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Education Is an Ecosystem

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Our current approach to accountability testing is flawed. Nearly all stakeholders agree about that.

Beyond this simple observation, however, there is no consensus. Some favor keeping the framework established by No Child Left Behind more or less intact. Others, meanwhile, view the entire enterprise of high-stakes testing as inherently unworkable.

Neither of those positions is particularly helpful.

The unintended consequences associated with our present accountability model are as unacceptable as they are well documented. Yet loathed as they are in some circles, standardized  tests are simply not going away, and calls for their abolition are often buffered by a heavy dose of magical thinking.

Into the fray, then, jumps Marc S. Tucker, who has authored a new report for the National Center on Education and the Economy—a report recently summarized in Joe Nocera's New York Times column.

Unlike more high-contrast positions, proposals like Tucker's offer a full range of tones—modeling the kind of nuanced thinking that the problem requires.

This, of course, is not to suggest that Tucker has it all right. His suggestion that we hold students accountable, rather than teachers, solves one problem by creating another. The idea that student test scores should be front-page news assumes that available tests can successfully measure learning—something they almost never do—and ignores the degree to which such an outcome would exacerbate inequality—prompting middle class parents to even more aggressively re-locate to ostensibly high-performing school districts. And Tucker vastly overestimates the state's capacity for providing meaningful feedback to schools.

But he is right in a one incredibly big way: in making the case for a more comprehensive approach to accountability. As he writes: "one cannot divorce the design of the accountability system for education from the gestalt of the entire education system, and, in particular, the way in which the system treats its teachers overall."

To put it another way: when we think about accountability testing, we must consider the impact we wish to have on the entire system—on the curriculum, on student morale, on teacher professionalism, etc.

Yet this isn't the shape our conversations about education tend to take. Instead, we tend to imagine that policy can be narrowly targeted, producing isolated effects. We imagine that we can swap one teacher evaluation methodology for another—the way we might put a new engine into a car—or that we can install a new curriculum—the way we upgrade computer software.

If only it were so easy.

Education is an ecosystem, with each constituent part affecting the others—less like a vast machine than like a rain forest. And though crafting policy with this fact in mind might be more conceptually challenging for reformers, it would also be far more sensible.

As ecologist Aldo Leopold once argued: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." This is a very different vision for schools. And, as I have argued before, it is a vision badly needed.

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