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Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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The Way We Talk

This is the second in a series of posts reflecting on terminology pervading today’s polarizing debates about American education. In each post, we ask how various buzzwords—“professionalism,” “accountability,” and the like—influence the conversations we have. What are the strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots that come with framing our arguments in each of these terms? The hope is that assessing the implications of the way we talk will prompt more productive discussions about improving PreK-12 education.


I. Holding ourselves to account

Last week, I wrote about the advantages and disadvantages of approaching education policy in terms of professionalism. This week, we’ll take a look at accountability, the regnant ideal guiding most education reformers today. Indeed, the last two presidents have made it the cornerstone of their education agendas.

Of course, the promises George W. Bush made as a candidate became No Child Left Behind, the most comprehensive effort to hold American schools accountable for their students’ outcomes—but the accountability push hardly started with President Bush.

In 1983, in a “A Nation at Risk,” the National Commission on Excellence in Education reported to President Reagan that “educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling.” They worried that American schools were unprepared to live up to “high expectations” or put in “disciplined effort.” The report’s authors noted that Americans had “no patience with undemanding or superfluous” educational programs.

This was wishful thinking. Until Bill Clinton’s Improving America’s Schools Act passed in 1994, states could still set lower achievement standards for low-income schools (and students) than those applied to their wealthier peers. In addition, Clinton’s “Goals 2000” initiative offered states grants in pursuit of ambitious national education standards. The Democratic Party continued to move in this direction during the Obama Administration.

It's worth noting that Obama's approach differs from his predecessor's, however. While No Child Left Behind ties federal dollars to states’ performance against academic benchmarks, the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top program offered states additional funding to implement better data collection systems, higher academic standards, more rigorous teacher professional development, and more. A similar style animates the administration’s NCLB waivers—these give states flexibility on the law’s enforcement provisions without (hopefully) undercutting these mechanisms entirely. (For more on the short- and long-term consequences of this approach, read my colleague Anne Hyslop’s analysis.)

II. Who is accountable? And to whom? Or what?

Much accountability rhetoric rests upon a sort of Grand Unified Theory of Education: better schools and administrators improve their teachers’ practice. Better teachers get better academic outcomes from their students. If adults perform well, their students will also perform well. In theory, at least, this performance improvement is usually quantifiable and causally attributable. Higher, clearer standards are thus a critical part of implementing any new accountability system.

On its face, this is obvious. Teacher quality is an enormously important variable in determining a student’s academic future. Students who have great teachers do better than students who have lousy teachers—in class, on tests, and in their future workplaces. Anyone who’s ever experienced the thrilling heights of inspiring instruction—and its dulling, frustrating opposite—knows the difference that a great teacher makes.

Of course we want to hold ourselves accountable to our children. No one seriously disputes that teachers make a difference in their students’ lives (or perhaps better: no serious person disputes this). Even if we note that students in low-income neighborhoods and/or high-needs schools face additional challenges to their academic success—in and out of the classroom—no one seriously argues that these additional difficulties warrant ignoring the quality of their schools and teachers.

Accountability rhetoric is particularly persuasive in an era when public education dollars are short. As a percentage of household income, Americans pay less in taxes now than any point since the late 1950s, but revenue increases are non-starters in today’s political environment. Under these circumstances, accountability offers a congenial solution: instead of increasing their investment in public education, Americans can insist on improving the efficacy of every dollar they currently spend. No one likes to waste money—especially taking into account that the United States already spends more on education than other developed countries.

The trouble for the accountability approach is threefold:

1) What are the standards to which we should be holding students and teachers accountable?

2) How will we measure student performance and connect it conclusively to teachers, administrators, schools, etc?

3) What sorts of consequences should follow these performance data?

Nearly all of the battles over accountability measures are rooted in these questions.

Consider, for instance, that No Child Left Behind’s accountability provisions were largely undercut by ambiguity on the first question. The law set student “proficiency” targets, but allowed states to define “proficiency” on their own terms. As far as No Child Left Behind was concerned, the content of states’ definitions of proficiency was of less consequence than the percentage of students who attained it. This led to wide variation between states: states with ambitious standards for student proficiency were at risk of being punished simply for holding their students accountable to higher expectations.

In response to this sort of uncertainty, education reformers developed the Common Core State Standards. If all states shared the same standards for their students, we could begin a serious conversation about which students, teachers, schools, administrators, districts, and states are outperforming others (and why). We could get a clear view of the performance of various elements within the system. Above all, we could then hold ineffective schools and teachers accountable for their performance.

Somewhat unexpectedly, the overwhelming majority of states voluntarily adopted the standards. With the question of standards’ content largely settled (for ELA and math), much of the recent criticism of accountability efforts has focused on measuring student performance and the consequences these data have for students and teachers (questions 2 and 3 above). Some teachers, parents, and students challenge one of the core premises of the accountability model's equation: they argue that standard-driven assessments are insufficient measures of student learning. 

Their critiques take a number of forms. Above all, they argue that the tests many states have adopted to accompany the Common Core are insufficient for tracking students, evaluating teachers, and driving future instruction. They argue that student learning isn’t always (or even often) quantifiable in this way. Some critics maintain that great education consists of fostering a critical, inquiring cast of mind—not amassing reams of testable facts. Others insist that student learning depends heavily upon the context surrounding the classroom; tests cannot measure the obstacles poverty places before students, and standardized benchmarks do not take into account the diversity of challenges each teacher faces in his or her particular classroom.

While some of these critiques are empirically dubious—for instance, Common Core standards and assessments are generally richer and more substantive than the materials they’re replacing—they stem from legitimate concerns. Supporters of the accountability movement aren’t always attentive to the assumptions built into the equation underlying their proposals.

For instance, while it’s nonsense to claim that “poor students can’t learn,” it’s entirely reasonable to point out that low-income students face socio-economic pressures that affect their performance in school. Not all student outcomes are solely and directly attributable to teacher practice. An accountability regime that cannot—or will not—recognize those variables will justifiably come in for sustained criticism.

Similarly, accountability reformers are often inattentive to institutional “stickiness.” The American education “system” is an enormous, often incoherent array of overlapping organizational structures. Any system that has developed organically and incrementally over many decades is resistant to the crisp logic of the accountability equation. Much as we might wish that inflexible, ambitious proficiency benchmarks will renovate the teaching profession, assist in the closing of dysfunctional schools, and force states to reform their own education bureaucracies, comprehensive reform is never that simple (Cf. David Kirp’s Improbable Scholars for a thorough treatment of the challenges that come with reforming large educational systems).

III. Fixing the accountability formula

Fortunately, there’s evidence that accountability reformers are becoming more sensitive to this problem. Instead of prompting reform by means of No Child Left Behind’s post hoc consequences, the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top seeks to incentivize and support conscious redesign of education systems. This is still recognizable as an accountability initiative; but it’s a considerably more profitable way of pursuing that goal. The same spirit clearly animates the administration’s No Child Left Behind waivers.

Everyone wants to make sure that we spend our education dollars well, and there’s evidence that reformers are developing more cautious ways of bringing accountability to bear on public education. It’s important, however, to be clear about the objectives of American education, since those are the goals to which we hold ourselves accountable. That’s why the next installment of The Way We Talk will address the costs and benefits of talking about education in terms of “equity.”

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