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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 3, November/December 2007

Strategies for countering the accountability agenda

The following is an edited version of the keynote address, Dr. Wayne Ross, BCTF Representative Assembly, November 2, 2007.

A third-grade teacher refuses to administer a mandatory reading test after witnessing the psychological toll on her students and is disciplined by the school board and attacked in the press for her actions.

A dean of education praises the teacher for taking a principled stand and protecting her students from "psychological and educational vandalism" and engaging in civil disobedience.

The dean is then attacked by the Minister of Education as "irresponsible" because rather than telling teachers to "work co-operatively with others on issues of mutual interest" he encourages teachers to exercise professional judgment, even if that requires one to be civilly disobedient.

So, it’s come to this, exercising professional judgment as a teacher, at least in some contexts, requires them to be civilly disobedient.

How did teaching in public schools get to this point and what can we do about it?

I’d like to begin to answer this question and perhaps spur your thinking about what we can do to counter an accountability agenda that promulgates psychological and education vandalism on students, de-professionalizes teachers, reduces education to a commodity, and treats schools like stocks—ranking them as the biggest gainers or biggest losers based on test scores.

Accountability of schools is a relatively contemporary concern, dating probably to James Coleman’s 1966 report "Equality of Educational Opportunity." This report examined achievement of American children of different races and shifted attention toward outcomes and away from resources and inputs. Since then, demands for schools to be accountable have been accentuated by the often-conflicting demands of policymakers and politicians who control the education purse strings, and professional educators with the knowledge and skills to educate children within a democracy.

Accountability has become the means of enforcement and control used by governments and corporations to enact educational "reforms." Governments and corporations can only demand that others remake schools by delegating the authority to carry out this mission. Delegation takes the form of uniform outcome measures of productivity (e.g., scores on standardized tests), which provide evidence that the authority delegated is being properly exercised.

Accountability is an economic means of interaction. When power is delegated and dispersed to those within a hierarchical system there is an expected return from the investment of that power in others. Those to whom power has been delegated are obligated to answer or render an account of the degree of success in accomplishing the outcomes desired by those in power. Because of the diffuse nature of many hierarchical systems, accountability depends on both surveillance and self-regulation.

The power of surveillance is born out in part by the spectacle that may result from accounting by those to whom power has been delegated (e.g., Fraser Institute school rankings). Self-regulation, which is the faithful exercise of delegated authority, is in part based on surveillance and the concomitant possibility of spectacle (as in the case of Kathryn Sihota’s refusal to administer a reading test), but also on the perception of the legitimacy of those delegating power.

Neo-liberalism is the prevailing political economic paradigm

Neo-liberalism is the prevailing political economic paradigm in the world today and has been described as an ideological "monoculture." The tenets of neo-liberalism include: the rule of the market, cutting public expenditures, deregulation, privatization, and elimination of the concept of "public good" and replacing it with "individual responsibility."

Neo-liberalism also works as a political system, one in which there is a formal democracy, but the citizens remain spectators, diverted from any meaningful participation in decision-making. Education is a key target of the neo-liberal project because of its market size and centrality to the economy and is also a target because of its potential to challenge corporate globalization if it succeeds in producing critical citizens for a democratic society.

Governments have introduced curricular reforms and accountability systems that commodify public education by reducing learning to bits of information and skills to be taught and tested and marketize education through programs that promote privatization and user fees in place of free, public education.

Neo-liberal educational reform policies focus on creation of curriculum standards, where the state defines the knowledge to be taught, and "accountability." The specification of curriculum standards is nearly always accompanied by accountability strategies. It does no good to establish expectations if one does not ensure they are met and, if they are not met, that there is a planned remedy. The dominant approach to educational accountability is an "outcomes-based bureaucratic" one, which relies on mandated student testing.

The manifestation of accountability in schools

Bureaucratic outcomes-based accountability is deeply embedded within the accountability agenda of the current BC government. A good question to ask at the start is: Who is being held accountable by whom, for what, through what mechanisms and with what consequences?

Under bureaucratic outcomes-based accountability, students, teachers, and administrators are accountable to a central government agency for demonstrating academic success on a small set of indicators of individual student performance. There are a common set of expectations/standards, a small number of indicators, clear cut-offs to indicate success or failure, and consequences at the individual and school level for failure.

The effects on learning are that it becomes a chore, with the emphasis on learning for marks, rather than fun. Critical, analytic thinking is limited. There is a valuing of achievement over ability and effort, an increase in stress and anxiety, and a loss of student control and choice.

Developing an alternative perspective on accountability

In order to protect public education and teachers’ professional status, teachers and their allies must engage in and redirect the prevailing discourse and realities of accountability.

If you want your profession to remain a profession, if we’re going to have public education that serves the needs and interests of the public we have to engage in this discourse. But we do not have to accept the lines of the discourse as they have been drawn.

It would be a mistake to construct strategies aimed at rejecting accountability per se. Rather, teachers and others concerned with the collective good of society must: (1) disrupt the taken-for-granted relationships embedded in bureaucratic outcomes-based evaluation, and (2) aim to reconstruct the current conception of accountability in ways that...frame accountability around teacher autonomy and the public interest.

We can think about professional accountability, which brings teachers, administrators, the government, and teacher education programs into the accountability framework, for they are the entities responsible for quality teacher preparation. They support students’ academic and social success through self-regulation and review by the teaching profession in conjunction with governmental agencies. So we have standards of professional practice, peer review, assessments of novice teachers, mentoring systems, professional development, and continuing education.

Another model is authentic accountability. Schools are accountable to parents and communities—including students. Here the focus is on the local school community for how well a school educates its students and for the quality of the social and learning environment through the use of authentic and multiple indicators. We want to be thinking about high quality, local assessment systems.

I think low-stakes standardized tests in literacy and numeracy are okay, but there are lots of ways to do that without giving standardized tests to every student in the province—such as matrix sampling models. School quality reviews and self-study would focus on the opportunity to learn, the quality of resources, the standards of professional practice, and the responsiveness to students. This model would include annual reporting by the school to its community and a focus on improvement of schools, not rewards and punishments.

The second thing is resisting demands to give or score tests that do not contribute to good pedagogy and creating programs aimed at re-defining what constitutes quality education and quality schools, e.g., "Rethinking Accountability" conference and the "What Really Counts" fact sheets, as well as the new BCTF brochure "Testing, You Bet."

Promoting authentic accountability models, test resistance actions (e.g., opting out), and lobbying government are all areas that lend themselves to collaborations with parents and students. Here are some examples of successful collaborations south of the border:

  • Parent/teacher protests in Los Angeles forced school officials to back off a plan to intensify grade retention.
  • In Massachusetts, officials were forced to redefine cut scores on state tests that otherwise would have prevented as many as 83% of Latino and 80% of African-American students from receiving diplomas.
  • In Detroit, teachers have engaged in wildcat strikes, focussing on "Schools, Supplies, and Lower Class Size," with widespread public support.

In BC we have what I would call "chronic" grassroots networks, which are grassroots networks that are really connected to thinking about education in the public interest. The BCTF and the Charter for Public Education are great examples.

We also have "acute" grassroots networks, like student groups or parents who opt out. In New York State, for example, one of the key elements in the anti-testing movement were the Scarsdale moms from a fairly wealthy suburb of New York City. They decided that the state-mandated tests in the eighth grade were abusive of their kids. They not only opted their kids out, they picketed the schools. Quickly the Scarsdale moms worked in other organizations, including the Coalition for Common Sense, which had a powerful effect on the discourse around accountability in New York State.

There are a number of resources available, including:

Fairtest–the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (www.fairtest.org), which supports a test resistance network across the US with regional co-ordinators, operates listserves that focus on resistance strategies, hosts conferences, and publishes resources.

MASS CARE–the Massachusetts Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education (www.ParentsCare.org), which educates and organizes people across the state to support quality public education and oppose the high-stakes testing system. MASS CARE organizes educational forums, petition drives, boycotts and rallies; does outreach to schools to get resolutions passed on testing, works with the media, maintains email lists, conducts research, and publishes resources.

These are activities that are also being done in different ways in BC. It is a question of what are the resources we have here, what are the other resources that we need to tap into, and how can we build a coalition of resistance that can shift the discourse on accountability away from bureaucratic, outcomes-based accountability to an accountability that is authentic, that includes communities, that protects teacher professional autonomy, and that protects education in the public interest.

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