Tuesday, August 19, 2014

So much ‘accountability,’ so little learned

  For Colorado, with a new wave of state test scores just released from the previous school year, it's a "gulp" moment. Years of intensive school "accountability" have yielded little but air.

  The Denver Post editorial board says it this way: "Despite 10 years of bold efforts in educational reform, very little seems to have changed in terms of student achievement."

   You could say the same for "accountability" as practiced nationwide over the last three decades. Any actual gains have been barely statistically significant.

   Those are not my words. They come from Duke University researcher Helen Ladd: "Accountability has not generated the significant gains in student achievement that policy makers intended."

   Where the nation has been able to identify actual statistical gains, such as with Hispanic students in math, they are of insufficient significance to justify the egregious warping of actual education that test-heavy "accountability" has wrought. A key result has been the narrowing of instruction, the "de-skilling" of teachers, to achieve what policy-makers desire: higher test scores.

     Among the greatest critics of this system are Latino leaders who know that the emphasis on math, for instance, has come at the expense of things that make education vibrant and school worth attending.

    It is no cheap shot to assert that the "math-first, and -second, and -third" approach is a good reason why drop-out rates for Hispanic children remain high.

  Indeed, Rice University professor Linda McNeil calls it "a new form of discrimination" when "fragmented and narrow information on the test comes to substitute for a substantive curriculum."

   And yet, why so little progress even on core subjects, despite the efforts of policy makers who have treated school reform as the moral equivalent of war? Haven't we put our best minds behind the effort?

   No, actually. What we've empowered is a generation of data wonks who are less like educators and more like factory-oriented CEOs. "Data-driven" is the catch-phrase, and nothing I know can stifle the quest for real education like treating children as data.

   Ah, those numbers. The real truth: "Accountability" is an abomination of the information age. Give the people what they want: numbers. Give the media what they want: numbers. (Yes! Charts and graphs here!) Give the public just enough information to be misinformed.

   In his book "Standardized Minds," Peter Sacks denounces this in no uncertain terms. "This reform crusade has created a near-perfect model of accountability for a public that has neither the time nor patience to understand what is happening in neighborhood schools."

    Duke's Ladd says the "biggest failing of the current approach" is "the implicit assumption that the education system alone can fully offset the racial and economic disparities that children bring to the school."

   This is self-evident, and yet for decades we've operated under one-size-fits-all approaches that have put the hurt on students of all skill levels. Those above grade level have been kept in a mayonnaise jar of standardized, criterion-based, test-driven repetition. Those at the lower end, as McNeil observes, have been deprived of a real education on the altar of test prep.

  So much accountability, so little learned — by policy makers. If the test-driven system you have isn't producing the results you want, try another test-driven system.

  Congratulations to those on the left and right who have bumped elbows coming together to question the Common Core, one more top-down initiative to make everyone row in unison.

  It never ceases to amaze that people who tout the virtues of charter schools – that they have independence and theoretically can experiment on best practices – don't see that a sense of freedom and a move away from standardization would help schools in general. Let the teachers teach. Conscientiously reduce time spent on state tests.

   What we're doing hasn't produced the results expected. And the answer to that, always and apparently, is to do more of it.

  Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

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