Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What should schools be held accountable for?

We interrupt this series, "Passion Solves Problems," to bring you the following post. The final problem solved by passion, Behavior and Discipline, will be presented in the next blog post.

I have been slowly absorbing a book of essays called Democratic School Accountability, edited by Ken Jones, a professor of education at the University of Southern Maine. This has been a long time coming for me; assessments and accountability in education have been issues for which I have felt a great yawning lack of interest. Let others worry about it. I just want kids to be happy at school. Test scores, outcome numbers, educational assessments all make my eyes glaze over.

But you can't pretend to know anything about education in America if you don't devote time and attention to the issue of accountability.

These issues yield a rich motherlode of jargon. Assessments, learning outcomes, student achievement, standardized testing, high-stakes testing, test-based accountability are all in the jumble of words we use to judge the job schools are doing. I am going to do my level best, as a lay person, to use these terms appropriately but they fly around my head like houseflies. The more they are used, the less meaning they seem to have, and the more annoying they are. In the end, I hope I will have made the case for breaking through all the jargon and figuring out what we really need to know about how our kids are being educated.

Here's the scoop as I understand it: assessment is the tool we use to measure achievement; accountability is the school's responsibility to report these achievement measures to the community at large. I acknowledge the right we have as a society to know how well our tax dollars are beings spent on education. The problem is that it is nearly universally regarded that the assessments that provide the best accountability are the testing of students.

Since NCLB, accountability has had an added knife-edge: punitive measures imposed on school districts as a result of poor achievement numbers. Schools are being held accountable through these high-stakes tests, and to many, this only makes sense.

But we need to take a look at what high-stakes testing measures, and how that compares to what we as a community value for our kids. We all make judgments on schools based on test scores, even those of us who reject them, since they are the only current measure, so let's take a look at what they are telling us...and what they can't tell us.

Tests measure the most basic of outcomes: the answer to a question, which is either right or wrong. If this sort of assessment was applied to measure the narrowest possible view of education, there might be ways in which it could be made useful. But the narrow view tests give us has become the sole picture of schooling on which we base all our judgments of the system. Using those results as the measure by which we make decisions on whether the school that produced them lives or dies is positively fatal to efforts to create the conditions in which learning can happen. Something else is in the driver's seat; deny it though we might; it is the very pursuit of test-based accountability that has created the ongoing and increasing failure of public schools.

Over the last ten years, schools nationwide have narrowed and contracted the curricula and become test-prep organizations. In doing so, one might imagine test scores in the US would have risen -- but that has not happened. Test scores have stagnated. The institution, in its panic to produce these test results for their survival, have had to rid itself of the very learning experiences that would engage and enrich its students, and even, quite possibly, produced better test results (a nice paradox, is it not? Well, it's my own theory, and most experts probably disagree with me!).

In his book, Ken Jones lays out a system of accountability that would give a healthier and more robust view of how schools are doing. What does he believe schools should be held accountable for?

*The physical and emotional well-being of students;
*The learning of students, and the assessment of that learning;
*Teacher learning and evaluation;
*Equity and access to learning for all;
*The continuous improvement and renewal of the organization.

All the above categories for which our schools should be accountable are reasonable to expect from a system, Jones argues. I'd like to pay particular attention today to the first one.

At first glance it seems an achievable and obvious goal. Schools need to provide a safe place for kids. It is ongoing work that needs vigilance and proactive approaches, but the goal is clear. However, if you think of this job as creating the conditions in which learning can happen, you can see that it is a complex challenge, and one that will be different for every child.

The topic of how to create these conditions is too great for this blog post; my intention is only to show that if a system does not devote time and energy to doing this work, children will not learn, and no test, no matter how well-aligned with curriculum, scientifically designed and professionally administered, will give you a key to how a school needs to improve.

My own focus has always been on giving children the respect they need in order to learn. The respect they are accorded by their teachers turns into self-respect once students realize they are being seen and heard for who they are. I also talk a lot about devoting time and resources to the individual passions, interests, and strengths of children.

It occurs to me now that passion is a process.
Coming to an understanding of who each child is becomes a demonstration of the respect the institution has for them. It is this respect that creates the conditions in which learning can take place. Is it testable? No, it is not.

There is simply no way that an institution forced to dedicate itself only to quantifiable outcomes can create an atmosphere in a school where every child is respected for who he or she is.

Another essay in Ken Jones' book, written by Jean Whitney, professor of special education at USM, tells the story of a student named Helen, who is dedicated to becoming a nurse. Shadowing Helen throughout her school day, Whitney witnesses instances where she is very much respected and her needs honored, and instances where teachers and students alike disrespect and disregard her. Her devotion to succeeding in school and becoming a nurse despite a learning disability is very great, but if not for those few individuals who respected her needs and abilities, you can clearly imagine her spiraling downward into total disengagement.

The testing culture we live in now has meant the narrowing of the curriculum, eliminating all but what is perceived to contribute to higher test scores; and the narrowing of our incentive to figure out who these kids are. The struggle to create the conditions in which children can learn is done when it can be fitted in around those goals.

So what is a school district to do? Join the battle to eliminate high-stakes testing, for one; be aware of the damage to children that is caused by test-based accountability, for another. Don't try to deny that this has an impact on your school district. Don't deny that we are entirely focused on "teaching to the test." Acknowledge that the incentives imposed on us from the outside have had a negative impact on the institutions and children in our care. Try to minimize the damage. Figure out how to find the time and resources for each teacher to come to understand who each of his or her children are; bring out their self-respect by showing respect for them.

Show up to school-board meetings. Follow the testing debates. Insist that the focus on test-based accountability be removed. It is the only way to develop the kinds of learning institutions in which all our children can thrive.


  1. These are tough times. It's hard to figure out the balance of tests and engaging learning for students. The problem is that the Government needs some kind of quantifiable results. We know that students learn best when they are engaged and challenged by the content. My hope is that we give students deep meaningful learning activities and they will do just fine on the test. That probably wouldn't fly when a supervisor comes by, but at least I can try....

  2. I'd argue that the Gov't doesn't NEED those quantifiable results, but they want them, for their own reasons. If they left accountability to the local school district, the district could fashion an accountability system and report that to the bureaucracy. It could include standardized testing, but those tests don't need to be given every year, or even every other year; and the results shouldn't be connected to financial support. Remember, Finland only gives a standardized test to their students ONCE.

  3. I do like these:

    *Equity and access to learning for all;
    *The continuous improvement and renewal of the organization.

    I mean, blah blah blah testing.....

  4. Great post. I really don't there is a question about the lack of results and the damage done by the accountability movement and its ancillary reforms. Not if you have a kid in school.

  5. After reading most of Ken Jones' book, I'm very curious to get a dialogue going on what a community, meaning parents, grandparents, business owners, young people, etc., feel the school system should be held accountable for. We need to hold a public institution accountable for its use of public funds, but what is important to us to know about what our schools are doing and how to measure its success?

  6. Terrific post. I particularly liked this sentence:There is simply no way that an institution forced to dedicate itself only to quantifiable outcomes can create an atmosphere in a school where every child is respected for who he or she is.

    This is one of the best rebuttals to the testing culture I've read. It makes me want to read the Anderson book.