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Accountability vs. What We Want for Our Children

I was trying to explain the American focus on accountability as a driver of education reform the other day to an old friend, who recently retired as managing director of a regional law firm he had built into an international powerhouse.  He could not understand it.

"When we are reviewing applications from attorneys who want to join our firm," he said, "beyond a certain threshold, we are not interested in how well the applicants did in the courses they took. We are more interested in certain other qualities that are far more important to us, like ethics, drive, grit, general savvy, ability to figure out what they need to learn to cope with a problem and to learn it quickly, the kind of empathy that makes it possible to help others grow and avoid unnecessary conflicts, finding creative ways to get out of a tough situation, leadership qualities, capacity for independent thought and action, ability to get along with a wide range of people...." and the list went on.

We do the same thing in our own organization.  When presented with a candidate for a job, I will look at their resume, but I will forgive significant omissions in formal qualifications if I can get the sort of people I am looking for.  What mostly interests me in the resume is whether there is anything in it that suggests someone who is not a plodding careerist, someone who will not just do what they are told but will seize the day.  I always ask to see something they have written, something that will provide some insight into their ability to think clearly, to organize their ideas, to draw on a wide range of knowledge to come to conclusions that go beyond the received wisdom of the field, to be insightful.  

But the heart of the process comes when I ask them to tell me what amounts to their life story.  And this is where I am looking for very much the sort of things that my attorney friend looks for.  I am interested not so much in what the candidate did as in why they did it, how they saw the dilemmas and opportunities they faced and how they resolved them, what they took into account, what interested them, where they looked for help, how their understanding of how the world works was modified and informed by their experience, whether they did what was expedient or thought long and hard about what was right, and did that.  I want to know what they see as the major inflection points in their lives and how they approached them and why.

We are a very small and very flat organization.  We don't have the time to rewrite what they wrote.  We cannot afford to hire people who need to be told what to do, nor can we afford to hire people whose shoulder we need to be looking over all the time or whose work needs to be constantly reviewed and redone.  We don't have many scheduled meetings or appointed working groups.  When I worked in government, I often heard the announcement that, "That is not in my job description."  So we have no job descriptions.  When people see that something needs to be done, they go and do it.  When they need to reach out to others to achieve their objective, they shoot them an email.  When they need to get others in involved, they have a meeting.  We need to hire self-starters who set high standards for themselves and have the social skills to operate in the way I just described.  They need to know what's right and what's wrong and do what's right, especially when that's difficult.

Very little of this is revealed by the resume (including, by the way, whether they can write well or not).  None of it is in the high school transcript.  So what, exactly, are we doing when we hold our teachers accountable for student's performance on standardized tests of academic performance...when we reward some teachers and punish others based on those results?  Teachers have known for a long time that there is a "whole child" behind the test scores.  The best of them care deeply about those whole children and have done their very best to help their charges develop the kinds of qualities I have talked about here.  But, now, we are going out of our way to tell them that we are not interested in any of that.  The time and energy and care that they put into developing the qualities I have been talking about are not important, do not count, will be ignored as we consider whether they are worth rewarding or deserve punishment.  Really!

Countries like the United States that have placed a big bet on test-based accountability have deliberately built incentives systems that would lead the independent observer to believe that all they care about is student performance on tests of proficiency in their native language, mathematics and, sometimes, science.  Proficiency in those subjects is undeniably important.  But my friend and I are finding it harder and harder to find the kinds of people we need to hire for our enterprises to be successful.  These policies, I submit, are born from a form of myopia that has blossomed into madness.

The underlying issue here is the degree to which we are willing to trust our teachers.  The central place that test-based accountability now has in the United States and some other nations is the result of a catastrophic fall in the nation's trust in its teachers, in their competence and dedication.  It seems obvious to those who favor test-based accountability that, if the teachers are not performing, they need to be held to account.  It seems no less obvious that they cannot be held to account with assessments that they themselves devise and administer.  So they have to be held to account by independent, "objective" tests.  And it turns out that those tests not only fail to measure much that is important about the subjects tested, they do not even pretend to measure the qualities of student performance that are the subject of this blog.

But we persist in forcing teachers to abandon their natural interest in helping our students to develop many of the qualities that will spell the differences between success and failure in the workplace and in life.  That is very foolish.

Follow NCEE @CtrEdEcon.

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