"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

If accountability is so great for teachers, why don't we apply it to legislators too?

A couple weeks ago very few people outside of Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District knew who John Kuhn, their superintendent, was. His letter to several Texas legislators, now known as The Alamo Letter, has changed that and added another perspective to the debate on what is wrong with today’s education. The letter basically calls on the legislators to stop pandering to big business at the expense of education funding. It also points out that continued accountability (i.e. testing) requirements come at the expense of less money for teachers. The financial situation in Texas is slightly different from that of Missouri although both states are facing declining state income in a struggling economy.

A follow up interview with Mr. Kuhn provided to Anthony Cody of Ed Week provided some additional thoughts that are far more universal. He spoke about the problems with accountability and how it has led TX to focus on just four main areas of study; math, science, social studies, and language arts. Not surprisingly these are the four main areas where standardized tests are available or required. He went on to suggest that if accountability were really so great we would apply it to all public servants. “Why do we not require our legislators to make ‘Adequate Yearly Progress?’ We have the data from their congressional districts, do we not? There is crime data, health care data, poverty figures, and drug use statistics for every state and federal legislative district. Why, exactly, do we not establish annual targets for our legislators to meet?” He says that if fixing all the problems in education were possible simply by applying accountability, then that same accountability applied to government would “eliminate 100% of poverty, crime, drug abuse, and preventable illness by 2014!”

He notes that lack of accountability does not explain the continued success in other areas of education not covered by common assessments.

Therefore, the only saving grace in the arts and foreign languages and vocational classes and athletics is that we have passionate people teaching those subjects who really care about their students and their subjects. And that is the core of my disdain for this ugly baby called accountability--if the test-and-label philosophy really worked, then you would think there would be far worse teaching going on outside the core classes, but there isn't generally. Why? Because good teachers are motivated by passion and a moral sense of mission, not by the threats of absent bureaucrats.

Mr. Kuhn also characterized the narrative of the school reform movement as, “a simple formula: kids are victims, teachers are the villains, and some administrator is the messianic hero. A dynamic personality comes into a bad school and doesn't accept mediocrity. He or she cleans up the discipline and fires all the bad teachers, confronting the wicked teachers' union along the way.” This sounds great and, as he says, sells books, but it also, “relies on the same dangerous logic that tyrants use to justify lording over peasants and restricting their liberties. In this case, the benign dictator is a self-promoting principal or superintendent with all the answers, and the poor clueless peasants in dire need of a paternalistic leader are the teachers.”

It is worth it to read the entirety of the Ed Week interview. Mr. Kuhn notes that other superintendents have contacted him to offer their support and thanks for saying what many of them have been thinking. The simple fixes that legislators and reformers promote, or in some cases force down our throats, are often anything but simple for those who have to carry them out. The real world is less simple and more messy. In the real world, students’ families struggle with poverty, crime, poor health care and addiction. All these societal influences can make it difficult for children to learn and nothing but a superman of a teacher is going to get children from the worst of these situations to a four-year college. For some, a good sustainable life may simply be growing up to raise a family, go to church and hold a local manual labor job. We are heading towards a definition of successful education that would deem such a person a failure and penalize the system for not making them be otherwise.

1 comment:

  1. This is a good article. This should be forwarded to all legislators. Education reforms they are advocating will not ensure a good education. It will ensure money being funneled to special interests.
    I like the idea to hold the legislators accountable. Most of them would fail AYP.


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