Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Accountability in Public Schools: The Three-Legged Stool



My uncle was a dairy farmer in North Carolina. In the fifties, before automation hit the dairy industry, I used to watch him drag his old, wooden, three-legged stool from cow to cow and deftly milk each cow with a steady, rhythmic motion, as streams of milk splashed into his milking can. Occasionally, he would allow his "city kid" nephew to sit on the stool and give it a try. In many ways that stool - sturdy, steady and reliable- was the foundation on which my uncle's business was built.

The educational age of accountability, which Hoffman and Pearson in the book Research-Based Practices for Teaching the Common Core (2015), identify as beginning in about 1985, was built on a three-legged foundation as well. The original formulation of accountability called for


  • Holding students accountable for learning content and processes
  • Holding teachers accountable for student learning
  • Holding states and policymakers accountable for providing the resources that would create the opportunity to learn (Hoffman and Pearson, 2015).
Early on in the accountability movement there seemed to be a recognition that there was a quid pro quo to requiring student and teacher accountability. If students and teachers were to be held accountable, then the states must provide the resources to achieve the desired instruction and learning. Somewhere along the way, however, this third leg of the stool has gone missing.

The age of accountability has led in subsequent years to the establishment of state learning standards, later considered to be "watered-down" and replaced by the "more rigorous" Common Core State Standards. As a result of the George W. Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), standardized tests have proliferated as a measure of student accountability, school accountability and finally teacher accountability in the form of value added measures (VAMs), which tied teacher evaluation to student standardized test scores. With Race to the Top (RTTP) the Obama administration doubled down on accountability by tying waivers from the impossible to achieve NCLB strictures and increased test-based teacher accountability to much needed cash bribes grants for schools.

So the first two legs of the stool have received plenty of attention. Standards have been established and revised, then thrown out and replaced. Standardized tests have proliferated, so much so that students are taking these tests yearly starting in third grade and the tests are being tied to promotion and graduation decisions. Most states have passed statutes requiring teacher evaluation be tied, in some degree, to student test scores. Yes, the policymakers have done a bang up job of holding children and teachers mightily accountable. 

As to the policymakers own accountability though--well, not so much. The third leg of the stool has been ignored. Providing the opportunity to learn turns out to be costly. Providing the opportunity to learn turns out to require a full frontal assault on poverty, including wrap around health and counseling services for the 25% of American children living in poverty. Providing the opportunity to learn requires high quality preschool and high quality childcare options for working families. Providing the opportunity to learn means repairing or replacing long ignored, decaying public school buildings. Providing the opportunity to learn means providing enough staff for reasonable class sizes and smaller class sizes for at-risk children. In other words, providing the opportunity to learn costs money and so the policymakers and state leaders have backed off their quid pro quo commitment.

Instead of providing the financial resources needed for good teaching and good learning to take place, policymakers have tried to get the desired results on the cheap by offering "school choice" in the form of vouchers and charter schools. Ignoring for a moment that charter school and voucher programs have shown little ability to improve performance, we should first look at what the whole "school choice" movement is. It is, first and foremost a way for policymakers at the state and national level to avoid taking responsibility for their commitment to provide the opportunities to learn for children. Rather than find the funds to make learning happen in the traditional public schools, they have thrown up their hands and said to charter and private school operators, "Here, you do it."

As my long ago college history professor, Dr. Benjamin Powell, used to tell me, "if you want to understand history, follow the money." The history of recent educational reform is an object lesson. The first two legs of the three-legged accountability stool offer corporations an opportunity to make money and advance their privatization agenda. Entrepreneurs can make money by opening cheap to operate cyber-schools or by opening a chain of charter schools where teachers are underpaid and overworked and children are provided a curriculum aimed at making them compliant worker bees in a corporate dominated society. Publishers can make money by creating "Common Core aligned" textbooks and instructional materials. Test makers can reap huge profits by designing brand new "Common Core aligned" tests that are supposedly holding students and teachers accountable. For the really deft corporations like Pearson, Inc., profits can be made on both ends by supplying the materials and the standardized tests in a perfect little scheme to monopolize the market, maximize profits and control what is taught and learned. Yes, the two legs of the stool involving student accountability and teacher accountability are money makers.

The third leg of the stool, however, costs money. Overcoming the debilitating impact of poverty on the opportunity to learn is expensive. There is no money to be made from it. It requires a long, consistent ongoing expenditure of time and money -- perhaps even increased taxes on those getting wealthy from school reform. And so the third leg of the stool is ignored, and without that third leg the entire foundation of reform collapses. And that is why, no matter what accountability and school choice schemes the overzealous reformers come up with, the stool can't support improved educational performance. The stool falls over; the milk is spilt; the children go hungry.