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Accountability vs. Gaming the P-12 System

By Matthew Lynch — February 12, 2014 3 min read
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I’ve recently delved into The Death and Life of the Great American School by Diane Ravitch. It has been on my reading list for some time now and I finally decided it was time to really give it the attention it deserves. I consider myself an education reformer, and an advocate for reforming the current public school system, so Ravitch’s works speak to me, even if I’m not always completely in the same school of thought.

In educational discourse, Ravitch is an interesting figure. She served as the assistant secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush, though she has never been a Republican and is an Independent today. She was once a supporter of the No Child Left Behind Act and even the formation of charter schools, but in recent years has spoken out against these initiatives, saying that she is now disillusioned with them. In her eyes, and those of her supporters, the idea of standardized testing as a measure of a school’s worth and competition as a way to improve public education are not valid avenues to reform, and will indeed lead to an education system more flawed than the current one.

In her book, Ravitch discusses the many ways that school districts that include public, private and charter schools game the system to reach standardized testing and other accountability benchmarks. She talks in depth about the transformation of New York City public school district 2, an area that has undergone reform with support from deep pockets, like those belonging to billionaire Michael Bloomberg. In this particular instance, New York City schools are under mayoral control for all intents and purposes - and as such, have accountability standards that read more like a white paper on business efficiency than suggestions for actually teaching human beings.

The problem with these standards, of course, is that with stringent, subjective targets for learning, schools are able to game the system to make it work in their favor. In other words, these schools are looking for ways to meet a specific, narrow goal - think of it like a salesperson closing a deal - and then they are rewarded for that piece of shallow success. The flip side of this is that the schools that do not manage to meet these standards are then punished, in true NCLB style, even if the details of their teaching methods actually have some merit. Teachers and administrators at schools that are deemed “failures” or even just mediocre by the established system then must bow to the pressure in order to stay relevant and away from the target range when it comes to adding “competitive” school choices.

Places like New York City are not the first to bring in sweeping reform ideas intended to aid student success - they are simply re-debuting ideas that have already existed in other parts of the country. It is fair to note that by many accounts, areas with public charter and magnet school choice do not fare any better (and are sometimes worse) than the traditional neighborhood schools in the area. Yet, sometimes these schools DO work - at least on paper. I’ve mused before about how my home state of Mississippi would look if there were to be more choice in the state when it comes to P-12 education. As it stands now, student achievement gets a failing grade consistently in Mississippi and the public schools are not improving under the current system. Based on the success of choice programs in other areas, is it worth a try? Or will those schools be developed in ways that “game the system” and take away the true measure of learning: well-rounded, educated students?

On Friday, I’ll take a look at the idea of superstar teachers tackled in the book and if they really are the cure for all educational reform ailments - or if they even exist.

Have you read The Death and Life of the Great American School? What are your thoughts?

Dr. Matthew Lynch is the author of the recently released book, The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching. To order it via Amazon, please click on the following link.

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The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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