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January 11, 2016 - WHAT IS 'ACCOUNTABILITY'? How a Single Word Has Fooled the Public

On January 5th, Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, announced a competition for the design of state “accountability” plans. Resounding Books issued a response and noted that we would be declaring our own counter-competition.

True to our word, within a matter of days, we will issue a public call for submissions to that counter-competition, along with a set of entry guidelines. The plan is coming together. An enthusiastic and informed panel of judges has already been selected as of this writing. We're excited about how we will be able to work with committed, principled individuals and organizations of whatever political or ideological stripe--about how we'll be able to work with you--in countering the false and damaging narrative of accountability that Fordham and others have propagated. 

This counter-competititon will engender all of the key tenets of our mission:

  1. To establish common ground across the political and ideological spectrum on issues that matter
  2. To encourage dialogue and partnership on such issues
  3. To foster and advance local activism related to the topics on which we publish

Keep watching for details. They're just around the corner.

Why a counter-competition related to "accountability"...?

True education matters to us. We know it matters to you. The version of accountability that Fordham is pushing simply can't ever result in it. Quite the contrary. In fact, the Fordham design competition rests entirely on perpetuating the confusion and misapprehension that so-called education reformers have created among average citizens, including many well-intentioned business owners and even elected officials at every level of government you can name.

Fordham and others on the side of false education reform know that most of the public interprets the word "accountability" in a particular way, that they make certain assumptions about it, that those assumptions make it sound good and responsible to most people. False reformers rely on those assumptions. In particular, the term "accountability," as it is leveraged by education reformers, relies heavily on at least four false premises:

1. “Accountability” is local.

In fact, centralization and standardization form the entire basis of the education “reform” agenda that Fordham so faithfully serves. The federal and state laws, mandates, and initiatives that enforce this leviathan reform agenda rob local school boards, parents, and taxpayers of the accountability they should indeed have. Instead, these measures make students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable to the state and federal governments as well as to the preferred special interests with whom government partners. In fact, under the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the states have been made the enforcers for federal mandates. Local control—and the local accountability that should accompany it—is increasingly a fiction if it still exists at all.

2. “Accountability” is based on valid measures.

In reality, most or all of the standardized assessments on which state governments are basing their accountability systems have zero proven validity. Individuals such as Dr. Gary Thompson of Utah and others have clearly demonstrated that these assessments are experimental in nature. Without proper notifications and permissions, the blanket administration of such measures is deeply unethical and would immediately result in criminal charges to any lay practitioner. Of course, neither the assessment developers nor the state governments administering these measures have even once issued such notification. Moreover, parents have been put in the position of having to inform themselves about the true nature of these assessments. The information has not been willingly disclosed to them. The measures are being mandated nonetheless, making unwitting guinea pigs out of a captive population—children.

3. Standardized assessments reliably measure academic performance. 

This is perhaps one of the greatest of the lies that have been perpetrated on the public. In reality, children are not standard. Thus, at best, standardized measures can capture only a small sliver of information about any given child’s academic comprehension and abilities at a single moment in time. If the child hasn’t eaten or slept properly, is experiencing difficulties at home, is unnerved by the conditions of the assessment, or any of many other factors, the standardized assessment may, in fact, provide an entirely false read of that student’s ability.

In addition, the cut scores on these assessments—which define success or failure—are essentially set arbitrarily and for reasons often motivated by non-academic matters. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia (SBAC), for example, published the cut scores on which its members had agreed. SBAC made no secret of the fact that it was essentially predetermining that the majority of students taking its assessments would fail.

Moreover, while today's standardized assessments do capture a modicum of academic information, they are not academic achievement tests in the sense that  the public has been led to assume--a fact which has long been known and is increasingly being discussed and exposed. These measures, in fact, have a significant psychometric component. Think personality assessment—the kind administered by businesses to help them discern what kind of person you are and how they’ll need to work with you to ensure they get maximum productivity.

Psychometric assessment is part and parcel of the shift away from true academics and toward a workforce model of education--about which we have written extensively here at Resounding Books, for example, here, here, and here. The reforms we are seeing are all geared toward this workforce model. The aim of that model is not so much to ensure children have the academic tools they need to determine and build for themselves a successful life of their own choosing; rather, the emphasis is on shaping and molding students in accordance with other people’s often not-so-noble aims. If the assessments aren’t principally designed to measure academic knowledge or progress, then allowing the public to believe that the accountability system being based them on is principally about academics is deeply manipulative.

4. Standardized assessments reliably measure teacher, school, and district performance.

That so-called accountability systems now ensure that teachers’ reviews, merit pay, status, and/or job retention depends heavily on student standardized assessment scores is not just unfair; it’s wrong. That these same scores are used to “grade” schools, districts, and even states is equally problematic. For all of the reasons cited above, one could never hope to use such assessments to accurately measure the ways in which a teacher is or is not contributing to his or her classroom, much less that a school or district is succeeding or failing.

Also consider that, just as a standardized assessment could only ever measure a small fraction of information about a student’s academic knowledge or progress, the same can be said of a teacher’s value in the classroom. Just as kids aren’t standard, neither teachers nor the situations they have to deal with on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis are standard. Solid, fair teacher evaluation cannot and should not be strongly rooted in standardization if it’s to provide an honest view. Otherwise, teaching to the test will be the inevitable result.

There’s another consideration. We’ve known for some time now that standardized assessment scores correlate to little more than the neighborhood in which a child lives. Surprise: Children from poorer neighborhoods don’t do as well on standardized assessments as children from middle class or more affluent neighborhoods. In many cases, they don’t have the same resources to assist them with homework, test prep, etc. Of course, considering the veiled psychometric nature of the assessments, it’s hard to see such supposed shortcomings as the tragedy over which education reformers weep so many crocodile tears. What is a tragedy is that students, teachers, schools, and districts are being labeled failures on the basis of assessment scores that don’t actually measure what people have been led to believe—and that reputations, lives, and even whole communities are being upended as a result of “poor” assessment scores.

Good teachers generally aren’t afraid of solid feedback. They’re not trying to avoid accountability in its true sense. What they object to is that the methods being used to evaluate them are invalid, that those methods are thus unjust, and that the systems those methods serve are corrupt. They understand, as we do, that accountability--as so-called reformers currently frame it--has little or nothing to do with real teaching, learning, or academic progress. Instead, accountability has been designed to ensure two things:

  1. compliance with a corrupt system; and
  2. the continued flow of that system’s fuel, which is student data (and, increasingly, parent and teacher data).

And who is that data intended to benefit...? It’s not students, parents, or teachers. Rather, it’s the public-private partners who drive the system; Big Government and Big Business, working hand-in-hand, use the data to aquire money and maintain control. It's a rigged game.

The Fordham Institute has long been right in the thick of these machinations, helping to ensure that average citizens remain in the dark about what accountability actually is, how it works, and the results it does or doesn't achieve.

Stay Tuned! More coming soon...

While there's a lot more about accountability we could say, our main goal here is just to lay the groundwork for our official counter-competition announcement in just a few days. From there, we hope you'll help us say the all kinds of creative ways. 

Some things just shouldn't be allowed to stand. Fordham's dishonesty in relationship to the meaning of the term "accountability" is one of them.

Get geared up.

Stoke your creative juices.

And prepare to start denying Fordham and other false reformers the opportunity to continue lying to the public...