The Cost of Accountability Part 1: An Erosion of Trust
Before standardized testing and state standards; before students and teachers were ranked on a single test score; before standardized testing was a multi-billion dollar business; before tenure was in question; long before we believed teachers need to be accountable; parents entrusted their children to teachers.
It started innocently enough in 2001 when No Child Left Behind legislation emerged. The purpose of the initiative was to close the achievement gap between groups of students as defined by characteristics of socioeconomic, race or ethnicity, and gender.
What started as an effort to better support the most disadvantaged children became an all out battle to reform and fix all schools. Over the last decade and a half, we’ve heard the repeated story of a failing school system. Overwhelmingly, teachers are blamed for a decline in international rankings.
In a recent political debate, the story played out like this.
“Our schools used to be an elevator to the middle class. Now, they’re stalled on the ground floor. They’re like Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers. For the teachers and the administrators and not the students.
You know why other countries do better on K -12? They let parents choose where to send their own children to school. That’s called competition. It’s called the free market. And it’s what the other party fears. They fear it because they’re more concerned about protecting the jobs of tenured teachers than serving the students in desperate need of a good education.” ~Donald Trump Jr.
The underlying assumption of this story is teachers are lazy and aren’t working hard enough. There is also a belief that teachers are in control of the social, emotional, cultural, and financial factors that affect children’s ability to learn.
While the idea of increasing competition to fix schools may make sense on the surface, the research shows this to be problematic.
First of all, school is not a business. Children are not products. Teachers are not factory workers assembling widgets. Teaching is highly complex and cannot be improved by speeding up the assembly line or setting higher production goals.
Second, competition pits teachers against each other. If a teacher’s evaluation depends on how his test scores compare to the teacher next door, he is going to be hesitant to share his best practices. It’s a matter of survival.
In fact, research like that of Carrie R. Leana, George H. Love Professor of Organizations and Management at the University of Pittsburgh, shows collaboration to be critical in school reform.
Most striking, students showed higher gains in math achievement when their teachers reported frequent conversations with their peers that centered on math, and when there was a feeling of trust or closeness among teachers. In other words, teacher social capital was a significant predictor of student achievement gains above and beyond teacher experience or ability in the classroom.~Carrie R. Leana, The Missing Link in School Reform
Third, strict compliance and accountability measures reduce creativity and innovation. It’s hard to take creative initiative, push boundaries, accept risks, and grow from experiences when it all comes down to one standardized test score.
“Compliance does not foster innovation, trust does. You can’t sustain long-term innovation, for example, in a climate of distrust.” ~Stephen Covey
Finally, let’s look at a country that is one of the top performers in K-12 education. Years ago, Finland chose a different route for education reform. Instead of raising teacher accountability, they chose to increase support, provide quality training, and value teachers as professionals. Their investment is working.
“The Finnish experience shows that consistent focus on equity and cooperation–not choice and competition–can lead to an eduction system where all children learn well. Paying teachers based on students’ test scores or converting public schools into private ones through charters or other means are ideas that have no place in the Finnish repertoire for educational improvement.” ~ Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish Lessons 2.0: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland?
There are many who have opinions about education. The media, politicians, and certain wealthy philanthropists repeat a story complete with characters, plot, and solution. Why do we believe them? What evidence is there that the last 15 years of top-down reform is working?
Increasing accountability is not the answer. In fact, the effects of this narrative are destroying the trust we once had for the experts. Imagine a future in which all children learn well.
We can make education great again. Let’s change the story.
In what ways has your trust in the education system changed over the years? Please share your thoughts below.