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Holding Accountability Accountable: What Ought to Matter in Public Education

Publication Date: 2004-10-28

This review appears at TC Record online
http://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentID=11386 and will appear in the February issue of the journal.

In this essay collection, ten well-respected educators join Kenneth A. Sirotnik to offer perspectives on ?miseducative, misdirected, and misanthropic? (p.6) high-stakes testing practices. That is Sirotnik?s description. Other contributors are more tempered in their language. Probably these language differences account for the fact that I found Sirotnik?s opening and closing pieces the most stimulating in the book. Living in troubling times as we do, we need language that?s passionate, language that stirs people up and moves them to action.

Sirotnik devised a structure to make this collection more cohesive than most essay compilations. He sent each contributor a series of eight claims for more responsible accountability (which he includes in the introduction), asking each author or author team to unpack one of these claims.

I found it disquieting that Sirotnik announced right off that ?None of us . . . are against standards. None of us believe that there are no good uses for test-based assessment or evaluation strategies.? (p.9) It would have been good to have a dissenter, someone who thinks standards are the cause of our current malaise. But what we get are historians, philosophers, and policy analysts who know a whole lot about assessment once again staking out the territories on which they are expert. Even Sirotnik acknowledges that it is old ground, commenting in his concluding remarks that there has been a long line of similar efforts, critical voices of educators deconstructing traditional accountability and ?its record of longevity and failure? (p.154).

That said, there is material of interest and value. Not earth-shaking or paradigm-rattling, but of interest.

Larry Cuban points out that because of the current test-based accountability mechanisms driving standards-based reform, only one version of a good public school has been reaffirmed?a college preparatory model that begins in preschool and extends through high school graduation. In a related vein, Harvey Siegel explains that Florida?s FCAT presents a remarkably narrow view of education, the skills needed to compete in the global economy. Siegel worries that high-stakes testing and accountability efforts are typically conducted without any attention to developing critical thinkers or to any other defensible and fundamental educational ideal.

But neither Cuban nor Siegal?nor anybody else in the book?mentions the impact of this policy on specific kids; we don?t read about high schoolers in Massachusetts or New York or California who want to be pipefitters or welders or auto mechanics or chefs or beauticians but are denied a high school diploma because they can?t or won?t fit into the mandated college prep programs that corporate America has decreed must be required for everyone.

I?m grateful to Nancie Beadie for observing that ?To use the phrase ?student accountability? is already to perform a metaphorical slight of hand that imports a language of finance into education? (p.35). But, ironically, the book is riddled with similar ugly language that too many people now take for granted. I wince especially hard when I stumble over ?critical stakeholders.? Nor do I want to let people off the hook for using those easy phrases ?knowledges and skills and dispositions? in the absence of any discussion of real kids.

In his new book Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap Richard Rothstein observes that ?scholars have never been able to attribute more than about a third of student achievement variation to school effects? (p.56-7). That being the case, isn?t it rather presumptuous of experts to be making claims about what we?re going to be doing with student dispositions? I?m a longtime teacher, and I?m here to say that dealing with kids? reading difficulties is a plenty big; never mind their dispositions. I?d like to see the corporate-politico-academic alliance start with the easily doable things that Rothstein mentions, like feeding kids breakfast and fixing their teeth. Rothstein says if improving test scores is what we care so much about, then breakfast and tooth care will do it.

In his essay, Pedro Noguera touches on the need for schools to provide these services that Rothstein documents will improve test scores. Noguera also observes that it?s not new to discover that demographics predict school rankings, but ?never before [NCLB] have policy makers construed labeling schools and districts as ?failing? as a strategy for improvement and reform? (p.69).

Unfortunately, Noguera also insists that ?all teachers should be able to demonstrate that they add value to the knowledge and skills possessed by students, and that during the course of a school year their students experienced some form of academic growth? (p.76). Add value. That?s rhetoric straight out of the Business Roundtable, the thugs who got us into our current mess. I hear a term like adding value, and I figure it?s time to pull out my asparagus story. Even though anecdotes are an anomaly in academic discourse, here it is.

When I announced to my seventh and eighth grade rotten readers that we were going to exchange notes every day, they looked at me like I was nuts. Why would they write to me when I was standing right there?

But like most urban teachers, I was tough. I didn?t give up, and before long Michael, the loudest complainer, was a devoted note writer. This kid who was, if the condition exists, a classic dyslexic, took his little spiral bound notebook on the family vacation, writing me a note every day, even when I wasn?t there to answer.

During the winter, I complained a lot about shoveling sidewalks and driving on icy roads, but Michael advised me that he just took the months as they come. As spring approached I began asking kids what was the first sign of spring. I told them that for me it was the asparagus ads in the newspaper. They thought that was a typical teacher remark and gave me a hard time about my devotion to asparagus. But they also began tearing ads out of the newspaper and leaving them on my desk: Who could find the best asparagus buy for Ms. Ohanian?

Michael won. He wrote me about going to Boston and insisting that his family take time out from their busy schedule to visit an open air market to check the price of asparagus. He reported, ?$1 a pound. But Boston?s a long way to go for asparagus.?

Every time I talk to teachers, I show Michael?s (badly spelled) letter. They instantly recognize it as testimony to what we?re about. Not assessable value added but heart, faith, and grit. And do I dare add love? Once when I read Michael?s letter, a teacher came up afterwards. She was his first grade teacher, and she still lives next door to his parents. Michael, a kid who wouldn?t pass today?s New York Regents, is a chef in a whoop-de-doop, upscale restaurant, making a whole lot of money.

So where?s the ?value added? here? All I know is I?m claiming partial credit for Michael?s success. After all, I introduced him to an interest in asparagus.

When Michael graduated from 8th grade, his mother wrote me a lovely letter, thanking me for all I?d done. She told me she was going to call, but Michael told her to write. He said, ?When you care about somebody and when you?re going to say something important, you write a letter.?

That?s the very scary thing about being a teacher: You can?t hide behind rhetoric. You can only teach. who you are.

Roger Soder makes a pitch for civic education as the central function of American schooling?teaching students their moral and intellectual responsibilities as critical and informed citizens in a democracy. He also calls for a ?responsible system of assessment and accountability based on all the complexities of civic education? (p.112). I wrote ?Why?? in the margin. I happen to think that Soder is right in advocating education for democracy, but in my bones I wonder what it would take for a scholar to say the emperor has no clothes and we don?t need that great an emphasis on assessment, granular data, and other things that go bump in the night.

I could cite lots of examples from my work in an alternative high school, trying to rescue young thugs who weren?t allowed to set foot on the regular high school grounds. Our system of assessment and accountability was both rigorous and individualistic--to each kid. They did not all have to do the same thing to earn a high school diploma from us, and certainly they didn?t travel on the same time frame. The Board of Education assumed we were both expert and honorable in signing off on each student?s worthiness. Imagine that. Those were the halcyon days of education, when teachers? judgments were respected and even trusted. And the commissioner didn?t demand a score on a state test that would interrogate kids on everything from a polynomial function to an Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet.

Jeannie Oakes, Gary Blasi, and John Rogers note that much of what they advocate is ?patently obvious? (p.96): For children to be educated, they require basic educational tools?teachers, books, and safe, healthy, uncrowded schools. So obvious and yet so far out of reach for so many schoolchildren. They discuss the infamous Williams v. State of California complaint in which the plaintiffs assert that because Eliezer Williams and thousands of other students like him are forced to attend schools without sufficient numbers of ?trained teachers, necessary educational supplies, classrooms, even seats in classrooms, and facilities that meet basic health and safety standards? they are ?deprived of essential educational opportunities to learn? (p.82). California has been shelling out gazillions of millions to fight this suit.

Last winter, I read depositions in the Williams case and was stunned to read the testimony and interrogation of Dr. Thomas Sobol, former commissioner of education for New York. Sobol was one of four experts testifying for the students who donated their time and their expertise, without fee. Other experts, and they were numerous, received from $100 to $500 an hour?to testify in endless depositions. And to write expert reports. We?re talking very big bucks adding up for the good guys and the bad guys. But of import here is the fact that the state?s lawyers gave Sobol a very hard time because his expert report did not cite other expert reports.

Sobol acknowledged this, saying, ?The report does not cite formal studies of those matters. I based my opinion on a lifetime of work in the schools in a variety of roles.? The state?s attorney dismissed this. Day-to-day work in the schools has no value?even if that work included being a teacher, a superintendent, and a state commissioner of education.

For $300 an hour you get expert testimony. For $19.95 you get a book by experts.

Even Kenneth Sirotnik concludes that ?contrary to claims that a new day has dawned in public school accountability concepts and practices. . . we continue mostly in the dark ages of old accountabilist arguments that have failed to deliver in any significant and lasting way? (p.154).

I would ask the accountabilists, the folk who argue the good cause in this volume, Where?s the call for resistance? What does it take to get a revolution? In introducing The Best American Travel Writing 2003, editor Ian Frazier notes that explorer (and great-uncle of the diplomat) George Kennan?s book about Siberian prisons helped bring down the czars. Imagine that. Maybe it?s asking too much, but I?m disappointed that these essays aren?t going to bring down anything. They?re too comfortable, make too few demands, protect too much. Frazier says that ?most reporting is a collaboration between mind and motion. To get it right you have to cover some ground. Go for a jaunt, look around.? I?d invite the expert commentators on assessment to journey to Birmingham, Alabama, and visit the World of Opportunity, born out of the discovery that in the name of accountability, 522 students were summarily dismissed from the schools with identical paperwork indicating ?lack of interest.? Since then, Steve Orel and the World of Opportunity have shown us something important about that lack of interest. Hundreds of young people have put themselves back in school to pursue training and education, to earn their GEDs, to learn job skills, to go to college. In Birmingham and across the country, the atrocities continue. Students don?t drop out; in the name of accountability, they are pushed out. When discussing student knowledge and skills and dispositions, Steve Orel will tell you that some days what those young people in Birmingham really need is not a new system of accountability but 35 cents for a bowl of hot noodle soup.

We can spend another few decades dissecting this problem of accountability, but we?ll still have the same question we started with: What are we going to do about it?

References

Frazier, I. (ed.) (2003). The Best American Travel Writing 2003. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.


Rothstein, R. (2004). Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap. New York: Economic Policy Institute.





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