Friday, February 05, 2010

Account. Ability.

There's nothing I hate more than a semantic argument between educators. I invested way too many excruciating hours in ed school in the 1970s listening to people argue about whether some bit of knowledge was a goal or an objective, only to go forth, fully trained, into a real school and discover that nobody there had either goals or objectives. Nor did they have standards, targets or grade level benchmarks. What they had were textbooks. Which were synonymous with "the curriculum," pretty much. You taught the stuff in the books, and kids learned it (or not).

Things have changed since then--and  language does matter. The whole "21st century learning" concept has been framed as a compelling set of messages, an exciting vision replete with exciting prose--but some people think it's short on content-based specifics. Almost every educational policy idea or instructional practice, from "back to basics" to "sage on the stage" to "core knowledge" has been shaped by a slogan or catch phrase, pushing us toward a conviction or conclusion.

Take "accountability," a word freighted with liability, in various definitions: obligation to bear consequences, being called to account, culpability. "Responsibility" is usually listed as a synonym of accountability, but it's word with a different flavor and different outcomes: reliability, dependability, being answerable. One takes responsibility--but one is held accountable. A commitment to respond--or the acceptance of blame? There are similarities, but the two concepts ultimately diverge, suggesting different human motivations and goals.

When it comes to our children's schools and teachers, do went want them to acknowledge responsibility for meeting our children's needs? Or do we want them to be held accountable for specific, measurable outcomes?  

Well, both, of course. The question is whether we can have it both ways. Can we put first priority on producing  gains in standardized indicators, while simultaneously demanding that teachers to be responsive to individual children, their diverse needs, aspirations and goals? (Or objectives, as the case may be?)

Richard Rothstein (Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right) says that accountability should be re-defined, toward measuring a set of "broad outcomes"--beyond stripped-down literacy and numeracy basics. We're wasting our time on pointless arguments over statistical growth models, confidence intervals and standardizing everything in sight, he says--let's get busy on what really matters.

Just when you expect him to hammer home the classic Rothstein argument that schools cannot be held accountable for things utterly out of their control, the book takes a fascinating historical detour, back to the 1960s, when the NAEP assessments were first developed. Early incarnations of the NAEP measured things like civic awareness, ability to consider and analyze alternative viewpoints, the skills needed for working productively in groups--and personal responsibility for making decisions.  Amazing. Who knew?

Rothstein succinctly points out that policy incentives and teaching practice would certainly be different if we were carefully measuring those early NAEP goals today. He calls this "getting accountability right"--a willingness to take responsibility for a more comprehensive array of essential competencies, weaving in content knowledge. The NAEP assessment models still exist, and could be used to collect data.

There is often a difference between what we want and value for our own children, and our beliefs about what schools should be able to accomplish with all children. Speaking personally, I wanted my children's teachers to be fully responsible for engaging them, challenging them, and teaching them persistently. But I put accountability for learning results on my children themselves.

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