by Victoria Young
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) epitomizes all that is flawed with OUR lawmakers:
— They rewrote a major education law that was not understood by the general public, and still isn’t, thus excluding the informed consent, of the People;
— They gave little thought to consequences and how this law would be implemented in schools, by the People;
— They failed to properly fund the law and education in general, for the People.
Now, after decades of miniscule educational progress and six years of failing to rewrite NCLB on time, the question is — why aren’t people pressuring Congress to “fix” this law? Do we not understand where we went wrong?
Congress passed this detrimental law and allowed it to be sold to the public as “education reform” based on three emotionally charged words — accountability, flexibility, and choice. These words captured the American psyche and imprisoned education reform ideals within the boundaries of standards, testing, and accountability — searing false beliefs in the minds of Americans.
We went forward with the idea that we needed No Child Left Behind to identify schools in need of fixing and put the spotlight on the children who were being left behind in every corner of our country. And where the light shined, we would hold people accountable. A generation of children later, look into the hands of education officials — who and what have they captured and held accountable? Scapegoats.
Welcome to reality. The truth is that we never needed new standards or better tests to tell us what needed fixing. We needed to listen to all the “stakeholders” and actually use the data and information we already had. We knew before we started funding this whole mess that a multitude of statistics indicated we had an extreme inequality occurring in our public education system — a quality gap. It was the reason for and focus of federal education law back in 1965.
So, will the problems be fixed by standards, testing, and accountability? This is where these words must be wedged apart.
Do we need standards? It is a given. In modern day America, all professions are developed and practiced according to standards. But should it be the first (and repeated) focus of education reform funding?
Do we need testing? Yes, we need testing for a variety of reasons, always have. In classrooms there are various “tests” that teachers use to judge whether or not a student is progressing. There are diagnostic uses when suspected learning problems are encountered. And there are ethical uses of standardized tests but their use across-the-board as an accountability weapon is unethical and illogical. These tests don’t fit that purpose — haven’t and won’t. Expensive folly.
It isn’t standards and tests that we need to ask our government to perfect and invest in; it is a system for delivering quality education to every corner of our land — rural, urban, and all places in between. But what about “accountability” in such a system?
The adults guiding a child in the learning process are the endpoints of any accountability system for education, “the buck stops there.” Each adult is responsible for the children in their care.
The National Science Teachers Association “believes that individuals are accountable first to those directly affected by their actions and second to all other interested parties.” They also make clear that there are “conditions under which accountability needs to take place.”
Teachers must be given:
• the appropriate resources,
• access to quality educational opportunities,
• the time necessary to develop skills,
• the opportunity to participate in development of accountability measures,
• information about the plan and timeline for compliance, and,
• the opportunity to address accountability issues within a local network.
So shouldn’t we look differently at accountability of the system since it must first deliver on these necessary conditions?
If everyone did their job with honesty and integrity, we wouldn’t need laws to “enforce” accountability. But because of the reality of human nature, oversight of the government institutions and systems that deliver vital services to people is necessary. Systemic accountability is essential.
As Linda Darling-Hammond made clear in The Flat World and Education (2010), in our current system “two-way accountability does not exist: Although the child and the school are accountable to the state for test performance, the state is not accountable to the child or school for providing adequate educational resources…If education is actually to improve and the system is to be accountable to students, accountability should focus on ensuring:
1) the competence of teachers and leaders,
2) the quality of instruction,
3) the adequacy of resources,
4) the capacity of the system to trigger improvements” (p301).
For “systemic changes to improve student achievement,” director of Citizens for Effective Schools Gary Ratner points out that we must “hold states and districts accountable for implementing key structural improvement…putting the emphasis of school reform directly where it needs to be; on helping schools improve” (p34).
So once you have a vision of an accountability system tied to improvements, spending education dollars on anything other than creating the conditions where accountability can reasonably take place seems like a poor use of scarce dollars.
By failing to first fund uniform establishment of the conditions for achievement, we have been trying to build success on a foundation of quicksand. In the past, our public education system has served our country well but its foundation has been eroded from decades of neglect and undermining.
Instead, we must work at building a strong foundation using the concept upon which a pyramid is built — its strength starts with a wide base of support.
And we have asked for accountability without acknowledging that the term “accountability” is interchangeable with responsibility. Maybe this is because in our hearts and minds, “responsibility” carries a human obligation. It taps into a core American value and a feeling that we should do something. We should.
We need an accountability system where there is a local responsibility to our students, true state accountability for adequate resources, and a federal duty to monitor progress for the purpose of providing guidance and support, where needed, in order to provide equal access — ensuring a delivery system for quality education for all children.
Face reality; we have made some mistakes.
Federal education law provides the place for us to self-correct — to not just wave the problem away, but to self-correct — with a law of, by, and for the People.
Victoria M. Young is a long-time advocate for excellence in education, a practicing veterinarian, and mother of two college graduates from Idaho’s land-grant university. She is the author of The Crucial Voice of the People, Past and Present: Education’s Missing Ingredient.