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Accounting for Accountability

ReportCardThe NYC Department of Education has come up with yet another brilliant plan to improve school accountability, in an effort to recoup from last year’s rather awkward set of school scores.  Last year, the DOE gave 97% of New York’s public schools either As or Bs.  Call me cynical if you want to, but I find it hard to believe that almost 100% of the city public schools are doing such a bang-up job.

The city’s Chancellor of Schools, Joel Klein, seems to agree with me: when these grades were announced last fall, he said that these high grades didn’t necessarily mean that the city is filled with excellent schools.  Funny. When I give a student an A, it means that the kid did an excellent job and has exceeded the course expectations. Klein said that the schools that got As “have a lot of improvement in front of them.”  Howzat? These schools got As but still have lots of room for improvement.  Hmm…doesn’t that seem like maybe those schools should have gotten Cs, then? Or that maybe the entire grading system is just a tad out of whack?Now the city has decided to fix the system. Fix the system that is, by fixing the system. Someone deep in the bowels of the DOE has decided that the best way to fix the report card system is to pre-determine what percentage of schools can get what grades. Thus 25% of schools can get As, 30% can get Bs, another 30% get Cs, 10% Ds, and 5% fail.

Would you want to take a class in which the professor stated up front that five percent of the class would fail?  Or that even if you do an absolutely fabulous job, if you happened to be the 26th excellent student in a class of 100 students, you still only getting a B?

To make a bad idea worse, the way in which these grades will be determined is so arcane that the DOE will hold special parent meetings to teach people how to read these report cards. Schools will be judged on the progress that students make on their annual tests, so that a student who goes from a 3 to a 3.7 would be in the 95th percentile, but a student who stays at 3 from one year to the next would be in the 35th percentile. Given that these tests are scored on a four-point scale, it seems a little odd that a student could get a 3 but be in the 35th percentile – and her school penalized accordingly.

Does this system make sense to you? Should we ask if  teachers will be tempted to teach to the test so that the school scores go up and stay up (we won’t say anything here about the bonuses that principals get if their schools do well).  Should we ask how teachers will react if their tenure and/or merit raises are linked to how their students do on the tests? Should we ask what happens to the kid who gets, say, mono, and is out of school for an extended time? Or to the student who encounters the horrifying thicket that is long division and can’t find her way out again? (Not that I know about that horror from experience or anything.)  And what about those schools that are lucky enough to have high-scoring students: if most of your students get 4s on the test, then how, exactly, is the school supposed to improve for the following year? Conceivably a school could perform equally well from year to year but fail to get an “A” (and the accompanying cash prizes plus the Chevy and whatever is in the box that Carol Merrill is holding) because there was “no improvement.”

Perhaps it’s my own math illiteracy rearing its ugly head again, but I fail to see why numbers are considered more objective than anything else, given that numbers—and the system that creates these numbers—are as subject to manipulation as any other system of measurement (can you say economic meltdown?)
 
I’m not even going to mention the fact that in our rush to concentrate on “accountability,” we’re forgetting a whole lot of other stuff. Unimportant stuff, really, when you think about it.  Just all that namby-pamby crap like art, music, physical movement, citizenship, ethics, politics, history, and—oh yeah, that thing that US students fail at most miserably: science.  In 2008, US 8th graders scored lower than places like Taiwan and Singapore, which okay, maybe we expect that, but also below such countries as Slovenia and the Czech Republic, which are not exactly known as educational powerhouses.

Don’t get me wrong: I think teachers should know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and I’m a big fan of paying public school teachers lots and lots of money because god knows, I’ve been a public school teacher and I’ve never been so physically, emotionally, and intellectually drained in my entire life. There should be some kind of reward for such difficult work.

So no, I don’t think that accountability is, in and of itself, a bad thing and god knows we need more of it in lots of different arenas (can you say economic meltdown?) 

I just wonder what gets lost in the rush to accumulate ever more data, to crunch ever more numbers. What is the real lesson our kids are learning as we test them and test them and test them once more? Aren’t we ultimately suggesting that only the product matters, not the process? 

Do we really want  yet another generation to think that the only thing that matters is the bottom line?

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One Response to Accounting for Accountability

  1. Dick Horwich February 1, 2010 at 11:52 am #

    This is both an excellent and a timely piece; it dovetails nicely with an article in the January 31st Times about grade inflation at Princeton: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/31/education/31princeton.html?scp=1&sq=grade%20inflation%20Princeton&st=cse

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