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John Thompson: Are Accountability Hawks Chicken When it Comes to Their Charters?

The panelists in the Fordham Institute's "Opt Out or Cop Out" discussion clearly enjoyed their surrealistic discussion of "accountability." They speculated on fanciful scenarios for micromanaging educators that were so disconnected from reality as to recall panelist Charlie Barone's tweet about "Dadaists Man Ray & Marcel DuChamp (who) used to play tennis w/o a net."

Barone, a policy wonk for the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), directed that charge against me. But, I'll leave it to readers to determine whether he or educators have a better understanding of high-poverty schools, and the effects of NCLB (which Barone helped draft) on poor children of color.

Readers could also watch the mental gymnastics here. No reference was made to the actual improvement of teaching and learning. Instead, the panelists speculated on increasingly convoluted accountability castles in the sky. Their musings became more and more unworldly, morphing into a social engineer's imaginary paradise. Their disconnected theorizing clarified the otherwise incomprehensible tale of how school "reform" ultimately imposed surrealistic sets of unworkable policies on traditional public schools - though not charters.

During the Q&A, educator Shaun Johnnson asked how many panelists had actually taught classes. His meaning was clear; did the participants have real-life experience teaching in public schools. Hands shot up across the room, as four panelists claimed such experience. You can check these links to their biographies to see how much actual practical knowledge they have in urban education.

Charlie Barone graduated in 1991, started a postdoctoral program, and took a political position in 1993, but no reference to public school teaching is to be found, before or after that time.

Mike Petrilli's biography mentions a degree in political science, but not a teaching certificate, and no teaching job worth mentioning.

Robin Lake doesn't have a teaching degree either and upon graduation in 1990 she started as a consultant. Her resume shows continued employment in advocacy since then.

Delia Pompa's bio lists a half dozen worthy administrative positions, mostly in advocacy, but not teaching.

In fairness, Mike Petrilli sometimes tried to jump the imaginary net and bring up inconvenient questions on their "hypothesis" that top down accountability could drive school improvement. He noted the sorry results from School Improvement Grants. He asked how teachers were supposed to make the transition to Common Core when they were still held personally accountable for bubble-in test results. Petrilli's attempt to bring reality into their game resulted in laughter and the majority of his colleagues agreeing that his attempt was crazy.

Nelson Smith, of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, also said that accountability metrics should take into account the realities that his schools face. For instance, alternative charter schools (like traditional neighborhood schools, I would add) have students who may only be enrolled for a couple of months. Charter schools (like traditional public schools, I would again add) face accountability metrics that incentivize primitive test prep. Those pedagogies won't work for charter school teachers and students (or neighborhood school teachers and students) when facing rigorous new Common Core Assessments.

But Petrilli was the only panelist who would consider similar adjustments for high-poverty traditional public schools.

Smith's concerns prompted a series of speculations about how the accountability overlords could adjust their metrics, i.e. opt out, without opting out. For instance, they could create a tiered system for schools to get waivers, without calling them waivers. If a favored school's outcomes under Common Core were suspect, under one non-opt-out opt-out they could appeal using old bubble-in test scores!?!? Apparently, not even favored systems like New York City should be allowed a "waiver," but NYC schools that are seen to be innovative could be "given some space."

The Dadaism was most sublime during an incomprehensible exchange over whether children should be treated like lab rats. Opinions in the twitter-sphere were said to be divided, as some actually claimed that it is a good idea. One panelist even asserted that making corrections in accountability systems, as opposed to imposing untested accountability systems, was experimenting on kids!?!?

But, isn't this entire test-driven accountability scheme, where non-educators impose their hypotheses on school improvement, a grand experiment? Isn't the Common Core mandate a high-stakes gamble treating children as lab rats? If not, shouldn't the panelists sketch out some plausible scenario of how bubble-in accountability could not inflict severe harm on many children in schools that are already failing to meet laxer standards?

These true believers in accountability seemed, mostly, to grasp at the straw that the failure of teach-to-the- bubble-in test can be cured by teaching to a "test worth teaching to." But, how could they believe that the transition from bubble-in accountability to Common Core accountability won't cause many schools to collapse under the contradictory mandates?

At one point, musings about how to balance creativity with compliance prompted Charlie Barone to give the panel's most reality-based account of how accountability-driven "reform" affected schools. The bizarre thing about his words was that they actually explain why NCLB-type accountability never had a plausible chance of improving schools. But, instead, Barone was asserting that his beautiful vision had been right all the time and people in real schools were wrong.

I'll leave it to the readers to dissect his logic. The "history is clear," Barone said, and in the wake of NCLB, schools were only "creative around how to game the system." His answer was to continue the "cat and mouse game" known as data-driven accountability until ...?

Barone and the other accountability hawks play the game this way because, he said, "when you don't trust (teachers), you try to control." So, test-driven reformers must not consider waivers or let up on the pressure to control educators until, presumably, this teacher-bashing attracts vast supplies of new teaching talent who agree to be smashed back and forth until their profession is deemed worthy of respect.

What do you think? Are we finding double standards when it comes to accountability systems? Should some schools get more latitude than others?

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