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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 08/23/2011

We may have accountability wrong

We like summer, don’t we? Chances are the weather is nice. We may even be on vacation, or if at work, under less pressure than usual. We look forward to the long Labor Day weekend.

Since we are in a good mood, this seems a good time for me to dump on us one of the most depressing reports I have read in the last few years.

It is from Public Agenda, a non-profit public opinion group that does fine work on education issues, and the Kettering Foundation. The report’s title is not in and of itself discouraging: “Don’t Count Us Out: How an Overreliance on Accountability Could Undermine the Public’s Confidence in Schools, Business, Government and More.”

Its message is vital. Accountability is a key word in our national debate over how to educate our children. I was reminded of that watching historian Diane Ravitch and author Steven Brill argue on CSPAN over the meaning of school reform.

Brill said teachers had to be accountable. Ravitch agreed, but said accountability had to be more than test scores. Brill agreed, saying principals should have the power to assess teachers and help or remove those who aren’t doing their jobs. Then they got snippy with each other on whether teacher unions were keeping that from happening.

I rarely hear people on any side of this debate saying teachers and schools should NOT be accountable. They are public institutions funded by tax dollars. What the Public Agenda/Kettering report does is suggest that what many of us parents, voters and taxpayers think of accountability is different from what school leaders and policy makers (and pundits like me) think of it..

To experts who talk a lot about accountability in schools, the word means measures of school and teacher effectiveness and policies that help schools and teachers to improve. This report, based not on opinion polls but focus groups and interviews in six cities, says parents, taxpayers and voters, who usually don’t talk about accountability, think the word means government officials returning their phone calls and making an effort to get their personal input before making big changes.

“This human connection is generally more meaningful to people than accountability measures like performance indicators and progress on benchmarks,” the report said. “For most people, not being able to talk to someone is a signal that the institution doesn’t genuinely care about the public.”

One vivid example of this is when school leaders, in order to improve quality without adding to the cost of education, close small schools that are not doing well.

“To most parents and community members, the idea of closing a school seems extreme and counterproductive,” the report said. “It represents a genuine loss, and most people don’t understand why school leaders don’t just ‘fix the school’ instead of closing it. However, parents and community members are often dangerously uninformed about the educational risks their children face in existing schools. Despite their strong belief in the importance of education and good schools, many parents and community residents do not have good points of reference---they believe their children are receiving a good education when in fact the school is seriously inadequate.”

The report makes one other point relevant to school improvement. It says parents, voters and taxpayers feel strongly that they should be accountable too. Focus group participants said they fear that too many Americans have become “selfish” and that the balance between “rights” and “responsibilities” is out of kilter, the report said. I sense this in the many readers who ask on this blog how we can expect schools to teach kids well if their parents don’t make sure they get to school, behave while there and do their assignments when they get home.

People trying to improve schools rarely confront these differing views of accountability. They ought to. But the authors offer little guidance on how to do that. On the issue of school closings, for instance, the report says:

“Addressing these two perspectives requires more than just giving the public more information. Closing this gap requires a kind of dialogue that allows leaders and the public to absorb and truly understand the differing perspectives. It also requires building relationships so that each group is less isolated from the other and less distrustful.”

How? The authors don’t know. They end the report with questions, not answers: “What would promote a more meaningful exchange of views here? How can districts go beyond presenting information about the school’s failures, such as test scores and dropout rates? What do people need beyond ‘the numbers’?”

Yeah, what? What? Anyone who has spent time at a community meeting to discuss a school closing knows that such occasions rarely provide helpful dialogue. Usually people have made up their minds and yell a lot.

In general, public officials can explain what they are doing at great length. But it often doesn’t sound like they are asking for our advice. In turn, we parents, voters and taxpayers often don’t have time to listen to them or read their memos, and don’t trust what what they say when we do.

The Public Agenda/Kettering report may have exposed the greatest obstacle to getting our kids the educations they deserve. Public Agenda spokesman Michael Hamill Remaley said they are working on solutions. Still, after I read it, I needed cheering up.

So I made plans to visit the Mariners Point par-3 golf course in Foster City, Calif., a Scottish-style links gem. (That means there are almost no annoying trees.) It’s a bit chilly and noisy there on San Francisco Bay, as planes roar into SFO. But it’s only $13 for seniors. Even I can occasionally get a par.

That’s where I will be when this is posted. I will try to bury my fear of the course’s many sand traps by pondering how we can reconcile our need for data with our distrust of that same data. Let us know if you have any ideas.

By  |  12:00 PM ET, 08/23/2011

Categories:  Class Struggle

 
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