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Is Some Rethinking About ‘Accountability’ Past Due?

By Deborah Meier — March 26, 2009 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

My own evolution, politically, has always been influenced by the realization that I might be in a minority! In fact, maybe some of us are born with that realization (even if shielded from it by a family surrounding in which we have a hard time imagining another reasonable viewpoint).

But democracy appeals to me in part because there’s always another chance—maybe next year. It‘s also an incentive for trying to learn a little more and thus being more persuasive. My exaggerated belief in the power of education rests perhaps on the hope that reason can overcome prejudice, meanness, and short-sightedness. And, if I’m not naturally a part of the majority, then I’ll need even more “reason” on my side.

So I can embrace “standards” published by the profession that have weight, the power of expert ideas, but not the power of coercion. Democracy works best when it has the luxury of being non-coercive. A sampling system of testing that adds to our informed decision-making seems relatively harmless. Especially if the nature of the sample allowed one to include some scripted conversation that helps us make sense of answers.

Seeds of doubt are always healthy; or almost always; or at least sometimes healthy!

The startling thing about Bloomberg, Broad, Klein, et al is that they appear never to have a seed of doubt—even when they reverse direction, they explain nothing and march ahead with equal confidence. The way folks caved in to Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to over-ride the public referendum against third terms is unbelievable. Chavez and Putin and others like them failed—with their even greater coercive power—in their attempt to continue their elected posts beyond the term limits. Something is rotten in NYC that this could happen here, of all places.

These Billionaire Boys—as you call them—remind me of adolescents with utopian plans for the future. They are not yet inclined to include a concern for the trade-offs involved in their utopia. I excuse 13-year-olds when they fall into such traps, but for us to be at the mercy of such logic by adults with serious power is frightening. “Why can’t everybody agree with me?” is hardly an evil complaint, but one hopes that a good education will overcome the egocentric sentiment. It hasn’t for Rhee/Klein and Company.

E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s Op-Ed dream in Sunday’s New York Times of having every child follow his curriculum and then a national test that is aligned to it is another typical utopian’s adolescent dream. I forgive him because I, too, have such dreams on occasion. Fortunately, neither of us has the power.

The evidence is clear: there has been no substantial improvement in test scores or graduation rates over the past decade as we follow the agenda of the neo-Reformers. Little squiggles up, down, and flat again is the pattern for almost the entire nation—on precisely the measurement tools upon which they have built their whole case. Would the board of directors of a “real business,” after being told their business was in a state of disaster, crisis, etc., be satisfied with such flat data???? How come we’ve bought it, against all the instincts of the wisest educational practitioners and scholars? Maybe some rethinking about “accountability” is past due.

Even the business world has, alas, not been sufficiently shaken in their confidence by the failure of their own accountability system in their own sphere of expertise to wonder, “Could we be wrong?”. Instead, they are blindly prepared to see our educational system go over the cliff with them.

To the one or two readers who asked me whether I’m not behaving like a defender of the status quo. No! I have spent 43 years critiquing it and working on the ground to change it. Even if just a little bit. But the one thing I cannot be accused of is embracing schools-as-they-are, have-been or will-be if we don’t support dramatic changes in the relationships between teachers, parents, and learners.

The kind of dramatic changes I want go in precisely the opposite direction than the current round of impatient pro-business reforms has taken us. I don’t need test scores to see that schools have become more boring, not less, and relationships thinner, not deeper. My ideas will—I always recognized—even if more vigorously supported, take a long time to “convert” the vast majority. Which is as it should be. And maybe, just possibly, I’m wrong, and we shouldn’t aim at that at all. Maybe we can live quite well with democratically governed schools and systems that take different paths, mutually respectful of their differences.

I spent a few days last week visiting a public school in Ann Arbor—called the Open School—now in its 26th year. We watched a movie—rather skeptically—about “democratic schools” of the Summerhill variant. It didn’t convert me, but it reminded me of how little danger democracy gone perhaps “too far” poses compared with what passes as our ordinary and/or neo-Reformed public schools. I’m not inclined these days to worrying a lot about the potential sins of too much democracy.

Deborah

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