Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Under ‘accountability’: Blame the bricks

  What to do with a "failing" school:

   Summon a demolition party with torches? Convene priests and exorcize it of pedagogical demons?

   Convert it to a prison, the destination to which we assume students are bound due to the building's failure? Yes, the building's failure.

    All of the above fit neatly into the set of superstitions behind 21st century school "accountability." Yes, the 21st century.

    If we can't take educators to the dunking pond for a school's rating, we shall condemn the bricks.

    Submitted: You have a perfectly functioning school building. But because of the immense social challenges it faces, the school is pronounced "failed" and forced to cease existing.

    The Austin Independent School District faced that prospect this summer. The Texas Education Agency threatened inner-city Pearce Middle School with closure for failing to meet state testing targets.

    Fortunately for all concerned, the state approved a "repurposing" plan and allowed it to stay open.

    Imagine: Your family has a middle school within walking distance. You like the teachers and administrators. But because of a state-mandated numbers game, you are told that your school is being shut down. The cross-town bus loads at 7:15 a.m.

    We are to presume that something was seriously wrong at Pearce. So said state Education Commissioner Robert Scott repeatedly. Still, was "accountability" helping or hurting any effort at Pearce to get things right?

     At a Texas school I know much better, Waco's G.L. Wiley Middle School, the state's hammer-on-the-head approach hurt as much as it helped.

    Under pressure from the state as low-performing, Wiley ceased to exist as a school last year. The stately building of red bricks and pillars served generations as a secondary school. But it had the toughest of all challenges in a pocket of poverty. Schools never "fail" where the SUVs roam. But where hubcab theft is the only growth industry, schools can't get anything right. Right?

     Sure, Wiley had chronic problems with test scores. What ultimately caused its demise, though, was sagging enrollment.

    The key reason for that, paired with the stigma of getting tagged a "low-performing" school, was that the district has a magnet middle school, G.W. Carver Academy, only a few blocks away. Carver does great things with an integrated curriculum — fascinating themes like space flight on which all core subjects come to bear.

     Carver's curriculum is in Technicolor. Meanwhile, Wiley parents complained that their middle school was more of a drill-and-kill, test-driven, monochrome production. Drill and kill? Well, at Wiley it was raise test scores or die.

      If Wiley students had been afforded the same opportunities as those at the nearby magnet school, their school might still be a school.

     That said: Anyone who has much involvement with inner-city schools knows the fallacy of the statement: "They refuse to change." In fact, the problem is the opposite: no stability, too many top-down teaching edicts, a rotisserie of personnel as one "new team" cycles in with "new focus" and then cycles out when results don't satisfy policy makers.

      Get the best educators to the scene so they can make a difference? Good luck. A system based on shame does not do that. Just the opposite.

      Seasoned teachers avoid can't-win situations. And don't assume that bonuses or higher pay will get them into the mix. A recent study by The Education Trust found that inexperienced teachers predominate in Texas schools where poverty prevails, calling it an "educationally deadly" trend.

     Too many states, and Washington through No Child Left Behind, think they can berate schools into excellence. No, they can't.

   The last Texas Legislature made some concessions to this reality. It tweaked the school accountability system to make it less punitive and aimed more at monitoring individual student growth, rather than taking incriminating subgroup snapshots.

    But you can't blame Texas educators for wondering if it's just another verse in the same old torch song.

    John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:

1 comment:

pete said...

One of the few times I agree with John. No child left behind is a farce. You do nothing but hold the brightest children back. NCLB makes the teachers teach for the test not for good education. Let the teachers teach not just what the politicians want taught but a well rounded group of studies.