Wherein Lies Accountability? Not Where ESEA Thinks.
Sandra Stotsky – One major issue bedeviling this country is how to improve the education of low-income students without torturing them with an endless barrage of tests mandated by the federal or state government that have little to do with learning. The limited imaginations of policy makers at the federal and state level have led them into a cul-de-sac known as testing, testing, and more damn testing in the name of accountability. No one in 1914 expected the Great War in the early part of the 20th century to end up as a futile trench war, with little to show for a growing mound of corpses except an account of inches gained and lost shifting daily. Similarly, no one expected the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 to end in little else but a series of grade-by-grade tests with little connection to how students learn.
Instead of furthering the education of low-income students, ESEA has morphed into an instrument for removing teaching and teachers from the classrooms of all students. See, for example, the recent article on using Common Core math coaches in place of or to guide classroom teachers (http://www.capoliticalreview.com/capoliticalnewsandviews/classroom-coaches-critical-as-teachers-shift-to-common-core-coaches-instead-of-quality-teachers/) without any research evidence that mathematical specialists are effective. (None was located by the Task Group on Teachers and Teacher Education for the National Mathematics Advisory Panel’s final report in 2008). In fact, there is no research evidence that “mathematical specialists” know more math than the teachers they’ve replaced or coach.
Surely it is time to recognize the madness that ESEA policy has become, and the damage that good intentions have inflicted on low-income students. They are no better off today than they were 30 years ago, despite all the Title I money that has been showered on their schools ostensibly for their benefit.
As economist and education researcher Helen Ladd concluded in her comments on a 2010 Brookings Institution paper by Thomas Dee and Brian Jacob titled The Impact of No Child Left Behind on Students, Teachers, and Schools:
“… First, the null findings for reading indicate to me that to the extent that higher reading scores are an important goal for the country, NCLB is clearly not the right approach. That raises the obvious follow-up question: what is?…
The fact is that neither Congress nor the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) knows what will improve the education of low-income students on a national scale. Yet, Senator Lamar Alexander and Representative John Kline, now writing new language for a re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, still think that the USDE can mandate improved learning in low-income students by continuing to use state departments of education as conduits for federally mandated grade-by-grade tests in specific subjects. Not only have grade-by-grade tests in specific subjects not been effective in reading, there’s also no reason to think that national or state tests unrelated to the conditions for teaching and learning in the classroom can compel learning at all, never mind “deeper” learning.
As one of the architects of the “Massachusetts education miracle,” I can affirm that a number of factors strengthened the education of all students in Massachusetts. There is nothing to suggest that any one of them played a more prominent role than any other—only that, together, first-rate content-oriented standards, teacher-vetted test items on state tests based on those standards, revised educator licensing regulations, revised or new teacher licensure tests, strong academic criteria for professional development, and unspecified features of teacher/student interactions in the classroom all contributed to the enduring gains of Bay State students on national (NAEP) and international (TIMSS) tests from 2005 on—in English language arts, mathematics, and science.
Why the deep-seated belief that grade-by-grade testing stimulates student learning and is the right mechanism for accountability? State and federal policy makers long ago decided that in exchange for taxpayers’ money, accountability should be sought from the schools (or their administrators), as in NCLB, and then from the teachers in them, as in RttT, in the form of student scores on these tests. However, no systematic nation-wide evidence has emerged that holding school administrators or teachers accountable for student scores on state or national tests has advanced the education of any group of students. Indeed, no other country has ever sought to make anyone but students themselves accountable for their own scores on school tests.
What has been completely missing from the national dialogue on ESEA and the testing regime that NCLB introduced and that Common Core and RttT expanded is a discussion of how accountability worked for the hundreds of years preceding NCLB. After all, local taxpayers, mainly through property taxes, continue to be the major financial support of their local public schools since the states were colonies or territories. Most of them must have thought they were getting their money’s worth. Employers could easily see what literacy and numeracy skills their employees had if they had graduated from local schools, and colleges could easily see what literacy and numeracy skills freshmen brought to their freshman classes. But could parents tell what their children were learning during the school year and from grade to grade?
Actually, they could easily find out. They could look at the homework and test papers their children brought home, with the teacher’s comments and grades on them. These were signals of the learning that was expected, and if parents thought too much or too little was expected, they could complain to the teacher, principal, superintendent, or their elected school board. Even more revealing were the essays their children brought home in high school showing their teacher’s comments on student efforts to organize their thoughts in coherent and well-developed pieces of writing—the best indications of what they were learning and of their growth in rational thinking.
Homework and test papers with teachers’ comments on student strengths and weaknesses were connections between testing and learning. But the kinds of tests mandated by ESEA in the name of “accountability” and the other policies distant policy makers have required often in the name of “objectivity” have almost completely banished the kinds of tests and feedback that served as instruments of learning and true accountability. Those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad (Euripedes). Today they insist on one test after another on a computer, with no feedback possible for student or parent.