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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 5, March 2006

A wooden stake for the accountability Dracula?

by Pat Clarke

There is a too obvious analogy between the "life" style of the legendary Count and the current accountability madness besetting our schools. Both derive sustenance by sucking the life out of victims. But at least Dracula had an excuse, he really couldn’t help himself, poor guy. The testing and accountability mavens don’t deserve such pity. If they don’t know any better, they should. The evidence is becoming more irrefutable by the day, accountability schemes driven by standardized testing programs don’t improve schools or teaching or help students learn. What they in fact do is dumb down curriculum, stultify creative teaching, and make learning a pretty joyless experience. In terms of the life of schools they are the equivalent of vampires.

If only we could find a garlic potion to spread around our schools to keep the fiends away. Unfortunately there isn’t enough garlic in the world to stink them out. The grim fact is that the more teachers have worked to accommodate, teach around, or otherwise contend with standardized assessment and other accountability related busy work, the more entrenched and institutionalized it has all become. Sad to say but to a large extent standardized tests and the narrow focussed "goal setting" that goes along with it has become part of the furniture in BC schools.

Teachers have been front-row observers as the administrative brain trust leads a relentless and largely unchallenged zombie-like death march to emulate the notoriously unsuccessful "no child left behind" project in the United States—sometimes described as "no child left untested." The sad reality in BC is that thanks to "accountability" and all its trappings we have a public school system that is evolving into a top-down, heavy-handed, corporate-style, overly standardized mess.

There are so many emerging features of this accountability quagmire that it is difficult to keep track of them. The FSAs, the new graduation program, and school and district goal-setting are the most evident. But there is much more. The massive data-gathering project known as BCeSIS (BC Electronic Student Information System) is another example of the drive for centralized management and top-down control. The "Supervision of Learning" initiative, read supervision of teachers initiative, is micro-management gone wild as the system’s administrators search for models of corporate-style management as if schools were only about clients, products, and outputs.

The critical point now is how do teachers deal with this Dracula? Folklore has it that a stake through the heart is the only way. Our vampire doesn’t have one. We need a multifacetted approach to what is more like a multiheaded monster than a mere vampire.

The BCTF and locals have been monitoring and critiquing the accountability program for some time. We are by now quite familiar with all of the elements and all of their consequences. But it seems that now, 10 years after the first accountability measures were introduced, we are reaching a critical stage. If teachers don’t start to take more direct action, this hodgepodge of management busy business will become even more institutionalized. What was a good public education system will start to look like the shambles to the south of us, an over-managed, under-funded disaster.

To focus teachers’ action and to alert the public to our concern, the 2006 Annual General Meeting will be considering recommendations from the Representative Assembly that call for an assertion of professional rights and teacher leadership. If the current leadership in BC schools is so hell bent on going down the wrong road, then it falls to teachers to help change direction. The idea is to build new relationships between teachers and other participants in the public education system to begin to facilitate that change. The BCTF will develop a plan to challenge excessive standardized testing and put forward a system based on a broad focus of learning, not just achievement. The strategy also calls for teachers to take control of professional development so that it is not simply staff development for accountability programs.

Teacher supervision is as central to the accountability model as standardized testing, and the AGM will deal with this as well. The recommendation is that members actively oppose management-driven teacher supervision models. There is a further recommendation that calls for the development of bargaining objectives related to professional rights and professional autonomy. It is, after all, the gradual erosion of professional rights and teachers’ professional autonomy that allows the accountability juggernaut to rumble along.

It is indeed time for teachers to take a stand, to put forward alternatives and to take leadership on this complex and vexatious array of issues. A single action, the stake in the heart, won’t do it. We will, however, find ways of advancing and installing a more progressive, child-centred and broadly focussed learning environment for our students. Now more than ever we have to be assertive about that vision of what schools, learning, and teaching is really about.

Pat Clarke is director of the BCTF’s Professional and Social Issues Division.

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