Sunday, July 24, 2011

Hey Accountability Hawks, Put Down Your Pitchforks!

I had a jumbled draft of a post written out on the Atlanta cheating scandal, but then this piece in Slate by Dana Goldstein laid out much better most of what I had been thinking. Additionally, Yong Zhao wrote a very comprehensive and thoughtful series of posts on the same topic which is worth a read. 

I already expressed the crux of my opposition to high stakes testing here, though lest some accountability hawk call me a “test hater” (though I do hate taking standardized tests), I do recognize that standardized tests can be valuable diagnostic tools as well as give valuable information. Furthermore, assessment generally, including yes, tests, is a key part of the teaching and learning process.

I also begrudgingly acknowledge that the high-stakes accountability movement and NCLB did get some kind of ball rolling. As an ESOL teacher, I appreciated that schools could no longer send English Language Learners off to the basement to be taught by the PE teacher with an extra planning period or tell them to stay home the day of the tests. I remember patiently explaining to the 6th grade science teacher in the rural Central Virginia middle school where I was teaching that my job was not, in fact, to chaperone his nature walks, but to support him in delivering linguistically appropriate science content to our shared ESOL students.

But whereas pre-accountability, some public school kids were fed nothing and some were fed junk and some were fed a balanced but utilitarian meal, some were fed a gourmet feast, and some … you get the point, the policies of NCLB and now RTTT seem to be ensuring that most kids are fed Mc Donald’s. As Justin Baeder explains here, accountability has gone way too far. Insufficient and unhelpful teacher evaluations and seemingly no accountability in the past was no good, but unhelpful and inaccurate teacher evaluations and accountability that encourages bad practice is also no good. As my father constantly reminded me growing up, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Responding to the cheating scandal in Atlanta, various edu-leaders and pundits have declared that test-based accountability is not at fault, that instead, we must dig ourselves deeper into the high-stakes testing accountability hole, clamp down on testing security, and hunt down the cheaters. These people are constantly calling for “innovation” in education, but there’s nothing innovative about an arms race. In response to crises, this is what the invariably impetuous American political elite do: declare war on abstract concepts. The most destructive examples I can think of are: Prohibition (The War on Alcohol), The Cold War, The War on Drugs, and The War on Terror. There is arguably a War on Bad Teachers right now. It looks like we have a War on Bad Parenting brewing (I have a post on this bad idea in the works), and if these law and order and data obsessed folks have their way, we’ll have a War on Cheating.

As all these “wars” do, a War on Cheating will divert even more of our limited resources from proactive and positive forces to destructive and negative forces. In this case, from teaching and learning to test-prep and testing. There will be an even more reactive and draconian approach to struggling schools and learners than NCLB already takes. Part 4 of Yong Zhao's series of posts describes in chilling detail the testing security measures taken in China. Is this what we have to look forward to? Is this how we're going to Win the Future By militarizing K-12 assessment? If what the Department of Education's Office of the Inspector General did to this family is any indication of what cracking down on cheating will look like, it won’t be pretty.

A law and order solution to what happened in Atlanta (and New York and in Philadelphia and in DC and in New Jersey and in Florida and in. . . .) will do nothing to improve the quality of teaching and learning in our schools, nor will it stop the cheating. Rather than doubling down on what’s an already bad policy and adopting a wrathful response (speaking of which, are the accountability hawks prepared to punish those members of the Atlanta business community who were complicit?), I call for a truth and reconciliation process. Let’s examine what happened and find out what went wrong. Let’s learn from our mistakes and let's fix our broken education policies. And then let’s recognize that the best way to gather useful information from tests is to stop misusing them and remove their punitive stakes.

And then, please, let’s get back to thinking about how to best educate our children.

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