Tuesday, May 13, 2008

No Accounting

One thing I always find fascinating in political debates is the debate over terms. The abortion debate is a great example. It seems like half the battle is what to call each side. On the one hand, you have pro-life (which logically would be opposed by anti-life or pro-death). On the other side, you have pro-choice. Both sides are taking "pro" positions that don't really relate to the other one. You have life positioned against choice when most logical readings of those words would indicate that they are not mutually exclusive.

The environmental movement has also made a smart linguistic choice lately by shifting the focus from "conservation" to "sustainability." Conservation sounds static and limiting. In contrast, you can sustain a way of life, you can sustain growth, you can sustain the planet. A subtle shift, sure, but an important one.

Sometimes the words that get chosen are so powerful in themselves that it's next to impossible to argue against them, even if they are misused or apply to something that isn't all that desirable. In education, a great example is the recent focus on accountability.

Just saying the word you realize how impossible it is to argue against it. No one is going to argue for the right of teachers or administrators to be unaccountable. The very notion sounds so aloof and undemocratic. That's why every critique of NCLB starts, "I'm all in favor of teacher accountability, but ..." The very terms of the debate (such as it is) have skewed things entirely toward one side. The irony is that I'm not convinced how accountable the current systems in place actually make teachers and administrators.

Last week I posted my outline for a plan on how to improve education. It got generally good feedback (thank you) from readers, but the lack of testing and "accountability" in the plan was remarked on a few times. Where was the testing?

Frankly, I don't think that statewide high stakes testing does much to ensure accountability at all. Ahead of time it's unclear what the tests are going to be measuring. Afterwards it's not clear what contributed to success or failure. This, paired with the punitive response to test scores, make the accountability experiment a farce of itself.

Imagine that you work at a Starbucks. There are others in the area, but demand is such that your particular branch is open and filled most days. One day, a representative from corporate headquarters comes and gives you an evaluation. You knew the evaluation was coming, but all you know is that you're going to be evaluated on how good a Starbucks employee you are. Fine. You go about your day as usual. The representative thank you and leaves. You carry on as usual. Months later, you get your evaluation in the mail. Turns out you failed. No word on why, just that you did. Not only that, but a lot of other employees at your branch failed as well. Again, it's unclear what rubric you're being judged on. You don't get a raise and won't until you show on your evaluation that you can be a good employee. Not only that, but you're told that you'd darn well better improve before the next evaluation. However, in the meantime, Starbucks corporate headquarters will be trying to get some of your regular customers to go to other Starbucks locations. Your store is going to stay open because there's too much demand to be accommodated by the other stores, but you're going to be undermined as you stay open. So now you've got to improve in the amorphous area of being a good Starbucks employee as the system tilts against you. This way, the people at Starbucks headquarters say, you're accountable for your service.

Does this make sense? Is this accountability?

Obviously Starbucks doesn't do things that way. They run a successful business. They understand that accountability has to actually mean something.

Setting high expectatons, clearly stating standards, and offering meaningful feedback in a timely manner will all help (both the hypothetical Starbucks and the very real education system). But ultimately, high stakes tests are not the answer to creating better schools.

As I've witnessed it, the biggest difference between schools in the Bronx and schools on the Upper East Side is the level of parent involvement. And that goes back way before No Child Left Behind. The parents are there and that is what makes the school accountable. And that's also what makes the school successful. We need to start looking less at making schools "accountable" through high stakes testing and spend more time developing involved parents and communities so that the schools actually have someone to whom they can be held accountable.

1 comment:

Bridget said...

Before I began teaching at my current school (a charter), I would have completely agreed with you. However, I now believe that testing is *part* of the answer. At our school, teachers design their own standards and 6 benchmark tests around those standards which students take throughout the year. We evaluate data from those tests and modify our teaching according to the results. By the time our "high-stakes" state tests roll around, our kids are ready for them and they do well. We don't teach to the tests, but our students inevitably do well given all their preparation.

I hear you on the parental involvement, but I don't think that's the biggest piece. Many of our parents simply fill out a form at the beginning of the year and we never see them again. Some of our parents are extremely involved. The truth is, most low-income parents will never be as involved as some upper-income parents due to time constraints. That can't be an excuse for failing schools.