Monday, November 9, 2009

Accept good accountability or you will get Accountability Bad

Earlier this year, Education Secretary announced that "he will leverage a $5 billion fund to shape school reform, rewarding states that push for classroom innovation with federal stimulus dollars and denying extra aid to those that do not."

States that are simply investing in the status quo will put themselves at a tremendous competitive disadvantage for getting those additional funds," Duncan said in a conference call with reporters. "I can't emphasize strongly enough how important it is for states and districts to think very creatively and to think very differently about how they use this first set of money."

A building consensus is calling upon as to think creatively and think differently in education. Yet still, there are those in the education establishment who believe that they can stick their fingers in the dike and keep things from changing. There is this still this lurking belief that the future of education likes in preventing any and all change, unless it is perfect.

I wish that I could say that I agree with Duncan on his overall strategy, but I do agree with his desire to inculcate reform. The Obama administration is approaching education reform with some of the same flaws as the Bush Administration. President Bush appointed an educational leader from Texas, and he was a prisoner of his experience in Texas, a highly troubled public education system. He proceeded to try to conduct national education policy as if the entire nation was Texas. Obama has a Secretary of Education from Chicago, and he too is a prisoner of his experience: he is trying to reform education as if the entire country was Chicago. Our nation's leaders are also prisoners of their personal experience with one of the nation's most troubled public school systems, the District of Columbia system, and they tend to believe that every public school system in American must be not unlike the District of Columbia. Spare us, please, from pretending that you can "fix" our school districts by treating us as if we are Texas, Chicago, or the District of Columbia.

With that Said, as I talk to educators, they often fail to understand this demand for reform which centers around accountability. They feel that as professionals, their professionalism is their own accountability. What I try to explain is that accountability is about communication and trust building as well as continuous progress. The demand for accountability in the reform movement shouldn't be viewed as an indictment of teachers or of education. It is what we need to do in order to make what we are doing transparent. Only 30 percent of the families in Minnesota now have children in public schools. Even if every one of those families are completely satisfied, and of course, that can never be true, the rest have no way of knowing whether the hard earned money that they contribute to public education is making a difference. And especially now as they hear a drum beat of criticism from right wing critics who complain about "government schools," accountability is key in developing public support for public education.

One way of responding to this emerging trend of tying new funding to accountability and reform is to just plain refuse the money and the conditions that go with it.. The problem with this is that more and more money is coming with accountability strings, and going down that road is leading to financial starvation. Its a losing battle. The public is getting to the point where they are going to say, no accountability, no money.

There is reason to fear the change process. Not all change is good. One way to prevent bad change from happening is to stop all change from happening. We have in Minnesota an elaborate infrastructure that is much more powerful in stopping change, good or bad, than in promoting good change. If you don't believe me, just take a look at what happened at the legislature with labor day start. There isn't a single educator in the State of Minnesota, unless he or she happens to own a resort, who believes that the legislative decision on labor start was wise. But still, the legislature could not come up with the courage to do what was good for education.

Whether you like it or not, whether we like it or not, the public is demanding change. We can ride that wave on our surfboards, guiding the change, and make it our own, or we can drown in the waves by trying to turn them back. What is not acceptable, what the public will not accept, is that we try to keep things the same.

The public wants more accountability in education. There are good ways and bad ways to promote accountability. But educators and education will not be able to avoid the bad systems of accountability by simply stalling accountability until it goes away. By doing that, we will make it inevitable that politicians remote from education will foist their own vision of accountability on us. This is the lesson of No Child Left Behind. A tremendous amount of damage has been done to education by an ill considered, poorly structured accountability system. But the lesson here is not that we should avoid accountability, the lesson here is that we must capture the accountability movement, improve it, and use it to benefit kids. Instead of fighting to stop NCLB, educators should have seized it right at the beginning and made it better.

Many excellent hard working teachers fear accountability, because their is so much potential for imposition of bad accountability systems. That's because there are students who are easy to educate and students who are hard to educate. The students who are hard to educate are not distributed evenly among school districts and schools. Some teachers get assigned to classrooms with students who practically teach themselves. Some teachers get assigned to classrooms with students who are struggling, who come to the classroom way behind, and so on. And there has been, regrettably, a movement amongst politicians right here in Minnesota to compare the results across classrooms and schools in ways that do not truly measure whether the teachers or schools are doing a good job.

So this is the fear, and its a fear being fed unfortunately by some of the approaches coming out of our current state administration. The fear is that as a teacher, I might take on a difficult class, and be rated poorly even though I do a great job, when other teachers get rated highly, because they have an easy class. There are other fears. The fear that accountability systems will be used to harm teachers, will be used to enhance the arbitrary power of management, or to destroy the power of labor. Right now, these fears are driving out the ability of education in Minnesota to respond appropriately to the need to make good change.

That's a losing battle--to just stop everything new. The Democratic Secratary of Education is sounding the death knell of the movement to keep things just the same as they always were. Education is going to have to answer the public call for change by implementing good change, or somebody is going to inflict bad change on us against our will.

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New Era of Science Education
In Education, a Chance for Change

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