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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 6, April 2006

Accountability for dummies

by Pat Clarke

The "dummies" series of publications has been a life line for those of us desperately in need of simple explanations of complex topics. The array of titles in that series has become quite amazing. There are "dummies" books on lawn care, barbecuing, html, cosmetic surgery, and feng shui gardening. In fact, if you pop a topic off the top of your head there is a good chance there is a "dummies" book on it. However, there is not one on "accountability."

We really need one, especially us teachers in BC. There is one part of a dummies book that is always especially helpful. That is the part where they tell you what you can ignore or don’t really need to know. One part of the accountability program we can or should ignore for example, is school goal-setting and growth plans. After four or five years of practice it has become blatantly obvious that this exercise is boiler plate—a tedious talkfest that begins nowhere and always ends up in the same spot. School growth planning is about as relevant to good teaching as barbecuing is to feng shui gardening. The absurdity and the gargantuan waste of time that school growth plans and other accountability contract-related work are has prompted the recent BCTF AGM to call on members to withdraw from participation in these increasingly pointless make-work projects. Effective September 2006, teachers can follow the dummies’ advice and ignore the growth plan nonsense.

Indeed, in the case of BC-style school accountability, it would be good to try to ignore pretty well all of it if you can. More easily said than done unfortunately. But dummies can help! Dummies tries to focus on the important bits and as far as our accountability program goes there aren’t that many. Actually there is only one—the tests. In a dummies book on accountability, the part on the tests would come with a little icon beside it, a bomb with "warning" written on it. Beside the warning icon would be a short piece on how these things (standardized tests) can really wreck a perfectly good education system. There would also be some advice on antidotes and detoxifiers.

The evidence on how harmful standardized testing is to quality education is mounting daily. The high-stakes testing programs in the United States are starting to dramatically demonstrate how many children are being left behind in spite of a slogan that purports to care for all of them. "No child left behind," now really just means "no child left untested," and those who do not meet the arbitrary standards are falling through the cracks just as readily and in many cases more so than they ever did. Our dummies’ warning should say something like,"Don’t go here!" But, sadly here in BC, we are driving like maniacs down the wrong road of testing, ranking, and comparing, apparently oblivious to the costs and consequences.

The antidote of course is for teachers to start speaking out about testing madness. The AGM started us down what hopefully will be the right road with a resolution calling on the government to dramatically shift our public school system away from the current accountability agenda that emphasizes inappropriate testing, ranking, and narrow achievement measures, to one that focusses on providing the conditions for optimal teaching and learning. This action by the AGM is effectively serving notice on government that teachers have lost confidence in a misguided, misdirected system that places too much emphasis on achievement and far too little on learning.

Dummies is always most helpful in providing us "tips" and when it comes to dealing with accountability we need all we can get. Perhaps the most helpful tip would be one that helps us recognize that counteracting the accountability toxins will rely on whether or not we persuade parents and the public that the current fixation on testing and narrow-focussed achievement does not make for a good public education system. In that regard we need to work where we can best have influence.

The AGM echoed what many teachers realize about school planning councils. They are mere window dressing for accountability and waste valuable time. The AGM called for teachers to withdraw from serving on them. Instead, teachers can increase school level participation with parents through parent advisory councils, and work to counteract the worst features of accountability through legitimate dialogue rather than the one-track myopia of SPCs with their preoccupation with public-relations oriented goals and achievement measures.

The dummies series has many revisions, reissues, and updates. Here’s hoping "Accountability for Dummies" will be a one-print wonder and quickly become obsolete, assigned to the same recycling bin as say, "DOS for Dummies" or "Atkins for Dummies."

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

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