Friday, January 21, 2011

Who is Accountable?

Three days ago I set a goal for myself. Every day for two weeks I am going to write about an education term or buzz word that I feel has become problematic. Call it my own war on words. So far I have addressed "best practices," "child-centered," and "value added." Today lets talk about accountability.

There is probably no other term we hear more today in conversations about education and school reform than the term accountability. To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with being accountable for something. In fact, it is a necessary part of being responsible for something and it is nothing we should shy away from. The problem, as with so many other terms in education, is that the term is ill defined. It is ill defined because that which we are to be accountable for has been ill defined. So, you would think that to solve this problem all we need to do is make clear what it is we need to be accountable for. Right? But I don't think it is that simple, schools have many different masters.

Today, when you hear about teacher or school accountability it is generally used to mean accountable for student test scores. This seems like it should makes sense, but in trying to be more clear with what schools and teachers are to be accountable for the focus has become too narrow. By focusing on data, after all accountable is derived from the word account and closely related to the word accounting. Therefore, to be accountable today means being able to own up to data or be responsible for the abstract measurements derived from the students in our care. Under this concept that which can be easily measured and that which does get measured are things that we can be held accountable for. So, this term accountability has now come to be associated with data and data primarily.

But, is data the only thing we should be held accountable for? This whole notion of accountability and data is derived from a mindset that views the purpose of school as serving the god of economic utility. This mindset leaves little room for valuing the child as they are today but insists in seeing them as "adults in the making." It looks not upon children as the product of the school, which would be bad enough, but rather the data they produce. Are we accountable for data or are we accountable for children? Are we accountable to data or are we accountable to children? What we are accountable for is determined by who we are accountable to. Who is asking us to be accountable for test score data? Is it our children? Parents? Politicians? Business people? If you asked each of those groups what they would hold schools accountable for I think they would each have a slightly different answer.

This era of accountability is, oddly enough, also the era of school choice. Families today have a lot of options for how to send their children through school. If you don't like your local public community school you can send your kid to a magnet school, or a charter school, or an online school, or if you have money you can send them to a private school, or you can unschool them. This element of choice complicates this matter and ought to define who schools are accountable to. Under a climate of school choice it becomes the families of children who decide where to send them that schools are accountable to and the reasons for their choice ought to define what schools are accountable for.

So, if choice makes the students' families the entity that schools are accountable to then the reasons for their choice will communicate what they are holding schools accountable for. If your students attend your school because their parents want their kids to have a year-round school calendar then you are accountable for providing a year-round education. If your students' families choose your school because of the exemplary fine arts offerings then your school is accountable for offering a quality fine arts program. If your students' families choose your school because of the exceptional athletic program then school athletics are what your school is accountable for. So, if the reasons our families choose to send their kids to our schools define what we are accountable for, and parents continue to choose to send their kids to schools with low or poor test scores in math and reading then are those schools making a good decision when they sacrifice programs their families have, through their choice, indicated they are holding the school accountable for in order to devote more resources to improving test scores?

When families choose a school for the fine arts offerings, who is accountable when the arts are cut to divert more attention to raising test scores?

When families choose a school because of the athletic program, who is accountable when school sports are cut to divert more attention to raising test scores?

When families choose a school because of the loving and caring atmosphere the school provides, who is accountable when a focus on test scores makes that place cold and unwelcoming?

When families choose a school because of the low class sizes, who is responsible when class sizes are increased in order to hire a data specialist to help them try to figure out how to raise test scores?

I could go on but what is the purpose? Accountability no longer means what it used to, at least not when you use it to talk about education. It's definition has been narrowed. Instead of allowing school choice to determine what it is we are accountable for it now simply means test scores, test scores, test scores. Test scores at the expense of all else. Test scores even when the focus on them degrades the qualities of our schools that families value.

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