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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 4, January/February 2007

The global accountability juggernaut and you

by Ritchie Kendrick

Juggernaut: (n) 1 an overwhelming force or object. 2 an institution or notion to which persons blindly sacrifice themselves or others.

Unfortunately, the likely sacrificial victim of this accountability juggernaut is our own public education system.

We need to be concerned about this obsession with accountability and its impact on our schools. This drive toward standardization and accountability is nothing new in the global arena. Just look toward the UK and the US to see how this obsession has negatively impacted their public schools through competition, funding, and testing. They have successfully corralled teaching into a narrow framework with limited goals and objectives. This narrow focus on testing for a few basic skills is squeezing out other school subjects deemed non-essential and too expensive.

In BC, expansion from Grades 4 and 7 FSAs to standardized assessments at all elementary grades is in progress. Many districts in BC have already implemented these district-wide assessments or are attempting to move in this direction with the introduction of Grades 3 and 6 assessments. These and the creation of provincial Grades 10 and 11 exams barely scratch the surface of where we are headed. This is not just empty rhetoric but a reality. Once standardized testing is commonplace, it’s an easy progression to extend control into the classroom (through curricular content and teaching methodology) that further weakens teacher autonomy.

Our politicians have failed to learn the lessons from our American and British cousins. In the UK, the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) is a government watchdog established in 1992. The invasive nature of this department has led to a severe decline in the quality of a teacher’s work life. Regular reports on schools and classrooms have seriously undermined teacher autonomy and caused a dramatic increase in teacher loss through stress and workload.

This acknowledgment of the British condition is recognized by a well-known British actor, Richard Griffiths (Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter films), who plays a teacher in a new film, The History Boys. Griffiths’ character laments that instead of pursuing knowledge for its own sake, education is now regarded as an accumulation of facts and strategies to be put to practical use, "the inculcating of enthusiasm for intellectual ideas and the improvement of the human condition, what is it to love, what is it to discover the meaning of loyalty, treachery, cruelty, kindness, sweetness, sourness... these things shape every one of us for the rest of our lives, and they’re not debated any more, they’re not understood any more, they’re not addressed by the school curriculum." When asked why, he states, "There isn’t an exam for it—so what the hell?"

Recent developments in the US, which allow some states to use a pilot program called a "growth model" to more effectively measure student progress over time, give hope that change is in the air for the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Educational partners in the US have echoed the concerns we have in BC: "...it is evident that test-driven external accountability has not advanced equity on a large scale, as the disparity in achievement among different racial and socioeconomic groups of students persist before and after NCLB." (J. Lee, Harvard University) Parent groups have also aired concerns—Michelle Kirk, PTO president, says it has caused educators to "overtest" and focus their lessons so students learn only the standards on the tests. "Sometimes there are other things that are important too," but the push is, "if it’s not measurable, then... don’t teach it." This sounds all too familiar doesn’t it?

NEA President Reg Weaver, while not exactly painting a picture of Shangri La, does at least show a chink in the armor of the NCLB Act. "We are encouraged that [they’re] moving away from measuring student progress under the current snapshot approach and toward a more reasoned growth model... This is a step in the right direction... Accountability systems should help students learn and succeed in an increasingly interconnected 21st Century economy."

Both the US and UK models, touted by Bush and Blair as being the savior of the public education system have failed to live up to their hype. So what have these developments in the UK and the US got to do with us in BC? Well, you would think that our government would reflect on the impact these accountability programs have had on the American and British systems. The growing resistance, to the NCLB in the US and Ofsted in the UK, and the resulting demand for change should ring a bell of caution in our political leaders. Why they don’t see the damage caused by this accountability juggernaut is anyone’s guess. But, whatever the reason, their agenda to push us into a quagmire of data-driven management‚ must be resisted. Failure, to get real‚ dialogue on authentic assessment and stop this madness, will hurt our students and the public education system for years to come. So, how do you put the brakes on this accountability juggernaut?

The experience of our colleagues in the US and UK should be a warning to us, because although there is evidence of some backpedalling by the bureaucrats and political leaders, the evidence is still there to show how difficult it is to move them away completely from such a well-entrenched ideology. If we want to avoid the establishment in BC of an educational structure that resembles the UK or US models we need to continue our efforts to engage our educational partners in a dialogue that questions the logic of such programs and the long-term negative impacts.

Failing that, we need to be prepared to engage in a campaign of passive resistance. Or as Gandhi put it—engage in Satyagraha. Standing firm for what we know is right may be our only redress.

Ritchie Kendrick is president, South Okanagan Similkameen Teachers’ Union.

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