injustice.

Low-funded schools run this race in flip flops, while higher-funded schools run in brand new track shoes. The state will photograph the finish and put it in the paper. Texas will hang a gold medal around the neck of the runner it better equipped in the first place.

Accountability without equity is nothing more than statutory favoritism.

That gold medal of accountability will make property values rise even higher in a winning school’s neighborhood, which will allow the school to lower its tax rate and still generate the same funding. This will attract businesses that are looking to save on their property tax bill, which will bring in even more value to the district, hence more tax dollars, so the district will be able to drop their tax rate even more and attract more businesses.

The state will pretend not to notice the cycle of disproportionate blessing that the fundamentally unjust accountability system perpetuates. Instead, Texas will wag its finger and pass out F’s to the struggling schools in underfunded districts. And then it will close those schools down. In two years, if our current Senate has its way, Texas will shut down the schools that it underfunded and replace them with “efficient” schools.

Our leaders want efficient schools for other people’s children.

Job number one in Austin right now is to get the education activists to calm down. They deferred the fifteen percent rule again. They want to give people time to get over their fears, to get used to STAAR, to learn to love these beatings our children and teachers must take.

But we’ve crossed the Rubicon on STAAR. Time won’t heal this wound. As the testing tumor grew in our schools, we were patient. As TABS became TEAMS became TAAS became TAKS, we were patient. We believed them when they said it was for the kids. We believed in their good intentions. But when TAKS became STAAR, the scales fell from our eyes. They’re gone now. There’s no going back. They can’t put enough lipstick on this pig to make us forget it’s a pig. It has never been about improving education. It has always been about creating the crisis that would justify public funding of private enterprises.

But we have a new accountability format, they will say, this Performance Index, so just calm down. We promise not to ever again tell the world teachers are terrible people because of the worst score of their worst subgroup on their worst test. We admit that was wrong and we won’t ever do it again, we promise.

But let me tell you something about the Performance Index. There are four Indices. And let me tell you what they are: Student Performance…on the Test. Student Progress…on the Test. Closing Achievement Gaps…on the Test. Demonstrating College Readiness…by Scoring really high on the Test.

The heart of the vampire is still beating.

They’re shuffling the deck chairs on the STAAR-tanic with this performance index system. We’ll still be teaching to the test, because whether our schools get an A, B, C, D, or F—it all hinges on one thing, STAAR. Nothing else matters to the state but the test scores. STAAR is the center of the universe. It’s all we do and it’s all we are, so let’s just be honest: we will keep teaching to the test as long as it’s the only thing the state cares about. Its consequences are so dire that it exerts a gravitational pull at the center of the Texas education universe that overpowers all other influence on the actions of educators.

There’s this big, wide thing called education; our forebears understood its importance, and they rebelled and fought and died in order to secure a free public education system for their children. President Mirabeau B. Lamar of the Republic of Texas said “an educated mind is the guardian genius of democracy,” said essentially that we won’t be free without it. He didn’t mean passing a single test like a bunch of robots made us free; he meant developing Texas children into the fullness of their humanity would keep us free into perpetuity. And this thing, education, it lives and it breathes and runs and changes the world, and it does so outside the boundaries of an 8×12 inch bubble test. If we let them keep boxing in our kids, we will fail in our first duty—protecting our children.

But they’ll say, “Don’t worry. Scores on STAAR were really good.” Well, of course they were. The TEA sets the cut scores wherever it wants. You want to turn down the heat? Set a low cut score and, voila, we can all be proud of how well our kids did on the test and go back home.

Education takes courage. Ask a teacher. It’ll take courage for Texas leaders to realize that disproportionate investment combined with uniform performance goals is a betrayal of local communities. The state has set up cities to fail, and it has touted their constructed failure far and wide to take the heat off of itself for abdicating the state responsibility—spelled out in the constitution—of providing adequate resources for all Texas children to learn.

It’ll take courage for them to realize that some teachers and students shouldn’t be asked to do more with less as long as others are asked to do more with more. It’ll take courage for them to trust teachers, to look beyond the teacher-bashing rhetoric that has infected our discourse. It’ll take courage for them to call out the disingenuous folks who point to high-funded schools and say, “Look how much we’re spending on education” and then point to low-funded schools and say, “But look how poorly they perform!”

When teachers cry out in pain from trying and failing to educate kids who come to us with crippling needs, it’ll take courage to realize that maybe we aren’t just making excuses. Maybe, just maybe, we’re asking for help. Begging for help. Maybe the poor health care our students receive in Texas isn’t just an excuse; maybe poor children really are missing too much school due to preventable illness. An excellent teacher is not very excellent when the student isn’t there. Maybe the crime that affects our students’ homes isn’t an excuse; maybe it’s true that too many of our kids don’t get their homework done because one parent is locked up and the other one works all the time. Maybe traditional schools can’t kick the kids out who don’t do their homework (and don’t want to kick them out). Maybe we don’t have the leverage of telling kids to hit the road because they violated an academic contract, so we work with them; we never stop trying. Maybe poverty isn’t just an excuse; maybe tens of thousands of Texas children are bouncing from school to school one step ahead of the bill collector and getting an education that’s riddled with gaps. Maybe hunger isn’t an excuse; maybe children are going home for the weekend to empty cupboards and their schoolwork isn’t a priority. Maybe that’s why so many schools now have Backpack Buddies and send food home with kids on the weekends—to fill the gap left by a state that lost its heart for Texans in need. Maybe these things aren’t excuses. Maybe they’re realities in today’s Texas schools; and maybe someone in Austin will someday have the courage to avoid blaming teachers for the deep scars of injustice that hobble too many of the students they love.

Maybe someone in Austin will one day see the tears of a teacher, will know the teacher’s heart for children, and will understand that the “no excuses” rhetoric is ultimately a petty blame game. Maybe they will shun people who, never having personally agonized over how precisely to get a severely-struggling child to succeed in math, like to say our teachers embrace mediocrity.

The truth is, they embrace children, including the ones who come broken.

Maybe someone will lead us out of this wilderness, into the promised land of trust and collaboration. I hope so. The first step will be for that brave soul, whoever it is, to acknowledge that our accountability system is a ruse, that it conflates the effects of inequity with the effects of instruction. The primary purpose of the STAAR test and all its attendant bureaucracy is simply to con Texans into believing the ugly results of statewide injustice are really caused by localized incompetence. It takes the heat off of Austin, and it has worked beautifully for that overwhelmingly non-educational purpose.

I’m hopeful that together we’ll all come to see that ultimately the most important test we face in Texas is not made by Pearson. It’s a test of justice, and it was assigned by God.

If you enjoyed reading this article by John Kuhn, don’t forget to register for our annual conference where he will be the Keynote Speaker! 



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About the Author:

John Kuhn is a public school administrator in Texas and a vocal advocate for public education. His ”Alamo Letter” and YouTube videos of his 2011 speech at a Save Texas Schools rally went viral, as did his 2012 essay ”The Exhaustion of the American Teacher.” He has written two education-related books, 2013’s Test-and-Punish (Park Place Publications) and 2014’s Fear and Learning in America (Teachers College Press).

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