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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Accountability! (re-posted from Dec, 2007)

The following is from an article on the front page of the New York Times (Dec 23, 2007):
Mr. Obama, for instance, in a speech last month in New Hampshire denounced the law (NCLB) as “demoralizing our teachers.” But he also said it was right to hold all children to high standards. “The goals of this law were the right ones,” he said.
When Mr. Edwards released an education plan earlier this year, he said the No Child law needed a “total overhaul.” But he said he would continue the law’s emphasis on accountability.
And at the elementary school in Waterloo, Mrs. Clinton said she would “do everything I can as senator, but if we don’t get it done, then as president, to end the unfunded mandate known as No Child Left Behind.”
But she, too, added: “We do need accountability.”
Accountability must play well in Peoria because every Democratic candidate is simultaneously for it while being against NCLB. The question is: how can you hold both positions?
Here is how. By not understanding the issue.
Accountability must mean to voters, I assume, that teachers will be measured by how well they teach their students. Those fearless Democrats, always willing to hop on an uncontroversial point of view, are all quite certain that the voters know what they are talking about. No matter how stupid NCLB is, no matter how mean spirited, no matter how awful for both teachers and students, its very horror rests on the premise that no one seems to be disputing, that the federal government has the right to tell the schools what to teach and to see if they are indeed teaching it.
How is this premise wrong? Let me count the ways:
1. It assumes that all schools should teach the same subjects
2. It assumes that some subjects are more important than other subjects
3. It assumes that all important subjects can be easily tested
4. It assumes that seeing who did better than whom in school is an intrinsic part of the educational process
5. It assumes that all children have the same educational needs

Needless to say, I have some problems with these assumptions and so should the Democratic Presidential candidates. I can excuse the voters for not understanding these issues, but I will not excuse President Bush and his cohorts, who I sincerely doubt give a hoot about education, nor will I excuse the Democratic challengers who should know better.
Let’s take them one by one.
all schools should teach the same subjects
Why is this wrong? Because kids in New York come from, and will live in, a different world than their compatriots in New Mexico. In New Mexico, I was asked if we could teach Casino Management and Land Use. Yes, we could, but not if there is federal accountability about algebra and twenty other subjects that make it impossible to fit these subjects in.
There is no right set of subjects. The fact that the President of Harvard in 1892 thought there were and thought he could say exactly what they would be in the 21st century does not make it true. (OK, probably he wasn’t thinking about the 21st century in 1892, but we all seem to think he must have been because we are still teaching the same stuff.)
some subjects are more important than other subjects
Yes, we have electives. But they don’t matter. Because accountability means making sure that we teach what does matter first. What matters? The stuff that we are holding people accountable for. Since this seems to be math and science these days, for no good reason I can discern, this means that we will get to the stuff that would excite kids and keep them in school and, horrors, might teach them some job skills, after we are done with the important stuff. Sorry candidates. I absolutely guarantee that none of you know the quadratic formula or the elements of the periodic table which is of course, the stuff of accountability since it is so easy to test. Then, how can that be the important stuff? How about how to see what voters are thinking and then say it to get elected? That is the important stuff in your lives. Why not teach that?
all important subjects can be easily tested

Yes, there are right answers in math. But are there right answers in whether we should invade Iraq? No? Does that mean we can’t teach how governments actually work and how to get reasoned arguments to be heard? Is there a right speech candidates should make? Does that mean we can’t ask students to give speeches because we can’t easily assess them? Do we only teach subjects for which there are clear right answers? We do now, which is one reason why school is a deadly experience for one and all and will remain so as long as accountability is the key word in government.

seeing who did better than whom in school is an intrinsic part of the educational process
Admit it candidates. It really is all about competition isn’t it? You are all the winners of the school competition. You went to Ivy League schools and did well. Well, hooray for you. I taught at Ivy League schools and I was profoundly unimpressed with the test taking, grade grubbing, students I found there. The goal of education is not to say who won and it is not to tell Harvard whom to admit. The goal is provide real world skills, some of which may not be so easy to assess until the graduate actually shows up in the real world.

all children have the same educational needs

There is a 50% drop out rate in many high schools because we have forgotten that not everyone is going to Harvard and that going to Harvard is not the goal of education. Some children simply need to learn about ethics and business and child raising and how the legal system works, how to take care of their health and how to understand when politicians are saying things that make no sense. Why wouldn’t those subjects be critical? I bet not one of you thinks any of those are more important than math and science. How about the student who has a passion for the environment, or doing social good, or being a good parent, or, perish the thought, running for office? Couldn’t we teach those subjects simply because students have said they want to learn them? Does every school have to be the same?

I have an idea. Why not just keep the federal government out of the education business and simply leave schools alone? Educators have enough trouble fighting the silly standards that colleges impose upon them without having to put up with whatever version of accountability you choose to proffer after your election.

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