U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan has long refused to face reality. Duncan still ramps up his incredible spin for test, sort, and punish by claiming that it is a civil rights issue. He continues to support the stress of high-stakes testing as the means of overcoming the damage done by the stress of poverty.
Duncan is a perfect example of the truism that to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Rather than address the complex problems facing schools that serve intense concentrations of students from generational poverty, who have endured unconscionable trauma, he repeats the simple mantra: Accountability, accountability, accountability.
But, curiously, accountability hawks don't hold themselves responsible for a dozen years of failure with the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) bubble-in accountability regime.
In his latest public relations campaign, Duncan argues that consequences must be attached to tests for every student so that no child will slip through the cracks. But, at a minimum, his claim that high-stakes testing protects "every child" is sloppy thinking. Seeking to protect every child is a job for a diagnostic metric, not an accountability metric. The proper use of an accountability metric would be holding individuals and systems accountable for the proper use of diagnostic metrics.
To try to protect every patient, doctors order screening tests. Accountability systems exist to ensure the quality of those systems and their proper usage. It would make no sense to punish doctors and technicians for the results that their tests produce (although some healthcare reformers sound like they want to do so). Accountability systems also monitor the professionalism and practice of the healthcare providers who use them. Doctors, however, would not submit to the type of output-driven accountability regimes that are being imposed on teachers.
If reformers want a data system and a set of procedures that covers every child, and to hold educators accountable for using them in a professional manner to protect every child from education errors, then that's doable. In that case, let's agree to scrap high-stakes testing and build better accountability systems, as well as better data-informed systems for diagnostic purposes and better decision making.
Education should pattern its accountability systems after medical care, while acknowledging that we don't have a fraction of that sector's resources. The first rule of school improvement should be "First, do no harm." Then we should institutionalize procedures to reduce harm, ranging from the school version of a doctor washing his hands to properly following best-practice protocols.
A new era of accountability should begin with reformers taking the log from their eyes before trying to remove the mote from educators' eyes. It should start by holding accountability systems accountable. We could then proclaim to policy makers, school patrons, and other stakeholders that we have met the challenge, reinvented accountability and shown that education is worthy of increased investments.
By the way, too many reformers escalate the political battles, claiming that we need smarter accountability systems where everybody holds everybody else accountable. But I wouldn't even contemplate systems where both sides hold each other accountable and risk the blame game spinning out of control. If reformers want to hold us accountable for each child, wouldn't we have to hold them accountable for every child damaged by their policies? Wouldn't we end up in an even greater education civil war?
Or maybe we should...
A superintendent from the Broad Academy told me that he wanted a computer and video system so he could sit in his office and monitor every individual class in his district. If such a system existed, though, we should demand another feature. Every time a young child breaks down crying during a standardized test, the teacher could push a button and send a video of that incident to a network that includes every prominent supporter of high-stakes testing.
Every time a gangbanger who seems tough as nails on the outside tears up when explaining how his entire education was stolen as a steady diet of teach-to-the-test worksheets drove the joy of learning out of class, Duncan and every other reformer would be required to watch. When teens explain that they know they are just pawns in adult games, and that they are so disrespected that they are left behind and "treated like this," every accountability hawk should have to deal with it.
When a teen explodes, saying she is dropping out of school because she can't pass these tough new graduation tests (EOIs), every reformer should listen to the pained expression that teachers have to face: "They were going to send me to 'EOI boot camp'! I didn't commit any crime!"