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What Does Accountability Mean in Education?

In an editorial published on May 31, The New York Observer dared the teachers unions in New York State to contest Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposal to count standardized test scores for as much as 40 percent in the evaluation of teachers ("In Classroom Accountability Battle, Cuomo Will Take the Unions to School"). In high dudgeon and even higher certitude, the editorial blamed teachers unions for what it calls "truly shocking - and infuriating" results posted by the state's public schools. It pointed to the fact that New York spends more money per student than any other state - more than $18,000 per year - and yet ranks 39th in high school graduation rates.

This is the kind of inflammatory rhetoric that The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Times routinely engage in. As a long-time subscriber to the former, I know exactly what to expect from its op-eds and editorials. What is disturbing, however, is that the same kind of hostility is beginning to permeate the opinion pages of other newspapers. So let's take a closer look at the alleged lack of accountability.

On May 19, 2002, Jeannie Oakes, former presidential professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education, wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that I believe presents the best rebuttal to the indictment ("A Plan to Save Our Schools"). Oakes explained that accountability is a two-way street. She pointed to the importance of a plan then under consideration in the state Legislature advocating an "Opportunity to Learn Index."

What this meant was that everyone from the governor on down be accountable to students, rather than vice versa. The performance of these adults would be measured and reported each year by an index that would complement California's Academic Performance Index. For example, did teachers have enough textbooks and supplies? Did they teach in a clean and safe learning environment? In other words, accountability cannot be laid solely on the backs of teachers. It is a shared responsibility.

I don't know of any other field of human endeavor where the concept does not apply. Yet teachers alone are somehow expected - no required - to produce outcomes against overwhelming odds. The New York Observer refused to acknowledge the deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development that so many students bring to class through no fault of their own. This is no more an excuse why they underachieve than gravity is an excuse why objects fall to the ground.

Nevertheless, the attack continues unabated. It's much easier to scapegoat teachers unions for all the ills afflicting public schools than to engage in a productive discussion. I'll repeat what I've written often before: the ultimate goal of corporate reformers is to privatize all schools. Everything else is a red herring.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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