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First blame the teachers, then the parents

Valerie Strauss Comment:

This was written by Maja Wilson, who taught high school English, adult basic education, ESL, and alternative middle and high school in Michigan's public schools for 10 years. She is currently a teacher educator at the University of Maine while finishing her doctorate in composition studies at the University of New Hampshire. She is the author of Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment (Heinemann, 2006).

By Maja Wilson

The next victim of the Department of Education's campaign of blame? Parents!

We have been told repeatedly that our educational system is broken. Our response to this news says more about us than the news itself. If our children are indeed suffering, it might make sense to offer them what they need. Instead, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) and others in the school reform movement have engaged in a ceaseless campaign to demand "accountability" -- in other words, to figure out whom to blame.

This campaign has hinged on merciless and increased standardized testing of our children. The results of these tests form the basis for sanctions doled out to whomever is currently deemed guilty. Recent victims of these sanctions include students, teachers, administrators, and entire school districts.

Confronted with evidence that the accountability movement has undermined rather than improved education--by narrowing the curriculum, diverting resources from educating to testing, and putting anxiety rather than intellectual curiosity at the center of the educational process--the DOE simply looks for more parties to blame.

Peter Cunningham, the DOE's Assistant Secretary for the Office of Communications and Outreach, spoke Nov. 21 at the National Council of Teachers of English annual convention in Florida. During the question and answer session that followed, several teachers expressed frustration that teachers are always blamed first. Cunningham's response gives a clue to the next victims of the DOE's campaign of blame:

"...under the system we would like to propose, we would like to increase accountability for principals...[and] superintendents....I hear a lot of requests by teachers to put more of these accountability pressure on parents....I don't really have a good answer for how to do that...to force them to do what they're supposed to do...."

Despite Cunningham's claim of ignorance, his boss, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, does have an idea for how to "put the accountability pressure on parents."

When Duncan worked for Supt. Paul Vallas in the Chicago Public Schools, Vallas sent home report cards every five weeks—report cards that graded parents. Measures of good parenting included: enforcing bed times, dressing children in clean clothes, and showing up to school events.

Parents who didn't measure up were to receive sanctions including visits from school volunteers and "crash courses in parenting."

Whether or not Duncan plans to use his national platform to spread the blame to parents, this one-year experiment in Chicago should give us pause. In that pause, we should question whether or not accountability is the right frame for educating our children. The frame of accountability leads us to ask the following questions:

—Who is to blame?
—How can we measure the degree of their guilt?
—How can we punish them?

If answering these questions doesn't actually lead to improved education for our children, we start the cycle of unproductive questions again, starting with: Who else is to blame?

Perhaps the frame of accountability makes sense for dealing with corporations that stand to gain by putting the environment and the public’s safety at risk. But when it comes to our interest in the intellectual and moral development of all of our children, it is time to consider a different frame with a different set of central questions:

—What do children need to become intellectually curious and engaged, skilled, thoughtful, ethical, and knowledgeable citizens?

—What do parents and teachers need to support this development?

—How can we give what we have to parents, children, and teachers?

Notice, there is no blame in this frame and no measurement of guilt, simply an effort to understand what our children and schools need and how we can give that to them. Not only is there less anger and anxiety, but also more efficiency.

We can take all the energy and money spent on testing and sanctions and apply it directly to what we already know that children need: books, adequate food and medical care, and plenty of one-on-one time with skilled adults who are more interested in children's intellectual development than in their performance on multiple choice tests.

Naming this alternate frame is problematic. Responsibility might work because of its root word, "response.' But it proves too easy to substitute the word "responsibility" when we really mean "accountability," as in, "Let's hold parents responsible for their children's performance on standardized tests." In fact, that's precisely what Cunningham did minutes after I suggested responsibility as an alternate frame for accountability.

Testing, measurement, sanctions, and anxiety are at the heart of the accountability frame.

Needs, support, care, and giving are at the heart of an alternate frame.

Whatever we might choose to name the latter, I would challenge those who are concerned with the DOE's campaign of blame to stop trying to fiddle with the particulars of its policies ("Let's change the wording of this standard." Or, "Let's test in May rather than October.") Instead, let's invest our precious time and energy in imagining a different way to engage with our children and schools.

Educational reform that simply shifts or spreads the blame and redistributes the sanctions is no reform at all.

— Maja Wilson
Washington Post Answer Sheet





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