Accountability Opinion

Schools Need Accountability Consistent with Democracy

By Deborah Meier — May 14, 2009 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

It was wonderful to see you and listen to you last week at the lovely tribute in honor of some special people—including you. Class Size Matters and Leonie Haimson have done an amazing job and their Web site is must reading.

And while I’d like to pursue my last week’s letter—and get your responses—I have to say a few words about your Tuesday blog first.

Geoffrey Canada’s point in developing his Harlem Zone is, in fact, the Broader, Bolder point. He isn’t focused only on schools, but on the health and welfare of a community. Good for him. He fell for the “only tests count” strategy, as I read it, in part out of his own ignorance and in part because his wealthy board insisted on it. It’s the road to fame these days; nothing else will substitute. But, like you, I’ll settle for all schools having the resources and attention that Canada “lavishes” on his kids.

Where you and I are in serious disagreement is on the notion that good manners distinguish the poor from the middle-class or rich! If so—it’s in reverse order to what is too often suggested. The poor kids I encountered in kindergarten were accustomed to more formal and more consistent good manners—whether it was in how to address their elders or how to dress properly. They were less whiney and more obedient. It carried over to the doctor’s office—where middle-class kids acted like healthy brats while children of the poor sat with silent decorum. It breaks down much later.

Children of the poor get tougher and more unmannerly slowly. In time, they lose respect for authority. Perhaps because adults are rarely able (or willing) to protect them. Maybe because many public authorities quite openly treat them and their families disrespectfully. Over time, they come to depend on “the streets” and their “peer culture” for safety, and they imitate the public swagger offered on “middle-class” media of wealthy athletes, talk show hosts, et al.

You and I, Diane, want an intellectually feisty citizenry, and that’s what we don’t offer the poor. I discovered they enjoy it as much, if not more, than their richer peers.

Now, back to accountability.

Current forms surely fit well our age of distrust. Imagine pretending that the entire state of New York has earned unheard-of score increases over one year? Only someone ignorant about testing—or scornful of their audience—would dare release such absurd data. Any respectable scientist with equally startling results would avoid public announcement until engaging in an investigation—like doing a study using a different instrument on a sample of the population. We only need alternatives that do better.

We need to hold schools “accountable” in ways consistent with democracy. My default position (See Nov. 21, 2007, blog!) is “leave it to those closest to the action.” Every time we move a notch further away we need to beware. We lose something each step, so we better be sure what we gain is worth the loss.

Our schools should be exemplars, illustrative of what public scrutiny is all about. They should mirror the kind of thoughtfulness we hope goes on in our classrooms. I’d say schools are ahead of their reformers—politicians and business leaders—in this regard.

Last week, I suggested a more thoughtfully and deepened NAEP in literacy—starting no earlier than 4th grade. With math—which is both a routine skill and an academic subject, it’s more difficult. Maybe a math test at 8th grade that only covered “arithmetic” and some basics of mathematical reasoning, statistics, and odds could be arrived at? But I’m already exposing my prejudice. I’m more worried about the number of adults who can’t tell millions from billions from trillions easily (like me), who don’t know how to examine statistical claims, who are confused by “the odds,” etc. versus those ignorant of algebra and calculus. That’s why I like sampling—because it doesn’t pretend to be holding anyone accountable, but only hopes to be informative. Data can inform, it cannot drive! But, of course, the public is suspicious of sampling because we’ve never used schools to uncover their mystery even though we use the technique ad nauseam in both public life and business. Choices must be made—but none is perfect, and we have to make trade-offs all the time in life. But for the sake of our national health we shouldn’t all be required to make the same trade-offs—except for (I’d hope) demonstrating the connection between our mission and the mission of democracy.

In future weeks, I’d like to explore why we can’t ALL be doing something like “exhibitions” when it comes to “accounting” for individual learning (and external visitations re. individual schools). This month the Coalition of Essential Schools is highlighting a few schools’ final exhibitions nationwide. That’s where the work really pays off—in helping teachers, students, and families be less dependent on test scores and more capable of knowing themselves well.

Such approaches allow us to measure the so-called effective skills and habits in the process of measuring the “hard” stuff. It’s a form of assessment that mirrors the values of a democratic society: the exercise of informed judgment and responsiveness to public critique.


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