School & District Management

Called to Account

By Samantha Stainburn — October 13, 2004 6 min read
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Think politicians never keep their campaign promises? Douglas Carnine knows better. The soft-spoken University of Oregon education professor, a longtime advocate for data-driven school reform, helped develop then-presidential candidate George W. Bush’s education platform four years ago, including his promises to increase school accountability. Now those promises, found in the No Child Left Behind Act, are law. They’re also the centerpiece of President Bush’s education record as he campaigns for reelection.

Carnine, who press reports say became a Republican while advising the president-to-be, is sitting this campaign season out. But he continues to promote the idea of holding schools accountable for student performance as director of the University of Oregon’s National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators, an institute that looks for opportunities to move education research into policy and practice. Teacher Magazine talked to Carnine about accountability as punishment, the mistakes that were made in implementing NCLB, and why he thinks school accountability is here to stay no matter who wins the 2004 presidential election.

Q: Are there misconceptions about school accountability that you regularly run into?

A: [One is that] what teachers do is too complicated to be reduced to a measure—test scores, for example—and that doing that distorts education, undermines it, stifles the creativity of teachers. It’s true that tests can and do drive curriculum, but tests are a way to respond to public pressure [for] some objective idea of what’s happening to our children.

If you look at the history of professions, from medicine to pharmacology to accounting, all have gone through a very painful process where objective data used in a way transparent to the public becomes the standard. And education is going through that very painful process now. It’s interesting to note that accountants used to say, “Each company is different, and there’s no way that you can have a common way of looking at the financial health of a company. They’re so individual, just like children, that you have to describe [each] company in your own way.” The Depression and the stock market crash changed all that. As we now take for granted, there’s a standard balance sheet....In the areas where people sense that it can be done better, there’s pressure to be more objective and more transparent so that the rules of the game and the way decisions are made are open to inspection by the public.

Q: Medicine, pharmacology, and accounting are all numbers-driven. Are you saying you can boil a child’s learning process down to a pile of numbers? If not, you’re making an apples-to-oranges comparison here, aren’t you?

Douglas Carnine

A: I think your point’s legitimate....It’s an imperfect analogy, but it’s still useful. Those professions are looking at things, and education deals with complex psychological issues. However, there are similar movements going on in psychology, criminal justice, and welfare reform—these professions are bringing research to bear on the best options for people. And if your objective is to hold institutions accountable, numbers do a good job of showing an aggregate effect.

Q: What missteps has the Bush administration made when it comes to implementing NCLB? Could they have been avoided?

A: When you talk about what’s been characterized as maybe the largest change since the beginning of the Title I program, in terms of accountability and reporting and consequences, very seldom is something perfect the first time, especially if it’s complex and large. So, yeah. As with any major legislative agenda, it evolves over time, and I’m sure there’ll be changes, just as this is a change from when Title I began in the Johnson era....It’s not perfect legislation, and it’s not perfect implementation, and the process will improve it, but it’s setting the direction.

Q: Many educators scorn NCLB. Can you suggest anything the federal government could do to make it more acceptable to critics?

A: I think what should happen, and what is happening, is a form of descriptive research. The chief state school officers [and the unions] are weighing in on their concerns. There are some challenges in categories such as special education and English-language learners, [which] complicate the accountability provision. The groups most affected by it are becoming pretty articulate about what their concerns are.

Q: What do you make of the GOP’s 180-degree shift on the role of the federal government in local schools?

A: Political parties—that’s something I don’t really know much about. But I do know that the federal work in education is almost totally parallel with the work that was going on in Texas for years. I think that at the federal level, you just don’t make up a bunch of new stuff. You take ideas that have been worked through for years and years in a state, for example, like Texas, and you see what the implications are for federal policy.

Q: But hasn’t the “Texas Miracle” been exposed as somewhat overhyped? What are the chances of a national school accountability system succeeding if it is based on a façade of success in Texas?

A: I wouldn’t base any accountability system on the high school dropout rate; we don’t have an agreed-upon standard for that. NCLB holds schools accountable for reading and math. And NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] scores in Texas have shown students making great gains in reading and math. A related point is that when you increase accountability, you’re going to have more people gaming the system. It’s human nature. You have to accept this fact and watch for it.

Q: Critics charge that accountability pressures cause many educators to spend too much time on test prep and not enough time educating students.

A: If you’re preparing students for a test, and in doing that you’re not educating them, then I’d say you have a very poor test. I mean, why would you want to have a test that would show people [how] to do things that are not important? If you have poor tests, and you focus on those tests, it’s going to be poor education. I cannot overemphasize the importance of a good test.

Q: How do you feel about the fact that a policy you helped engineer is the education-policy flash point for partisan debate thiselection year?

A: The fact that it’s contentious is not surprising. When there’s pressure on a system to change, it’s bound to be controversial. I’ve been somewhat comforted by the fact that there hasn’t been more fundamental disagreement around the core concept that accountability is needed.

Q: The education field is notoriously faddish. Do you think the ideas in No Child Left Behind could survive a change in presidential administration?

A: It’s hard to predict, but I think there really was genuine bipartisan work on this bill in Congress. That bipartisanship included a real education process for the [legislators], and there’s a deep concern in Congress about education. So I think there is a commitment. But the power of accountability resides in the detail. It just remains to be seen, regardless of what happens in the election, how people are going to handle the details.

Q: Why do you believe that holding schools accountable will improve education?

A: William Raspberry did an editorial about...a principal [who] was complaining about NCLB because [the district’s] special ed kids didn’t make their required gains. But then Raspberry ended the editorial with a quote from that principal where he said, “But you can be sure we’re really going to teach those kids now.” That, to me, captures the hope of accountability. People say, “It’s too hard, it’s not fair,” but at the end there’s a commitment to do a better job with those kids.

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