Sunday, July 8, 2012

Real Accountability

Education, Gyula Derkovits 1923
Kevin Drum asks how anyone could have believed the goals of NCLB were realistic to begin with.
"Here in the real world, no matter how brilliant your teachers are and how solid your curriculum is, you'll never get 100% of your kids to pass a standardized test."

What's kind of weird to me is what this statement reflects about A) our lack of knowledge about education and B) our misplaced priorities.

For me, the beauty of NCLB was always that it was about shining a giant spotlight on the achievement gap.  The tragedy was that it had no idea how to go about remedying it, apart from a silly scheme for teacher accountability and school competition.

A decade later, Kevin's statement rings absolutely true.  While everyone is mightily aware of the achievement gap, there has been almost no real progress, and everyone thinks that the problem is either crappy or poorly-trained teachers (protected by corrupt unions), or insurmountable social problems.

Yet as a teacher, the problem doesn't actually seem so hard.  If I have 30 students - 10 of them at or above grade level, 10 maybe a year behind, and 10 more even further (a standard arrangement in low-SES classrooms), my job is to get them all to grade level by the end of the year. 

Unfortunately, low-SES populations have serious disadvantages.  The lowest performers will have serious behavioral problems, poor attendance, and severe lack of motivation.  Parent support will be minimal, as many parents will not have the time or know-how to help their children be successful.  As a teacher, I will only have so much time to give all 30 students the kind of individualized instruction and attention required for them to achieve peak performance.  In a 55 minute lesson, after housekeeping, a brief lesson, even in the most well-structured classroom many students will fall through the cracks. 

Compare this with a higher-SES classroom, where kids are generally better prepared, closer to grade level, have better attendance and support at home, fewer behavioral problems, the job will always be much easier.

So, aside from accountability and competition, what to do?  What I have listed are usually dismissed as "excuses".  Yet they are real problems that, when waved off as "excuses", the practical effect is that they are ignored.  Thus, the very problems central to closing the achievement gap are being ignored. Is it no wonder that hundreds of thousands of teachers are frustrated beyond measure, and that morale is at an all-time low?  Could you imagine soldiers in a losing battle complaining that there wasn't enough support - body armor, bullets, rations, troops, etc. - and their concerns being dismissed as "excuses"?

What if our priority was in fact to actually listen to teachers (and the research), and find ways to target specific issues, interventions designed to take the real cause of the achievement gap head-on?  We aren't going to be able to solve larger issues of poverty, but we can look at what the specific effects on student achievement are, what specifically happens in the classroom because of them, and design our public education system accordingly.

To me, that is real reform and real accountability.

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