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    October 22, 2006

    The first I really realized where we might be going with the "Accountability" thing was a long while ago, and no doubt long after some very astute writers and thinkers already had a good idea what was really going on.

    During the time Bush first ran for President and Laura Bush was going to be interviewed by a major network, I made the mistake of watching TV, a rare thing. Several older teacher friends were going to watch and kind of hooked me with talking about it, as they admired her teaching background or what was being sold as "her teacher background," I was a little jaded at this point having a few too many "from Texas" suggestions coming into my teaching world around reading, knowing of Texan tendencies toward big talk. Anyway I watched and wrote down (as I do take a few notes so I can recall later) ...in the piece she sanctimoniously said (just my take on her tone all the time, sorry, one can apply the "takes one to know one rule") that her "problem" with their daughters' education was she and George never knew what they knew and a system was necessary to hold the children accountable and the teachers and students accountable for their learning...and it devolved from there. I went into school the next day to hear two older teachers talk chattily about her fine showing. They hadn't cared for Hilary so much, she was "too pushy" for them. Of course now both those teachers aren't in the business anymore retiring out under great resentment and anger over what did happen in our school in the next five years as we all nationwide got lockstep with the Bushes who were evidentally hard pressed at least in the teen years to know exactly what their girls were learning.So we started counting. Counting something immeasurable by counting a few items around the edges.

    I've been doing a lot of accounting and a lot of learning over the past eight Bush years and watching an exodus of the best and brightest from my District. I've been learning all about saying and doing, punishing by counting, seeing peers in teaching devolve and deconstruct and seeing students tracked and schools be faulted, labeled, identified, sanctioned and ultimately counted.And trying to be fair about all of that and trying to decide if something improved in all of that as I never thought things were just fine...in fact things were pretty messed up. I've watched and learned about Direct Instructional strategies as if they were a Savior and something very new, watched and learned about Standards based learning , as if that were a Savior and something very new, watched and learned about Scientific Research Based Instructional Programs, as if that were new...in short I've watched a lot of old tricks wearing new hats. With new faces and some very old faces like Anita Archer peering out from under the hats. The thing I saw then watching Laura Bush lament that was new and remains new and seems uniquely new to the world I inhabit(tho nothing ever really is that damn new in education) is the fact that I'm being punished for showing up to do my job, punished for trying to work in difficult situations, responsible for the fact Laura can't figure out her own children's levels and needs or progress through time, responsible for societal issues of equity and poverty and sitting in a position where a group of foul mouthed and lazy individuals can take shots at you....that's a kind of accountability I find rather onerous. But even that wouldn't get me to take time blogging or writing or "emoting." What seems new is the level to which child as "commodity" has now entered the dialog. That's a kind of counting, counting the dollars you can make, that's a new one for me.

    Let me at least give an example of the tone of that kind of thing.....or spin a story. One that I use in my own thinking about ACCOUNTING, one of WHAT REALLY COUNTS....to me....

    Preaching Hell Fire

    I just lost another kid in Greenfield. Murder. The news came from Steve, among my dearest and oldest friends, after a trip home. It isn't the first one. The child lost his mom to breast cancer when he was seven. It meant he hadn't learned to read, that second grade year was a loss for him. Jorge was learning something else. His mom didn't get the care she needed, it was discovered and she died. Sometimes that's how it is for migrant field workers. Such a hurt little boy; he wore a medal around his neck his mom gave him before the end. To protect him. Her passing was too much for the family. His Dad was an older man who was mystic, his much older brothers in jail for gang whatever. The dad was so wonderful I can't think how he'll bear this. Long ago, he made wreaths of grapevines for me. One is on my wall. He worked all his life in the grapes. My grandfather and he were physically similar in crisp white long sleeve shirts, neat as a pin. His boy was dressed the same. His father came in to see me, standing aside from the door, at times I'd miss seeing he was there and then a thought would come and I'd look up. He was a naturalist, found fossils and other artifacts in the soil sharing them with us. I doubt in his life he did anything lacking dignity. This man was one who worked back-breakingly hard and who only wanted better for his boys. But all of them came to an end in crime and violence. Practically speaking the transition between cultures and worlds did not go well. I've seen that many times in this teaching life. The death of his wife aged him. I do not think he spoke any English but we communicated about as well as I have with any parent. He respected me and I was honored for that. He did not read and his wife like many similar Hispanic migrant families took care of the children in regards to many things like school. When his son was in fourth grade, in my class, he felt "stupid" and he felt "different". He was defensive and he got into problems when people didn't understand the issues he was juggling. I truly liked the child but gave him a wide berth, pressuring this boy was like adding to your own issues and to his, it was better to let him roam a little. I saw many others fail with him later as he went on in the grades, direct confrontation was not the way to go. Then he acted like a jackass. I saw it, sometimes I walked up and stopped it cold, sometimes the teacher involved would perceive it as my "showing off" or commenting on their failure and I let it ride. He got so he lowered his head and avoided eye contact. That concerned me greatly. We did work on his poor reading, not enough I'm afraid. Jorge never really got beyond certain key issues, he felt defensive, he wanted to impress others, he felt less than others, inferior, and he didn't see his own capacities. Given all that I am attempting to dialog about in teaching I have to just say this explicates very clearly the price paid when a child does not recognize their own worth, their own, if you will, divinity. It is not without seriousness I raise up Jorge before the reader's eyes. Perhaps his passing can allow us to think about children living in the here and now. They need to connect to their talents, they need to connect to forces of self-confidence, and their strength cannot be that of an over-compensation for deeply held insecurity. They cannot go forth as bullies or as hollow men. He always struggled in school. He was shot over messing with a gang leader's girl. Or something equally senseless. I couldn't take it in because a close friend had called that morning to tell me about her daughter who I taught two years later. And that news was very hard to hear too.

    I met a beautiful sun-kissed little girl named Nikki really on a fieldtrip I took with my husband's class and hers to Point Lobos. She was a free spirit, I saw her on the yard many times gaily playing, happily enjoying the day and being a little, tiny, frolicking girl. On the fieldtrip her tummy hurt so I cuddled her up and tried to talk her through the fifty mile, windy trip. Coming home I did the same. I know how it feels to be carsick and Nicole was feeling really green. She told me about her mom, a teacher at our school that I was coming to really admire, her brother, things she liked to do, she tried to laugh, she had a great laugh, tried to be tough on our drive. But her tummy felt really badly. I still feel like I'm curling her up by me, but now she is a new mommy with many cares of her own.

    I hadn't talked to Nikki's mom in a long, long while. When I do, I feed off her innate kindness and recharge my battery for teaching. Her mom cares about people, each and everyone. Sometimes I think that Lisa doesn't know yet about the darkness. At least somehow she escaped cynicism and so much of her naivete seems to be still in play. It is delightful to be in her company, you age backward. Much I do in my room I lifted directly from watching her teach. I just stole it outright. When a situation is sticky or I feel I'm losing control of it somehow I just stop and pretend to be her. I try to visualize myself as Lisa approaching the situation or the child. In this way she has saved me over and over and over again. Lisa is a savior of many of us, for her children in class it is a time when the world works in a fair way and the path of love is something that holds on to you with the comfort of a homemade quilt. Lisa is living Christ, her nearest and dearest protector. To see her any other way is to be blind.

    Her daughter was hurt when she was in my class, hurt deeply. A boy in the class I tried pretty hard to get in some kind of program because he was such a psychopathic personality and thus a danger beyond reason, assaulted her. Fifth graders are not equipped to process things like this, no one is, but a child with such goodness in her was certainly not. I suffered crushing headaches and a collapse from this event losing months of school, also getting ironically pertussis from one of her classmates almost to the day of the assault, and then what they thought was meningitis or a spinal form of the pertussis, at any rate from the day of her attack onward for years I had a physical crisis. It might have just been coincidence but it seemed and felt like a violation of my humanity, and a synchronistic event. I could not cope with it to bring it to any good resolution. The root of my connecting the illness is a tendency I have for collapse in the face of having no power to intervene in situations of great injustice. The Principal evaded his job with cowardice beyond what I thought possible for him, the boy went on with no help for his tormenting and tormented existence, Nicole had to face him again at school which was ridiculous, she was challenged and disbelieved and invalidated by the school system reaction-which was to protect itself, my friends were just in distress beyond reason and what good could come of it? What came of it was a kind of tear in the fabric of the child. I believe it was impossible for her to recover from this, in some deeper sense. I knew then that hard days would come and so did Lisa. It was harder and harder to be this beautiful child in Greenfield anyway because she came from two people not of the place, her talents and her spirit were very free, she was extremely naïve, she was attracted to action, to fun, to laughter. Her peers did not appreciate her true self, she was not of the place, her writing talents were not recognized for what they were, the child could see right and wrong, she could figure out when an adult was hiding behind their authority, she could see through you, yet she had no timing and screen to protect her from what those kinds of abilities draw to you. She is not rejecting but she can direct back to you your inconsistencies. She held her ground at times when she needed to give way and didn't hold her ground when she needed to, funny thing. She was raised by the love of two parents who did it all right. They nurtured her and she landed into an environment with unfair rules, hurt, pathologies, criminals, poverty, injustice, things not of the making of her family. It was into this school system she went with no guardian angel. If you read Tennessee Williams, a 2nd cousin, you know this person, delicate china in the bullpen.
    I know this kind of child.
    I always worried.
    And so not hearing from my friend in her daughter's later high school years and into what is almost her 20th year I worried. Then came a call.

    The details are many, the facts just a few, drugs tore Nikki a bit further. Now she's trying to crawl from a pit, with the help of parents and church she's trying to find her feet. My friend's voice I can hear as it did long ago breaking with the ache we know as parents with the torment, turmoil and fear we bear bringing kids through the kinds of dangers that they face in our world today. Drugs, gangs, violence, molestation, these things are the backdrops of the modern parental psyche. When they go in their front yard we visualize a monster with a van driving to drop the body, when they walk in the mall we see the leers, we notice the tattoos that have the marks of the devil and his Nazi associates, we see the hand of death in the drugs that they may take trying to fit in, cut loose and discover who they are. They have such low valuation of themselves they put poison into their bodies and their brains are more than damaged, they are reprogrammed. At two when my daughter Sophia disappeared in the Macy's I screamed and ran and screamed and ran until she just sauntered out, I was sure she had been stolen. I aged ten years. Lisa's voice carried the sound of the deepest fear parents have, losing to these forces in a time the world is too busy to wake up and face what the things signal. It is so hard to hear such pain and in your soul you know we are all collectively in the soup. Whether we do face it or not, as a group or on an individual level, pain is intensifying. The time is coming to figure out why children are allowed to suffer these things, what it all really means. Collectively we have bred hardships for kids of a psychological nature. Think of what is in their mind after September 11th; think of the families lining up to watch the killer thriller as a "family fun night". Think of the new American dream, " I want to be a millionaire." Think of the kind of thing this is really about, my friend. Terror is the ground we are all walking lightly through hoping it will just not take ours.(too often equated with if I just have enough money I can isolate myself) It isn't fair for a teacher to not address this directly in any discourse on teaching. Children everyday are falling victim to things that are signs of forces from hell, either unconsciously collected, or simply arising to force a response. We will either see all children as our own or suffer together as are own are turned into victims one by one to those we failed. Accountability systems to promote reading success through loads of testing skim a surface that really is masking a need to try to get things right again, to return it to a time we think has gone by, to make us "accountable" for what is going on with our kids and everybody else's. Times are really difficult for our children. The adults have lost their minds.
    Just look at the side of your milk carton.

    Nikki is now a new, new momma. Given irony and her own intelligence she named her Keziah, for Job's daughter, after God returned to him a family. Another to replace that torn from him after the trial by fire. I know the child can make it, will do it, I know that she can turn her life into the brilliant blossom it was meant to be with her laughter filling up to the skies. I really don't care what job she holds or what college and I want only the best, but what I want for her is "Happily Ever After", just as I do for my own. I know her baby will serve to heal my friends and I pray they do not feel failure. You do not fail when you meet the forces of hell with good hearts doing the best that you can to raise your child. The forces are designed to ruin you. My dear friends brought a gift to the world through their love for one another and the collective problems of the world hurt that gift. That is just unfair, and it tests all of our faith. Now Nikki will need much love to give her a chance to go forward. She will need to love herself. Nikki must forgive herself for things that were wrong that she did and find the good within her and work from that center. But as her teacher I cannot help but feel the deepest kind of angst because I know to such tests children are often sent, and it is a test of the very hardest kind. Long ago I told her class these tests would come. These are the only ones that matter, for to fail them is to lose yourself. It was my job to tell them, and I knew many would face them alone.
    But for many years I've struggled so with how do I prepare them for these tests of the forces of hell?

    Accountability for Whom ?

    JP: These days the talk about schools is mired in the stuff of "accountability." So to begin this dialogue, I thought I would copy and paste an entry from Wikipedia on the word. Wiki is a great web site, that many in education now hold in negative regard, because its not Webster's and its only really accountable to its readers or really, the ether. Anyway, here is what Wiki says about accountability:

    Accountability is a concept in ethics with several meanings. It is often used synonymously with such concepts as answerability, responsibility, blameworthiness, liability and other terms associated with the expectation of account-giving. As an aspect of governance, it has been central to discussions related to problems in both the public and private (corporation) worlds.

    At its root, accountability involves either the expectation or assumption of account-giving behavior. The study of account giving as a sociological act was first explicitly articulated in a 1968 article on "Accounts" by Marvin Scott and Stanford Lyman, [1] although it can be traced as well to J.L. Austin's 1956 essay "A Plea for Excuses," [2] in which he used excuse-making as an example of speech acts. Communications scholars have extended this work through the examination of strategic uses of excuses, justifications, rationalizations, apologies and other forms of account giving behavior by individuals and corporations, and Philip Tetlock and his colleagues have applied experimental design techniques to explore how individuals behave under various scenarios and situations that demand accountability.

    In politics, and particularly in representative democracies, accountability is an important factor in securing good governance and, thus, the legitimacy of public power. Accountability differs from transparency in that it only enables negative feedback after a decision or action, while transparency also enables negative feedback before or during a decision or action. Accountability constrains the extent to which elected representatives and other office-holders can willfully deviate from their theoretical responsibilities, thus reducing corruption. The relationship of the concept of accountability to related concepts like the rule of law or democracy, however, still awaits further elucidation.

    In Britain, accountability has been formally identified by Government since 1995 as one of the Seven Principles of Public Life[3]: "Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office." The goal of accountability is at times in tension with the goal of leadership. A constituency may have short-term desires which are at odds with long-term interests. It has also been argued that accountability provides in certain situations an escape route for ministers to avoid the consequences of ministerial responsibility, which would require resignation.[4]

    In other states, in particular outside the Anglo-American world, the concept of accountability is less familiar. Recently, accountability has become an important topic in the discussion about the legitimacy of international institutions.[5]

    In another view, accountability is a simple word that, at its root, means: "the willingness to stand up and be counted -- as part of a process, activity or game." In this sense, then, accountability is less something I'm held to, or something done to me; rather, it is a word reflecting personal choice and willingness to contribute to an expressed or implied outcome.

    When I think about the current discourse on accountability in education, like most things, I think it has some good and some bad and some ugly. So, first, the good: There are some places in America, many urban and some rural settings where our society has allowed schools and systems to decline to such a point that buildings are falling down, the locations are unsafe, and the educational opportunities are few and far between. We have heard the names of the Compton's and locations in LAUSD here in California. These schools like many others contribute to the many factors that cause half of the Hispanic, Black, and Native American students in our state to drop out of school. These schools may have had a light shined on them through NCLB and other state accountability efforts. These schools have likely been accountable to few of their students and families in the past. So perhaps, the current accountability regime may have a good impact on these schools. We shall see. Another good that comes from the accountability culture that we have now is the trend that is emerging that more schools are looking at those kids who don't succeed in their schools and are using data to help improve teaching and programming for these kids. The methods some schools use in this process may be another story, but as an overall effect, I think its good schools are looking out for the underdogs more. I think its good that teachers learn to use assessments to measure growth in achievement and to inform their instructional processes. The same goes for schools.

    The bad, well, its hard to know where to begin. Perhaps its best to begin by looking at some of the outcomes of the accountability and testing trend of recent years. Outcomes like the narrowing of curriculum and instruction. The over emphasis on standardized testing. The elimination of science and social studies and P.E. and Art and music and gardens and all the good stuff of school. No time for that I guess. In addition, there's the flight from the profession of the experienced teachers who can't take it anymore and the new teachers who didn't realize what they were getting into and the rise in power of the educators who accept these outcomes whole hog as a badge of allegiance to the system and blindly go where the factory requires. More kids will likely pass the tests in these conditions while more kids will likely drop out of school. More kids will likely pass the reading passage tests while less love to read and turn to the X-box. More students will be alienated as they are processed and less will be inspired or loved. There's no time for love and anyway love is dangerous because with it comes with the natural tendency to encourage conditions of freedom, expression, individualism, and hope.

    Now the ugly; the accountability trend in recent years in our society has scape-goated schools and teachers as the failures of our children. This is the biggest ugly out there. It is ugly on two levels, first it is intended to hide the fact that our current government is doing little to demonstrate concern for children and particularly poor children. They are unconcerned about their health, their safety, and whether or not they wash away in a flood or die in the sands of Iraq. They are unconcerned and growing more unconcerned. But for me this is not the biggest ugly. No I reserve that for the rest of us who have been so collectively sheep-like and apathetic, self-concerned and hypnotized by a pursuit of youth, sex, consumption, and play such that our most dramatic form of resistance to these forces is watching bad and repetitive comedic sarcasm and cynicism on our t.v.s and pc.s (oh yes) and macs too. I am sure that the ugly is uglier because we are waiting for the MLK's and the JFK's and the other iconic leaders to come lift us out of this stuff, but we will wait till we all achieve NCLB's goal, 100% proficiency for all kids in reading and math, or till hell freezes over for that to happen. MLK and JFK are dead. They were killed. That is an ugly. Who has ever been held accountable for that? Who will be held accountable for the death of the teacher as an icon of unconditional love and support, the sower of dreams, the quiet inspiration as either sage on the stage or guide on the side, who will be held accountable?
    Should we look to the GATEs foundation or Disney's teacher awards to construct a new icon, at 30K a year for starters? This society counts money and only money. Who is accountable for this sole/soul consuming value? This society may talk a more inspiring talk, but now even in the schools, it walks the walk of money focus and class division and there's no time for the arts in school anymore, except in the private schools where the exodus has begun…

    "If you want to build a ship don't herd people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

    —Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

    2006-11-06 10:18:08


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