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Curtail Accountability, Cultivate Attainability by William G. Wraga

By effect, apparent intent, and even definition, the current accountability movement is an inappropriate approach to improving public education. A more constructive approach to school improvement, one that fosters a culture of attainability in our education system, is in order.

idea that will have the effect not of improving the education of children and youth, but of indicting the public school system of the United States. To improve education in the United States, politicians, policy makers, and education leaders must discard the debilitating scheme of accountability and implement a constructive approach to school reform that fosters a culture of attainability.

The current test-driven accountability movement, codified in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 ([NCLB] 2002), was a misguided

Accountability Defined By now, the approach of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (2002) to the improvement of school programs

is familiar: states were required to adopt “challenging academic content standards and challenging student academic achievement standards” (1444–1445), implement “a single statewide State accountability system” (1445), define “adequate William G. Wraga is a Professor in the Department of Lifelong Education, Administration, and Policy, College of Education, University of Georgia. His research interests lie in the areas of curriculum theory, development, policy, and history. KAPPA DELTA PI RECORD RECORD ◆ SUMMER SUMMER 2011 149 KAPPA DELTA PI RECORD ◆ SUMMER 2011 149149 KAPPA DELTA PI ◆ 2011

yearly progress [AYP]” (1446), and “ensure . . . [that] all students . . . will meet or exceed the State’s proficient level of academic achievement on the State assessments” by 2014 (1447– 1448). Although some discretion was left to the states on these matters, that the assessment would be some type of standardized test based on the state curriculum standards was obligatory. Clues to the inherent debility of accountability measures in NCLB are found in the definitions of the word itself. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus defines accountable as “subject to giving an account” and provides the following synonyms: “answerable, liable, responsible.” The fourth edition of the American Heritage College Dictionary defines accountable as “liable to being called to account; answerable.” According to the fourth edition of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the verb form of account can mean “to furnish a reckoning (to someone) of money received and paid out,” “to make satisfactory amends for [he will account for his crime],” “to give satisfactory reasons or an explanation for [can he account for his actions?],” “to be the cause, agent, or source of: with for,” and “to do away with as by killing: with for [he accounted for five of the enemy].” Notice that definitions of the word accountability generally evoke neither positive nor constructive connotations. By definition, accountability assumes liability, implies culpability, and anticipates amends; it can even denote killing. To hold someone accountable for their actions is to presuppose they have done something blameworthy, not something praiseworthy. That is, the current accountability movement begins with a presumption of wrongdoing, of

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damages committed, of guilt on the part of public schools and the educators who work in them.

Hostile Takeover If the definition of the word accountability implies liability, the accountability mechanism of NCLB seems rigged to compel public schools to incur it. Recall that this approach to accountability emerged from a school reform movement that, beginning in the 1980s, persistently misrepresented the performance of public schools by manipulating achievement test data (Berliner and Biddle 1995; Bracey 2002). The lengths that “reformers” would go to discredit the schools were remarkable. These efforts included, in the George H. W. Bush administration, not only the suppression of evidence in the Sandia report that public schools were performing relatively well (Tanner 1993), but also the misrepresentation of test scores. When the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores showed steady improvement, the “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced” performance levels tied to NAEP scores were arbitrarily set in such a way that achieving anything beyond “basic” would become a rare occurrence (Glass 2008). The accountability mechanisms of NCLB (2002) can be understood as part of this effort to discredit public schools in order to “prepare the battlefield” for choice and privatization. As we know, the law stipulates that in the event a school fails “to make adequate yearly progress” for “two consecutive years” (1479), the local education agency must “provide all students enrolled in the school with the option to transfer to another public school served by the local education agency, which may include a public charter school” (1479). If

the school continues to fail to make adequate yearly progress, the consequences escalate to include closing it and “[r]eopening the school as a public charter school,” “replacing all or most of the school staff,” and “[e]ntering into a contract with an entity, such as a private management company,” to run the reopened school (1485). So choice, charter status, and privatization are the consequences for failing to demonstrate adequate yearly progress toward 100 percent proficiency in academic achievement of all students by 2014. And such failure is nearly assured by the technicalities of the law. NCLB requires that schools report “measurable annual objectives for continuous and substantial improvement” not only for all students, but also for students in the following subgroups: “economically disadvantaged students,” “students from major racial and ethnic groups,” “students with disabilities,” and “students with limited English proficiency” (1446–1447). If students in any one of those subgroups fail to make adequate yearly progress, the entire school is labeled as failing and is subject to the escalating consequences. That is, if for two years 95 percent of the students in a public school make AYP and students in a single subgroup do not, then the school is subject to choice, charter status, and privatization. This is a frame-up. If the hostile intent of the NCLB provisions is not apparent enough, subsequently a former George W. Bush administration official confirmed it. Susan Neuman, who had served as Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education under George W. Bush, revealed in an interview with Time that members of the Department of Education in that administration “saw NCLB as a Trojan horse for the choice agenda—

a way to expose the failure of public education and ‘blow it up a bit,’ she says. ‘There were a number of people pushing hard for market forces and privatization’” (Wallis 2008). More recently, Chester Finn, who had served as the Assistant Secretary for Research and Improvement in the Department of Education in the George H. W. Bush administration, and under whose watch the disparaging NAEP performance labels were fashioned, responded to the suggestion that policy makers should abandon the choice and privatization agenda and instead support the existing public school system with the remark, “I say let’s blow it up” (Dillon 2010), the “it” referring to the American system of public education. The fact aside that in post-9/11 United States Finn’s is a very poor choice of words, his and Neuman’s statements expose the hostility toward the American public school system that lies behind the current accountability movement.

Fostering Attainability To replace the American public school system with charters, choice, and privatization would, to borrow language from the 1983 Nation at Risk report, constitute an act of “unilateral educational disarmament” (National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983, 5). Public school systems are fixtures of industrial democracies. Countries that have implemented market-based reforms, such as charters and choice, have higher levels of educational inequity in terms of increased variation of academic achievement among subgroups of students, than countries without marketbased reforms (Green and Wiborg 2004). Moreover, available evidence indicates that overall in the United States, charter schools and even

private schools do not outperform public schools in terms of student achievement (Lubienski and Lubienski 2006). Privatizing public schools in the United States may provide a new revenue source for avaricious investors and, in the process, skim resources for profit that under public control would have been reinvested in the schools; but there is no evidence that privatizing will improve the education of the American people. Policymakers should abandon the insidious accountability scheme that NCLB imposes on the public schools and instead enact reforms that foster a culture of attainability. A culture of attainability sets realistic and challenging goals for educational progress that invigorate program improvement, professional growth, and student accomplishment. A culture of attainability in school reform would be characterized by: !" A commitment to revitalizing public schools, based on the recognition that the biggest educational bang for the buck is achieved by pooling public resources and investing them in public institutions

that serve the greater social good. !" The development and continuous improvement of a broad, comprehensive curriculum appropriate to educating wellrounded students who are prepared not only for employment and post-secondary education, but also, importantly, to discharge the duties of citizenship in a democratic society. !" Substantive teacher participation in developing curriculum and instruction for the actual students they teach, in the contexts in which they teach. !" A comprehensive system of evaluation that mitigates the limitations of standardized tests with

appraisals of student products and performances, that employs proven classroom assessments that accumulate into increasingly valid profiles of student learning, and that are used primarily to improve teaching and learning. !" Availability of sufficient resources and of substantive technical support in all of these areas from federal and state education agencies. !" A reform culture animated not by fear of punishments, but by incentives and provisions for accomplishments. The culture of compliance, intimidation, and debilitation contrived by the current test-driven accountability movement should be replaced by a robust educational culture of performance, development, and attainment. This would constitute a unilateral act of educational advancement for schooling in the United States. References

Berliner, D. C., and B. J. Biddle. 1995. The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud, and the attack on America’s public schools. Reading, MA: AddisonWesley. Bracey, G. W. 2002. The war against America’s public schools: Privatizing schools, commercializing education. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. Dillon, S. 2010. Scholar’s school reform U-turn shakes up debate. The New York Times, March 2. Available at: education/03ravitch.html. Glass, G. V. 2008. Fertilizers, pills, and magnetic strips: The fate of public education in America. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing. Green, A., and S. Wiborg. 2004. Comprehensive schooling and educational inequality: An international perspective. In A tribute to Caroline Benn: Education and democracy, ed. M. Benn and C. Chitty, 217–42. London: Continuum. Lubienski, C., and S. T. Lubienski. 2006. Charter, private, public schools and academic achievement: New evidence from NAEP mathematics data. New York: National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, Teachers College, Columbia University. National Commission on Excellence in Education. 1983. A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. 2002. Public Law 107–110. Washington, DC: U.S. Congress. Available at: esea02/107-110.pdf. Tanner, D. 1993. A nation “truly” at risk. Phi Delta Kappan 75(4): 288–97. Wallis, C. 2008. No Child Left Behind: Doomed to fail? Time, June 8. Available at: nation/article/0,8599,1812758.htm.



Curtail accountability, cultivate attainability  

Published in the summer 2011 issue of the Kappa Delta Pi Record