All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


16 June 2011

Accountability and Standards: In Which a Prediction is Vindicated and I Clarify My Views

There's an opinion piece by a Professor James Alexander (Kentucky Wesleyan) that was written in April, but which I just got around to reading this morning. The piece isn't remarkable for its conclusion: it's essentially a "me too" to Ravitch's latest round of arguments that it's not teachers that are to blame for whatever education problems we're having, and that research shows that the big elephant in the room is "out of school" factors: poverty, parental engagement, and time spent on homework.

One of the things that has confused me about Ravitch and company's recent set of arguments is that I wasn't actually aware that people were blaming teachers for poor educational results. I've a long history of complaining of poor teachers myself -- Lord knows I've had my share in my education -- and I've often argued that we should want to increase our "teacher quality" -- by which I meant that we should want the brightest, most capable teachers possible with the greatest enthusiasm and expertise in their fields, instead of settling for the often second-rate intellectual talents that we do. But one thing I don't think I ever did was say that the problems facing of our worst public schools (primarily, but not exclusively urban schools) and the widespread functional illiteracy of many of our students was the fault of poor teachers. And I didn't think anyone else was saying this either. Indeed, while I've often been critical of accountability testing, I've always understood that its usefulness was not in identifying our "problem" teachers, but rather in preventing a very specific type of educational fraud: the "everything's fine here's your high school diploma even though you can't read it" fraud. I didn't like NCLB when it came out, and I don't like it now, but I never thought it was somehow supposed to find the "bad" teachers. It was, I presumed, simply designed to prevent our pretending not to see that so many of our schools and student populations were actually in serious trouble and not everything was fine.

Apparently I've not been paying close enough attention, because a lot of very smart people seem to think that "poor education is the fault of teachers" really is the argument to which they must respond.

You'd think I wouldn't be surprised by this: I saw it coming. On December 21, 2002, at the old version of my blog which exists no longer, I wrote the following, which I redact somewhat because I was less temperate in my younger days:
STANDARDIZED TESTING: I just came from reading several posts over at No. 2 Pencil. I have these thoughts. The standardized testing craze isn't going to fix our schools. It isn't going to give us better teachers, make schools more accountable, or make our children any better educated. If anything, it's going to take time away from education.

What the standardized tests that have sprung up like dandelions will do, however, is allow us to see how pathetic our schools are. * * * * What standardized testing may do is take away our ability to hide from our failure.

But then what? What do we do once we are faced with the God-Awful truth that we have failed thousands and thousands of children? How do we recover from something like that? How do we make it so that the children of the ignorant do not continue the cycle?

These are the questions which will face us, and for which we must have answers when the standardized testing has passed its course. I fear that people will simply demand more and more accountability, and that the "curriculum" will be reduced down to a list of things that must be taught, and innumerable tests to show that we have managed to reach our goals. (That's what El Presidente is trying to do.... set the bar low enough that everyone passes.)

What we are faced with is a drastic problem, and it may take something quite draconian to fix it - if that's what we really want to do.

So if Ravitch and Professor James Alexander are to be believed, what I feared has actually come to pass (and I apparently missed it!): we've come to the point where we're demanding accountability. But where I had imagined the response to the demand to be merely tighter curricular control, it seems like people are getting ready to scapegoat the teachers.

Look -- the teachers in this country (taken as a corps) need some work. But so does my house; that doesn't mean it's not a nice place to live. I'll advocate for higher teacher standards and an end to union control of the school-as-workplace and principal autonomy in hiring and firing and higher salaries, and I'll continue to criticize what I see as a profoundly anti-intellectual teacher culture, and point out that some nontrivial portion (not a majority but more than 1%) of our teaching force is simply inadequate to the task.

Those are issues I care about.

I just want to make sure I'm also unequivocally saying for public record that I don't think that the systemic sorts of educational failure we have in this country are the fault of teachers. And I'm puzzled by people who do.

To some extent, I suppose that the teacher-as-scapegoat route is the low-hanging fruit, something we can focus on. You know the symptoms of this kind of behavior: you're three months behind on the mortgage and you spend money you don't have on new sodding for your lawn, because that's something that's within your control; you can't pay the mortgage but you can fix the lawn. And taxpayers might not be able to fix the "real problem" -- whatever that might be -- but they can demand that teachers be fired or whatnot; and as I said, some nontrivial portion of teachers really could use some firing (unless teacher quality has soared since I was in school) so it's even easier to think that this might help. It won't, but it's easier to think that it will.

But what is the solution? As I said earlier, I think it's likely to be quite draconian, if its possible at all. James Alexander, for his part, decides to fart fairy dust:

So, I repeat, the entire enterprise is flawed. No one can fault standards as the basis of a curriculum guide. Beyond that standards, testing, and accountability form a devastating trio. It simply cannot be decreed that all students will be on grade level by a certain date (2014). It doesn’t work that way. It leaves teachers anxious and demoralized. It does the same for kids. What we need is not more tests and standards and accountability but, rather, a great societal turning.

Is that all we need? A "great societal turning"? Well, gee, why didn't I think of that sooner? Crap. It was sitting there in front of me the entire time...

Sarcasm aside, James Alexander, PhD, is right, in part. A "great societal turning" wherein all families decided to spontaneously do what was really best for their kids and all parents decided to participate in civic culture and Borders was saved from bankruptcy by the sudden renewed interest in reading would do the trick.

I'll stop here, on this ambiguously depressing note.

UPDATE: Title fixed. I have been spending way too much time on medieval logic, and wrote "Predication" instead of "Prediction".

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