The Cost of Testing, Accountability, and Transparency

With ‘accountability’ being all the rage, it’s worth noting the difference between accountability and transparency:

Accountability proposals, when applied to lower level employees, have a tendency to backfire due to Campbell’s Law. If there’s an unsolved shooting attempt with no known injuries and police are on the hook to lower gun-related incidents, then this will get filed as ‘property damage.’ That doesn’t help anyone, as any possible follow up on that crime will be minimal. Even if only a small percentage of these misclassified cases are solved, that’s actually a good thing: arresting chuckleheads who shoot at people off the streets helps. But recording these incidents (most of which are unsolvable without some dumb luck) honestly makes the case clearance rate much lower.

Accountability should be in place for upper-level management and policy makers (including politicians and their official or unofficial advisors); their decisions create the environment in which their subordinates work. But transparency is always a good thing–how else can one know what the problems are?

This interview with Democratic Congressman Mark Takano, who was a teacher for twenty-four years before being elected to Congress, demonstrates the problems with conflating ‘accountability’ and transparency (boldface interviewer):

Tell me about your experience as a classroom teacher under a test and punish approach.

I saw education before No Child Left Behind. I also experienced education during No Child Left Behind up until I got elected to Congress. Basically, test and punish did not work. Because of No Child Left Behind, I suddenly had to follow a syllabus and a pacing guide dictated by the district office. There was less trust of the teacher, and that’s a mild way of putting it. We began being treated like we were a transmitter of someone else’s idea of what is good education. Effective education doesn’t work that way. Effective education is building relationships with students. It’s about teachers strategizing on how to engage students. You can’t do the canned lesson or scripted content.

What do you think of the argument that No Child Left Behind shined a light on underserved students?

I’ll concede the testing was useful in that it made us look at how we were doing with student populations that were underserved. I was a ninth grade English teacher with very little seniority in a school where senior teachers who taught eleventh and twelfth grade really didn’t understand the extent of the problems some of our students were having because so many of those students would drop out before they made it to higher grade levels. I would say in department meetings, “These kids don’t know how to read,” and I could point to the testing data that showed ninth graders coming into the school were reading at a fifth grade level.

So you were using the test data in a diagnostic capacity, in order to change teaching practice.

Exactly. I had to use “Great Expectations” in my ninth-grade class with 80 percent Latino students. You can make Dickens compelling to a group of Latino kids with its theme about socio-economic class. But the language in the book, with several different levels of dialect, is challenging to students who are struggling with basic English. Their ability to read texts of that density is not really there yet. So with the testing data, I could make an argument for a change in the curriculum.

That’s kind of ironic given the current belief that the purpose of No Child Left is to ensure all students regardless of their backgrounds should achieve at the same level.

So the testing kind of shook things up. But mostly, No Child Left Behind wasn’t designed for the types of realities in my school. The test and punish model had us so busy trying to get the kids to pass these tests that we weren’t thinking systemically about what kind of literacy program would be best for our students. We would move from one week of test preparation to another week of test preparation, all along knowing what we were doing wasn’t the best way of engaging students in instruction.

So the testing started to drive everything — the curriculum, the instruction.

Yes, driving everything. Here’s an example I use to explain what No Child Left Behind had us doing. Remember when you were in kindergarten and your teacher gave you a biology lesson on plants by planting carrots to watch them grow? As little kids, we would be anxious to see whether there was any progress in how our plants were growing, so we would make the mistake of pulling the plant out of the soil to see if the roots were growing. That’s what test-driven accountability is like, constantly pulling the plant out to see if the roots are growing.

When you tell your colleagues in Congress what the reality of test and punish is in the classroom, what do they say?

First, I don’t have a lot of time to talk with my colleagues and have this kind of conversation. Second, the attention span of the average member is so short, and it’s hard to have a conversation that goes beyond a superficial level of knowledge.

So when you come to Congress with particular expertise, you tend to stick with your expertise regardless of the topic. Take Elizabeth Warren. I really love the woman. She makes my heart beat when I watch her on banking. When she says we should have broken up the big banks, I say, you go, Elizabeth Warren. But she has been a lawyer all her life. When she takes a position on education, she brings her experience as a lawyer on the issue of accountability. And to her, accountability is some sort of punishment.

So in Congress, it seems what we have is a lot of people with very short attention spans looking at something as complicated as education with a frame of mind that they bring with them from the worlds of finance, law and banking.

Certainly there has to be some level of accountability. But if you liken education to bean counting, that’s not going to work. Likewise, if your background is in criminal justice or civil rights, you’re likely to want to remedy education problems by putting into place a law with all these hammers to correct the ways in which minorities are systematically excluded. But that same mentality isn’t going to work in education.

But wait, haven’t we been told education reform is the civil rights issue of our time?

So people who took up education reform as a civil rights issue take me back to the 1980s when I was substitute teaching. I was going to become a lawyer. But when I was a substitute teacher, I would work in Brookline one day and in Boston the next. Brookline had this amazing school with a curriculum created by PhD-credentialed teachers who were contributors to the textbook companies. Then I would take the [subway] into inner city Boston, and I had to walk through a metal detector to get into the school. So I got an up-close view of the differences in the physical conditions of the schools and the level of engagement in the teaching faculty. I felt this was a huge civil rights problem that is at the root of what our country is about. Education is important to us because we want to believe in equality of opportunity, that everybody in this country has a shot at success and the American Dream. So I feel deeply what a lot of the reformers feel, or people who call themselves reformers.

So if we ultimately all want the same things, what should we be doing instead?

Instead of test and punish, we need to move to test and reveal. Use the testing for revealing. You’re going to get people gaming the system if you punish them for the data. So take away the punishment. Take away the kinds of things that make districts want to hide problems.

Keeping class size small is also important. There’s something that happens when you go over 25 students. It changes the dynamics and becomes way more stressful.

Let’s also slow down before we quasi-privatize with charter schools. As far as I can tell, charters actually become more opaque in terms of what they’ re doing. They become less accountable. I’d rather keep schools under the model of the local school board with a lot of transparency of how money gets spent. We’re going to have better arguments about data if those arguments take place in the public school setting.

That last part is critical: in D.C., teachers in charter schools aren’t evaluated the same way as those in the public schools (and the public school teacher evaluation method is really stupid, and it probably controls for demography incorrectly).

In the larger picture, we need to realize that ‘accountability’ for people who lack a lot of agency in their jobs–in the case of education, teachers don’t get to pick their students or have control over what they teach (as Takano notes)–will lead to entirely predictable outcomes, such as neglecting large parts of the curriculum.

Takano is dead on target in stating the importance of assessment. That’s why annual testing for diagnostic purposes is a critical part of any educational system, including the highly successful Massachusetts public school system.

Hopefully, his colleagues will find the time to listen to him. Or maybe he’ll run for Senate…

This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Cost of Testing, Accountability, and Transparency

  1. mysanal says:

    Reblogged this on Mysa.

Comments are closed.