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The Problem with School "Accountability"

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As we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century two seemingly mutually inclusive factors are becoming prominent in the debate about improving public education: the high-stakes testing movement and paying and retaining teachers based on test results. These "solutions" have become popular across the political spectrum and while it may sound logical to people outside of the education, those of us on the inside know that this is a simple answer to a complex problem.

Although there is movement to change some of the stricter regulations of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), we still seem to be governed by NCLB principles. For example, we give benchmark tests, we introduce remedial classes for students falling below the benchmark standards, we test again for proficiency, we implement computer-designed programs to improve test-taking skills, we have a form of pep rally prior to the actual test that will be used to measure progress and then we hold our breaths and wait for the results, which will invariably be published in a local newspaper. Low or declining scores set off a panic and improvement leads school administrators to talk about all the newly designed programs that brought success to the school district.

Is the effort to improve scores in basic skill areas necessarily bad? Of course not. It is essential for all students to acquire the basic skills of reading, writing and computation. In fact, competency is not enough. Students need to reach mastery. Any student who fails to master such skills will be entering the competitive job market of the post-industrial era with a decided handicap. However, this type of curriculum, with its concurrent pedagogy, has major pitfalls for teachers, students, schools and society at large.

What are some of the problems created by the school reform movement? The initial problem is the negative impact that it has on teaching. Instruction becomes a non-creative mechanistic process that constricts and constrains teachers and deprives them of using artistry in the act of teaching. Instead, school districts adopt textbook series that are teacher proof and formulaic. Another problem is the effect that this movement has on the curriculum. We are living in the age of high academic standards, but how can we truly implement standards across the board if we narrow our curriculum and instruction to the mastery of basic skills? The testing movement particularly at the elementary level dilutes and compacts the curriculum. In short, skill development is not enough. We must go beyond the basic skills and teach content; however, we must also transcend content and teach students how to apply the content. Which leads to another problem; specifically, the negative impact that this type of education has on students. If we are teaching for testing, what are we doing for thinking? Ironically, the testing movement is occurring at the same time that twenty-first century skills are being promoted. The twenty-first century skills are higher order ones such as analysis, application and synthesis. Perhaps former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich best described this when he wrote about “Symbolic Analysts” who could work with abstractions and systems in a collaborative environment. The idea of skills vs. content vs. understanding is a false dichotomy. We need to teach all but I fear that the testing movement is giving greater emphasis to the skill component of education with a corresponding reduction, or less emphasis, in the other two domains.

The linkage of teacher pay with student achievement is another aspect of the so-called education reform. Like testing this also seems superficially logical but it will prove difficult to implement and, in and by itself, is not a satisfactory or comprehensive method of evaluating the complex act of teaching. The evaluation of teachers, and salary, through student achievement poses issues related to equity. Do we evaluate all teachers through student tests or only those who have students tested for AP purposes? Do we develop assessments for all subject areas so that all teachers are included in the evaluation of teaching through testing? If so this will take time and money. Additionally, and of greater importance, any tests developed must include not only skills or knowledge but also higher order thinking components. This also is not insurmountable but will also take time and money and the tests must be reliable, valid and fair.

Two other factors must be taken into consideration when using tests to evaluate teachers: mobility and demography.

Mobility directly concerns students. Simply put, is it fair to evaluate a teacher through student testing when his/her building has a high move-in/move-out ratio of students? Urban education is often plagued by high student mobility and, I would venture, the people proposing plans to pay teachers based on student test scores are either unaware of or don't care about such high mobility.

The issue of demography must also be addressed. Any person who has ever worked in public education is aware of the fact that some families place a high priority on schooling and, hence, push their children toward achievement. Such families exist across the socio-economic axis; however, we also know that students from economically and culturally deprived environments, irrespective of race, face greater educational challenges than students from non-deprived environments. Moreover, these students tend to be clustered in certain schools and school districts. It is morally wrong to write-off the children from deprived environments but we must be realistic in our expectations. Yes, we must hold these children, and their parents accountable for learning but we must take their starting points into consideration.

Clearly, the process used to evaluate instruction needs reform but just as clearly it cannot solely be based on test results. The traditional system, an administrator using a clinical evaluation model, still has merit but it must be merged with other formats such as peer evaluation, portfolios and video-self evaluations. A careful analysis of test results, based on a value added method, can be used for part of an evaluation but only if applicable, universal and reliable tests can be developed. Again, this is not insurmountable but it is necessary. Testing, however, can only be a part of the evaluation process; by itself test results are not a panacea for evaluating teachers.

Schools, by nature and design, are complex institutions of teaching and learning. We must do many things especially the mastery of basic skills but, as written above, this is just a foundation. Students in this era, and the average kindergarten student will probably still be in the workforce in the 2060s, will be involved in a competitive global marketplace that will place a premium on higher order thinking skills and the ability to constantly engage in learning. I fear that the current accountability movement based on testing and its twin, the evaluation of teachers through test results will narrow the focus of education and deprive our children of the schooling they need for future success.