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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 3, Nov./Dec. 2006

Public education conference
What really counts! Rethinking accountability

by Peter Owens

The "What really counts! Rethinking accountability" conference held on October 27–28, 2006, attracted 300 teachers, students, parents, academics, trustees, and MLAs. SFU Dean of Education Paul Shaker gave the keynote address exploring the meaning, history, and contemporary use of accountability.

Shaker made the point that accountability is really just another word for evaluation and determining what it is that we value. According to Shaker, evaluation must be meaningful and broad, "A meaningful evaluation system has to accommodate the diversity of human experience. This isn’t for some altruistic or idealistic reason, it is the way life is lived, it is the way citizens participate in society, and in their own personal lives. We should be suspect of any accountability system that neglects the full dimension of life."

Shaker described the current accountability drive as a simplistic attempt to apply a certain kind of science to education that can be assessed through a pencil-and-paper test.

Shaker, who recently came to Canada from the US, observed that there is a greater sense of community and shared responsibility in Canada than there is in the US. He used the example of help from Vancouver reaching New Orleans after the hurricane sooner than the help of the American government. According to Shaker there is an element of sadism in American society that views people who flunk tests, lose their jobs, who are poor, or don’t have medical insurance, as losers who suffer from some kind of moral defect. This fits well with materialism and consumerism where there has to be winners and losers. "Status doesn’t mean anything unless there are people of lower status and greed knows no bounds," he said. He spoke of "market fundamentalism" and the Fraser Institute’s belief that all government services should be handed over to the market, including education and health care.

Rather than this simplistic belief system based on consumerism and greed, Shaker emphasized the importance of the whole person, including spirituality. By spirituality he did not mean religion per se, but "that which brings meaning into people’s lives." Although it could be religion or faith it could be logic and reason, aesthetics, or some other means of services.

He argues that we need to raise the level of consciousness of people about the importance and direction of public education. We need good public discourse and information so society at large can have meaningful input. Any accountability or assessment model must be comprehensive, future oriented, and much more complex than a multiple-choice test designed to sort rather than assess.

A group of North Delta secondary students facilitated table discussions after Shaker’s presentation.

A panel of Vancouver secondary students opened the session on Saturday and gave their insights into the impact of the government’s accountability scheme on their lives. They were concerned that the growing emphasis on standardized tests was narrowing the curriculum. They were aware of teachers changing their instructional strategies as test dates approached. Students were also concerned about the fact that standardized tests have now been added at the Grade 10 and 11 level.

The UBC Faculty of Education Drama Collective presented the trial of professional accountability, illustrating the chilling effect that accountability has had on American teachers and universities.

Susan Fonseca and Gail Chaddock-Costello closed the conference by describing how the government’s accountability scheme has negatively affected Socials 11 instruction and support for special needs.

The BCTF planned the conference with the co-operation of the faculties of education at SFU and UBC. Members of both faculties prepared and presented workshops along with BCTF members and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Participants attended workshops where they explored the issues, exchanged ideas, made connections, and discussed actions to be undertaken once back in their communities. There was a positive energy and sense of commitment to ensure that our students receive an education that helps improve our society.

Peter Owens is assistant director, BCTF Communications and Campaigns Division and editor of Teacher.

Presentations and other conference information can be found on the BCTF web site, bctf.ca.

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