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Opinion
Accountability Commentary

The Roots of Backlash

By Marc S. Tucker — January 09, 2002 9 min read
A backlash against the accountability movement is rapidly gaining strength.

As new, landmark federal legislation increases the emphasis on school standards and accountability, a backlash against the accountability movement is rapidly gaining strength.

The criticisms have both rhetorical and political bite, even perhaps especially for some of us who have been staunch advocates for this movement from its earliest days. They have bite because, to the extent that they are accurate, they represent the failure thus far of the implementation of the ideas behind the movement to match the vision of its progenitors.

Teachers understandably object to being required to focus their teaching on the kind of curriculum that is implicit in the inexpensive tests that drive many state accountability systems. They are being joined by middle-class and affluent parents who see such tests and curricula as mindless and unlikely to enable their children to get into highly competitive colleges. Not all state tests can be accurately described this way, but too many can.

In assessing the criticism, it is worthwhile to remind ourselves of the problems to which the standards and accountability movement was a response.

Advocates for poor and minority children worry as well that, without more help than they are getting, the children they advocate for will fail to meet the new standards now being put in place, and will therefore be denied opportunities they would otherwise have had.

These objections are not wrong. But they are not objections to a sensible standards and accountability system. They are valid objections to the political model of accountability that is now in the saddle.

In assessing the criticism, it is worthwhile to remind ourselves of the problems to which the standards and accountability movement was a response and, perhaps more importantly, to disentangle the premises that lie behind the movement itself.

The problem to which the movement was a response was posed by a swiftly integrating world economy. As the 1970s were drawing to a close and the 1980s began, advances in technology that began during World War II culminated in developments that made it possible for integrated multinational corporations to design products in one country, make them in a second, and sell them in a third. Much of what needed to be made could be produced by people with a 7th to 8th grade level of literacy. That is the level of literacy of a very large proportion of students leaving American high schools—whether they graduate or not. Unfortunately, it is also the level of literacy of a very large proportion of school leavers in countries that charge one-tenth to one one-hundredth of the wages Americans receive for low-skill work. Multinational firms that wanted to stay in business in the new world economy had no choice but to export low- skill jobs to low-wage countries.

The problem to which the standard and accountability movement was a response was posed by a swiftly integrating world economy.

All of a sudden, low-skill workers in the United States were in deep and permanent trouble. So were states whose schools had a record of low educational accomplishment and firms that needed higher-skilled workers and did not want to export jobs. In a very brief time, enormous demand built for American schools to greatly ratchet up student performance. That is what caused the first President Bush to extend his invitation to the governors for an education summit in 1989, and that is what induced the governors to respond eagerly and seriously to his invitation.

In time, the standards and accountability movement proved to be the consensus response to this sea change in the national demand for highly educated people. What is crucially important to note, however, is that this movement is actually compounded from quite different—and indeed conflicting—premises, experiences, and solutions. Consider four models of standards-driven reform:

  • The Business Model. The globalization of trade in the late 1970s and early 1980s produced enormous competitive pressure on American business to redesign almost every aspect of the way it functioned—simply to stay in business. The prescription that emerged from that trial by fire went something like this: Get your goals clear and communicate them to everyone in the organization. Develop accurate measures of progress toward those goals. Push the decisions as to how to reach those goals as far down toward the people who make the product or render the service as possible. Thin the ranks of those who used to tell the front line what to do and how to do it. Provide as much support for those people as you can (particularly in the form of training, tools, and technical assistance). Then—and only then—hold them accountable for their performance.

Many in the business community and some in government outside the schools believed that this approach to management could and should be applied to public education. While the business model includes the ideas of standards, measures, and accountability, it also includes other equally important ideas: more autonomy and responsibility where it counts, in that part of the organization that actually renders the services to the customers; more training, better tools, and more technical assistance; fewer people around to tell the people on the front line what to do and how to do it.

Based on their experience, business leaders believed that it was unreasonable to hold people accountable if they were not given the authority to make the decisions that determined the outcomes, and they also believed that it was fruitless and unfair to hold people accountable if one did not give them the training, tools, and technical assistance they needed to do the job.

  • The Education Accountability Model. This model was imported by Americans who observed that, in many countries, the annual release of school-by- school test scores, often published in the form of “league tables” of schools in rank order by scores, receives an enormous amount of public attention and puts great pressure on the schools to improve their performance.

Many of the American educators who observed these practices were advocates of the sort of “thinking curriculum” that puts a premium on the ability of students to solve complex, multistep problems that often have no single right answer. One of the reasons they were comfortable with this approach was that they noticed that the examinations used in many of these other countries encourage such a thinking curriculum and could accurately assess student progress against the standards associated with such a curriculum. The implicit “theory of action” here is that a system the main elements of which are standards, assessments, and accountability (in the form of publishing school tests scores) will by itself direct student effort to the right goals and provide the incentives that educators need to do what must be done to drive up student performance substantially.

  • The Ministry of Education Model. Among the reports that shaped this model were the “America’s Choice” report of our Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce and the reports of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS. The observers in this camp noticed that nations with a consistently strong record of student achievement across the board shared a common strategy with the following elements: high standards that applied to all students, at least through the age of 14; high-quality assessments (embodying a thinking curriculum) matched to the standards; a curriculum framework that spells out what topics are to be studied at each grade level in the required courses in the curriculum; texts and other instructional materials closely matched to the curriculum framework, standards, and assessments; and a system for training teachers that focuses on the methods and techniques teachers need to successfully teach the agreed curriculum, within the structure of the agreed curriculum framework. In other countries, the ministry of education coordinates all these functions. In our country, they are probably most appropriately coordinated by state government.

But the fact is that, in the United States, no level of government has ever had as its assignment the performance of the full set of roles just described. Among the consequences is the fact that texts and other instructional materials, in the absence of a framework of topics to be taught at each grade level, must be made to suit the infinitely varied personal preferences of countless teachers and other educators across the United States, with the result that American texts are, as the authors of the TIMSS report put it, “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

Another consequence is that the training of school faculties is largely unconnected to the standards that the students will be expected to meet. Still another is that teachers looking for instructional materials that will get their students to the standards are not likely to find them. All students suffer from this lack of even the most rudimentary coordination of the instructional system, but the students likely to suffer the most from these failings are those from the least advantaged backgrounds.

  • The Political Accountability Model. This model is only a slight variant of the education accountability model, but it is a distinction with a big difference. All during the 1980s and much of the 1990s, people in positions of political leadership were providing ever-increasing funding levels for public education, in anticipation of commensurate improvements in educational achievement. Funding levels went up, but achievement did not, causing their blood pressure to rise. They saw this accountability model as the very formula needed to provide strong incentives to educators to produce results. What was important to them was the design of the incentives. The quality of the standards and the assessments used was not the focus of their interest.

As 2002 begins, this political accountability model is in the ascendancy. What is causing the backlash is the absence in this model of crucial components of the other three models. One is standards and assessments that embody a thinking curriculum, a curriculum that good teachers would be happy to teach (in the same way that they are happy to teach to the Advanced Placement standards and assessments). Another is sound, thoughtful curriculum frameworks, matched to the standards, and internationally benchmarked, that specify a short list of topics to be taught at each grade level in the core courses in the curriculum.

If we care about our children and the future of our country, the status quo ante is not an option. We must produce a broad improvement in student performance across the nation.

A third missing component is a strong supply of instructional materials that can plausibly be used to get students from many different starting points to the new standards. Another is powerful professional development, training, and technical assistance that will enable school faculties everywhere to succeed at getting their students to the standards. A fifth is the kind of authority that school principals and faculties need if they are to be held responsible for the quality of their work. And, not least important, missing resources are needed by schools to buy the high-quality assessments, instructional materials, technical assistance, and training they will need to do the job.

Some of the best-known critics of the standards movement do not talk about these things at all, because they are really apologists for the status quo ante. Make no mistake. If we care about our children and the future of our country, the status quo ante is not an option.

We must produce a broad improvement in student performance across the nation. To do that, we will have to take every one of the six elements missing from the politicians’ model, but fundamental to the other models that attracted many to standards-driven reform in the first place. These elements are tried and true. Systems based on them explain the success of the nations with the most successful education systems, without exception.

It will be very sad indeed if we fail to do what so obviously needs to be done, for lack of foresight and political will.

Marc S. Tucker is the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy in Washington.

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2002 edition of Education Week as The Roots of Backlash

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