Another visit from the good ship 'Accountability'
Kudos. John Young speaks with passion about what concerns us all. There are many very quotable passages in this column
It's funny. Just the other night I saw the new principal of G.L Wiley Middle School, Dean Frederick, at the pancake house. I made a point to tell him how impressed I was with his campus.
I've been in that school maybe 20 times in the last 10 years. Every time, I've been impressed with the quiet, the cleanliness, and with the general community involvement. You also can't help but be impressed with Frederick. He commands respect.
I'm thinking back through the principals I've known at that school, each top-notch. But according to the Texas Education Agency and test scores, Wiley is a failing school. And if there's anything we all seem to believe in today, it's tests scores. Indeed, they are the new religion. And the state is coming with evangelists.
Wiley is conspicuous in a school system that was pronounced unitary – desegregated – by the U.S. Justice Department about 20 years ago. Wiley is virtually all black and virtually all economically disadvantaged.
It should surprise no one, no one at all, that Wiley struggles to make the kinds of grades the state gives to schools populated by children who have two SUVs in the driveway, high-speed Internet, the best of everything at home and on campus.
According to the state, Wiley and Doris Miller Elementary must make some systemic changes or face a staff shakeup or the school equivalent of the death penalty: closure. In either case, that would be like taking a hacksaw to East Waco and removing one of its ribs.
The state says it has the schools' and the students' best interests at heart in making these threats. I can't argue. Sufficient reading and math skills are essential.
But I fear for what else these top-down mandates will do for the children involved, and for the educators. I fear, for one, that an already-standardized, one-size-fits-all approach to learning will become more so. I fear an education bled of fascination, bled of gusto, bled of enrichment –an education that's not really education but training. You will pass this test. That is all.
I liked the comment from Frederick when he got the news of what the state might do.
“We're not going to close the doors or accept the fact of unacceptable ratings and give in,” he said. “We can't do that. We're talking about lives. We're not talking about doggone test scores.”
A few years ago, I stepped out of my role as newspaperman at one event and into the role of parent when my son's middle school, G.W. Carver Academy, was flagged for low test scores among one demographic group.
A review team came to see what Carver was doing wrong. To my eyes and those of the parents who came that night, the answer was “not much.”
At a hearing, every other word that came from the review team had to do with state test scores. But state test scores were barely relevant to why we had our children at Carver, a magnet middle school with a focus on science and technology.
Do we get a choice?
One of the out-of-towners suggested that the school faced state sanctions if those test scores didn't rise. When the time came for public comment, I said that I'd take state sanctions in a heartbeat over a school that spent all of its time teaching a state standardized test.
People who haven't darkened the door of a public school in decades have no idea how “accountability” has robbed those institutions of vitality, of zest, and of the intangible elements that make children want to succeed. There's only so much brow-beating, only so much drilling, only so many test-prep worksheets a small mind can endure without zoning out. Later, when the option is availed, that uninspired child will drop out.
So, as we focus on these basic skills – as if that hasn't been the fixation day after day after day in the “age of accountability” – the challenge will be to find ways to inspire, to evoke some wonder, to permit exploration, and still improve those doggone test scores.
John Young, editorial page editor