Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Accountability for what?

I will soon put up a guest post in response to Virginia Heffernan's recent New York Times op-ed about "archaic" learning tools and products such as research papers. Thinking about this, as well as about Robert Pondiscio and Kathleen Porter-Magee's smart responses, I woke up this morning with the question: Accountability for what? in my head.

Part of what I was trying to demonstrate in my guest post on the Core Knowledge blog, which was inspired by this post by Robert Pondiscio, is that the accountability structures (which frankly, Pondiscio says are needed--UPDATE: See Robert's clarification below--and which Porter-Magee's colleagues at Fordham advocate vigorously for) are driving what is taught and how it is taught. If accountability structures are based on high-stakes math and reading tests, then that's what's going to be taught. This is actually quite a traditional concept in education, that you look at the assessment (what you want students to know and to be able to do) and you work backwards from it. So if reading and math skills are what we want educators and schools to be accountable for on a yearly basis, that's what they're going to teach. Research papers? Not so much. Complex, whole-class novels? Not so much. Science experiments, civics debates, the arts, and foreign languages? Not so much. Supporting experienced, knowledgeable teachers (evil LIFO!) with institutional memory and knowledge of their content and content-related essential skills who are more likely to be skeptical of and to resist edu-fads such as 21st century silliness? Not. So. Much.

Some might counter: Well, that's why we need better and more tests. Okay, that's a start, in a way. That's what we have in Virginia: science and social studies standardized tests, as well as art SOLs. But let's see what the students are actually learning about science and social studies; let's see what they graduate high school with. As Chris Dovi shows us here (and as my guest blogger will show) it ain't pretty. The way to educate ourselves out of this high-stakes testing hole is not by giving more questionable high-stakes tests.

Some might counter, well, that's what the Common Core is for. Okay, that, too, is a start. But who's to say the content of the Common Core is rich and meaningful or that it makes for developmentally appropriate instruction and content? Andrew Porter disagrees on the first count and at least many elementary school teachers I've heard from disagree on the second count. (And we're not even freaking piloting the CC first!!!)

Unfortunately, the cart has been put before the horse and is getting further and further away, gaining momentum as it rolls down the hill. And guess what? It's empty. And all of those who cheered it along need to own that.


  1. Absolutely right, Rachel. They need to "own that empty cart," but I am worried that many good teachers and students with differing abilities will be run over in its path.

  2. People who learn to read, write and understand math, science and so on will, as a matter of course, be able to pass tests that ask questions that they have the knowledge to handle. If one learns algebra, rather than just learning algebraic manipulation, one should be able to pass a test that asks you to do some algebraic manipulation. The same goes for reading and writing and everything else. One need not teach to the test to enable students to pass the test.

    That being said, the idea of 100% proficiency given the entire population is pure silliness. No matter how you scale your bell curve, the only place to enable 100% of the people to pass is to put the line at essentially 0.

    Adequate yearly progress should be applied to students, not schools. Of course, if students at a school or in a class are making no progress, one should be willing to take a careful look at what is going on and make adjustments.

    People seem to think education is about teaching content. It is not. It is the student who does the learning of the content and in order to learn, generally, has to decide that the content with which they are presented is something that should be learned. Last I knew, there was no funnel sticking out of a student's head where you could just pour content and have it acquired for life.

    Teachers need to motivate and provide access to ideas, wonder and content. Students need to do the learning for themselves.

  3. Hi Rachel,

    Whether or not accountability measures are "needed" they are certainly inevitable. In a publicly financed system of education, the public will (rightly) demand to know if their money is well spent. Thus it makes sense to me to argue in favor of effective and valid measures, not the validity of accountability at large.

  4. @Robert: What you say makes sense and I'm glad you offered the clarification--I should have asked you first.

    Though I rather loathe the term, especially in the context of education, I agree that we need "accountability." I also agree that accountability measures should be "valid," but even more, they should be appropriate to and correspond with the goals of the education any given school, subject, or even teacher is to provide, and also according to the specifics of what should be required of any particular teaching job.

    The accountability measures as they are now are just so crude.

  5. You can't have accountability if you don't know your goal. You can make a long list of specifics (the National Core), or you can take Potter Stewart's approach to pornography and apply it to an educated person. I prefer the latter.

    That the public should be satisfied by a test score perhaps shows that our conception of an educated person truly has fallen. See "When a Diploma Is Not Enough" (

  6. @abellia - Thanks for the thoughtful comments. You're right that student engagement and participation is key. And I agree heartily that accountability without goals is a fool's errand. I would add that the goals should be meaningful as well. I link to "When A Diploma Is Not Enough" all of the time including in the post above (see where I mention the journalist Chris Dovi)--I'm glad to see you find it a valuable piece of journalism as well.

  7. I attended a 2-day Common Core training sponsored by the NC Dept of Ed. In the English Language Arts (ELA) workshop, we were told that one of the GREAT things about the common core was that we no longer should teach entire novels. Snippets and targeted short passages from novels were all we needed to teach ELA concepts. There was an audible, collective gasp from the people in the room. But I was the only one who raised my hand and questioned this pronouncement. And the trainers continued to tout the wonders of using shorter texts.

    This is only one example of the Common Core sucking the enjoyment out of reading. How will students engage with short passages?

    We were also told that now that we have Common Core writing standards, we can throw writing programs out the window because the writing standards are so specific. No more Lucy Calkins. No more writers' workshop. WHAT? Again, I protested and was shot down.

    I realize that i haven't even addressed the accountability issues because we have no assessments that match the Common Core. We have no money for textbooks and yet the Common Core trainers told us that we need to start looking at textbooks that support the Common Core. Surely new assessments and mandatory textbook upgrades are in our very near future.

    The trainers did say that the Common Core assessments would involve much more than bubbling. Even at the lowest levels (K-2) the assessments will be "short or long" answer - essay-style. Can you even imagine a 5-year old ESL student taking a test like this? Can you imagine the time involved in this type of standardized testing? I am not by any means saying that we should eliminate all testing. i assess my kids every day - often the assessments are observation and notes. And yes, those assessments are NOT standardized. But they drive my instruction and the support student learning.

  8. @Anne - Thanks so much for your comment. It's really, really important for people to know what happens on the ground with these education reforms.

  9. @Anne - how I wish you could have been at the training for the teachers at Thomas Jefferson school in Forest City, where they will start the year reading The Wind in the Willows - that's the beauty of the materials published by The Core Knowledge Foundation - we put the common sense back into education!

  10. The reform movement is not about a logical approach towards and shared vision of what a sound primary and secondary education should be. If it were, there would be a pilot phase of the CC standards and the tests and testing systems being developed. No one, even those pushing these upon schools and students, can honestly say it's the right way to do it, even if you do favor more testing as the way to go. That means that the goal is really something other than the best thing for schools and students.
    We are at a pivotal time in history in the United States. Our involvement globally is growing and becoming more contentious. This is a dangerous condition, but serves to secure influence and control, and make huge profits for a small segment of the population (here and around the world). Domestically we have seen debate over our economic conditions turn toward social programs that we supposedly can no longer sustain, and middle class workers with "lavish salaries and benefits". Educated critical thinkers can see (and point out to others) that while a huge number of motivated and patriotic americans wait eager to work and earn a living wage, a tiny number of people have soaked up and hoarded the capital that once circulated in the economy to create these jobs.
    These unbelievably wealthy few have great influence over policy. Their PR justifies this in a number of ways (calling them "earners", "job creators", trying to make it sound as if they work harder and are more motivated),and questions about the inequity and unfairness in the system prompt return accusations of socialism or worse.
    Again, educated, logical and critical thinkers could see and even point out the unfairness and dishonesty that has come to control recent debate and "reforms". Guess what institution has a history of creating educated critical thinkers who can best seek out truth for themselves, then use their knowledge to drive democracy? Guess who is behind trying to change, control ("reform")this process? The process may be called reform, but controll and supression could be an underlying motive.

  11. I have not been to an official Common Core training, but have been studying the new standards for a while. There's been a swing to short text for a while. There are good reasons for it - anchoring/modeling thinking strategies, identifying word choice, language use, organization. I think we have overused the novel - at least in my region. But to advocate the complete removal is too far on the extreme. I wonder why in our field we have to keep swinging the pendulum back and forth. And the getting rid of programs? My best hope is that that are saying that to boost our professionalism. Use the research, like Caulkins, but we shouldn't have to buy premade materials. I get that. But it sounds like your trainers spent some time drinking the new kool-aid and just weren't using their own best judgement. Sad.

  12. After teaching for 25 years and watching pendulums of educational thought and practice swing in all different directions, my advice is to teach reading well with all the experience and knowledge you have--we all know that good readers generally test well in all areas. Short text works well for illustrating a skill, concept, or strategy while longer texts build understanding of story elements, story development, writing skill, stamina, fluency and most of all the love of story.

    Also, cull the essential points/concepts/skills (ones that will benefit children throughout life) from the standards and teach those well. We want an educated populous that thinks critically, acts creatively, communicates effectively and collaborates for greater good. After 25 years, there are some skills, concepts and knowledge that have remained essential and the effective teaching of reading with many tools and strategies is one of them.

  13. Do we need "accountability" or do we need ways to measure development, learning, and growth?

    Accountability implies the need to blame someone if/when something goes wrong.

    Measuring development, learning, and growth allows us to support people to do all of these things more effectively.

    Accountability is a small-minded way of looking at what actually happens when people learn. If we can't get the semantics right about what we want to achieve with our measurements, we'll never get the actual measurements right.

    And to be clear: I am not advocating for no testing, and no measurement - we need to be able to define why certain approaches are more effective than others, and the circumstances under which one approach is more effective. But this is more than simple accountability.

    Accountability is a blunt instrument. Making our educational systems better deserves something more sophisticated, with a bit more sheen.

  14. @Bill, Why were you not looking over my shoulder as I wrote this post? You make a terrific point. The term "accountability" itself is inherently narrow & limiting.


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