Ask Reading Kingdom: How do you feel about accountability in education?

  1. Accountability—the idea of holding schools, districts, educators, and students responsible for results—has become the most-recent watchword in education. In more and more states and districts, policymakers are moving to reward achievement and punish failure in schools, in an effort to ensure that children are getting a good education and that tax dollars aren’t being wasted. How do you feel about this practice?

The issue of accountability is front and center these days, largely because of the push for charter schools and the move to privatize education. This movement is based on the almost totally unchallenged idea that teachers, if they care enough, can get all children to high levels of achievement. Accordingly when this does not occur, teachers are to blame. The way this approach plays out varies from state to state, but the basic pattern is similar. Namely, when schools (i.e., teachers) fail to meet set standards, they are deemed to be inadequate. The schools are then taken over by the state and the public funds are transferred to charter schools.  

Totally neglected in this situation are the findings of comprehensive studies carried out in the 1960s to determine the power of schools to bring about academic success. At the time, President Johnson as part of his “war on poverty” was trying to advance the achievement of children who lived in poverty. Extensive research conducted by social scientists such as James Coleman and Christopher Jencks concluded that schools had relatively little effect on achievement. The poor performance was deemed to be largely due to other forces such as the children’s home environments and not to differences in schooling.

Those findings have since been challenged and modified to some degree. Specifically, schools have been found to have somewhat more of an effect than the studies cited above found. Nevertheless, the overall conclusion based on several hundred studies has been that there is no strong or consistent relationship between student performance and school resources, after variations in family inputs are taken into account.  In other words, poverty trumps all other factors.  This would suggest, and indeed it has been found, that most charter schools will fare no better than the public schools, since (except in rare instances of extraordinarily well-funded schools such as the Harlem Children’s Zone) they are not addressing the key factors that determine performance. At the same time, the expansion of charter schools means that funds are siphoned off from the public sector into the private sector. This financially benefits those who control the schools rather than the children they are supposed to serve.

The situation depicted above should not be taken to mean that children from poverty backgrounds cannot do well academically. What is needed are dramatically different educational models from the ones currently dominating.  For example, Finland has what has been termed an “all-hands-on-deck” model which has been amazingly effective in attaining a “maximum possible school experience” for all.  It requires a fundamental shift in structure, priorities, funding, teacher training and every other element involved in creating successful schools. It can be done—though the political will does not appear to be currently present. However, there is no evidence that current policies which focus on “punishing failure in schools” will lead to academic success for our children.

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