Key To Accountability: What Are We Locking Out?
Certain words get a free ride. When we read or hear them, they go directly to our emotions without passing through our brains.
"Natural" is such a word. In my local supermarket, it appears in big letters on boxes, bottles, jars, cans and wrappers, helping to sell bread, jelly, peanut butter, baby food, eye drops, hair spray, shampoo, hand lotion, Popsicles, ice cream, beans, cake mixes, cookies, cereal, digestive-system fiber, and much else. Fine print may point out that the word refers to only one ingredient, but fine print rarely gets read. If the word helps nudge a product off the shelf and into the grocery cart, it's done its work.
We have many such words and phrases: Lite. Freedom. NEW! Democracy. Competition. IMPROVED! We. Quality. Fat-free. Original. Organic. Liberators.
Add "accountability" to the list. Attached to "standards," as in the political mantra "standards and accountability," it's successful in the same way that the word "natural" is successful. It goes directly to voters' emotions without passing through their brains.
What does the word really mean? The dictionary isn't much help. It says that one should be accountable for one's acts; responsible; behavior should be defensible.
I don't know any teachers or school principals who reject the need for accountability. What's tearing a great many of them up, and sending some to early retirement, is deciding to whom they should be accountable. Official policy demands one thing; their desire to do what's best for kids demands something else.
Of course, most of those who're currently making education policy don't think that's a problem. They're sure that their demands are identical with what's best for kids, sure that everything important about educating can be measured and the result summed up in a single number or letter grade, sure, therefore, that No Child Left Behind's requirements for standardized testing, grade retention, school grading, public shaming and so on are real reforms.
And they've been very successful at convincing the general public that they're right, that their policies are the key to accountability. Those who oppose them -- those who point to mountains of contrary research and firsthand experience showing that the new policies are simplistic and will prove to be disastrously counterproductive -- get written off as unwilling to be held unaccountable.
There are, however, an increasing number of professionals angry enough to take a stand, and Nebraska's commissioner of education, Doug Christensen, is one of them. Nebraska's schools have a good reputation, and he aims to maintain and improve that reputation. What, then, should one think when he says, "I don't give a damn what No Child Left Behind (NCLB) says. I think education is far too complex to be reduced to a single score. . . . If it's bad for kids, we're not going to do it."?
Is he refusing to be held accountable? Irresponsible? Self-serving? Or is he seeing "accountability" as something owed to students rather than to politicians whose views are too often skewed by political considerations?
Christensen doesn't think Nebraska's schools are exemplary. But neither does he buy Washington's contention, echoed in most state capitols (with an eye on federal money), that NCLB is the key to improvement. He thinks the real problem is that schools really haven't changed much in the past hundred years and need more flexibility to rethink what they're doing and why. He argues that the curriculum lacks clarity, focus and coherence. He says schools -- particularly those above the elementary level -- are far too big, aren't sufficiently integrated with the communities they serve, and don't make adequate provision for how kids differ from each other. He thinks student educational experience doesn't flow smoothly from one level to the next, and believes research is a better guide to reform than what often passes for common sense.
Think about Christensen's list of problems. Not a single item on it lies primarily in the realm of teacher or student control and responsibility. Everything he thinks is necessary to improve the quality of schooling requires a loosening rather than a tightening of centralized, bureaucratic control.
Which means that the education-improvement monkey should be taken off the backs of students and teachers and put where it belongs -- on the backs of legislators in Washington and in state capitols. They've hung the "standards and accountability" slogan in the wrong place, and milked it for political advantage long enough.
Call or write those legislators. Tell them that Doug Christensen has it right, that more and more of their constituents know it, and you're going to hold them accountable.
Marion Brady, a longtime educator, lives in Cocoa. He wrote this commentary for the Orlando Sentinel. He can be reached at email@example.com.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES