"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Accountability's End, or the Beginning of a Real Accounting?

I have often wondered about FLYPAPER as a name for an education policy publication, as it clearly brings to mind the irresistible final destination for winged carrion eaters who get stuck for life.  Disgusting, but an entirely appropriate image to accompany Mike Petrilli's wistfully-anachronistic buzz down Big Testing's ideological memory lane.

Petrilli no doubt got the memo to go after Governor Brown for his veto of California's new Endless Testing bill, and in doing so, Petrilli reminds us of all the reasons that his version of "accountability" should have never been allowed in the room to begin with.  How any society could buy this thought-disordered, self-serving bullshit gets more mysterious to me by the hour.  Perhaps it is just the time for things to finally come into hi-def focus.

Here are the categories that Petrilli uses to pigeonhole the accountability advocates whom he fears will fall by the wayside as sanity in education policy begins to take hold.  Please pardon my interspersed explications:
The Tough Lovers want to see [other] people held accountable for doing their jobs [while avoiding all responsibility for a quarter century of disastrous testing and punishing]. They are sick and tired of public-school managers who are sheltered from the harsh realities of market competition and who shy away from hard decisions. If someone doesn’t perform—whether he’s a clerk, a classroom teacher, or an assistant principal—they want to see him fired. They want to know that our civil servants are driving a hard bargain with vendors, setting smart budget priorities, eliminating wasteful and ineffective programs, and cleaning house on a regular basis to make sure that only hard workers stay on the payroll. And they hope that the pressure from accountability will motivate the system to get serious about results and care less about hurting people’s feelings or cow-towing [sic] to union demands.
Yes, the Trough, er, Tough Lovers want all teachers and kids and parents held accountable while the failed test and punish policies they put in place over two decades ago are never called into question or evaluated, and thus free to claim another generation of children and to further erode the public space and our democracy.  In other words, these "accountability" advocates want it for everyone except themselves. Instead of professionals accountable to elected officials, they prefer their own Wall Street brand of CEO school managers who are not accountable to any elected body for oversight or regulation and, thus, free to steal and bully their way to the top of their local foodchain.  They want the freedom to make their own no-bid deals with corrupt cronies, and they wish to create a total compliance organization that provides minimal worker benefits, no protections or academic freedom, and a penal atmosphere to keep students in line and parents excluded from decision-making.
The Tight-Loosers see a move toward results-based accountability as an opportunity to cut back on traditional regulation. They embrace the charter-school bargain: Hold schools responsible for improving student achievement and get rid of all the other rules in return—the class-size mandates, the teacher-certification regimes, the crazy budget protocols, all of it. They hope that this will lead to better outcomes, but even if it doesn’t, they are almost certain that it will lead to better school environments, as educators are unburdened from the stifling command-and-control culture that pervades so many public-sector bureaucracies. And if it leads to truly disastrous schools, officials can always shut them down.
The Tight-Losers, uh, Tight-Loosers love the charter school bargain because it allows corporations and corporate foundations to buy up public schools with tax dollars that generate a never-ending revenue stream for private interests with no public oversight. What a bargain, indeed.  The charter-school bargain allows CEOs to hire anyone as a teacher cheap, put 40-50 kids in a classroom, and to use public money without any regulations and with minimal bookkeeping and no ongoing audit system.  This bargain takes organizational steering out of the public sphere and puts stifling command-and-control in the hands of CEOs whose "oversight" boards they create, and it allows abuse, miseducation, and tyrannical rule as common practice.  And if it leads to "truly disastrous schools," as in the KIPP Fresno saga (READ THE REPORT), well, officials can shut them down, but not until many children have been abused, miseducated, neglected, and traumatized.  Yes, what a bargain.
The World-is-Flatters worry about America’s economic competitiveness and distrust local schools and parents to emphasize the right educational priorities. They see test-based accountability as way to force the education system to embrace the academic subjects (think STEM) and skills (think Common Core) that will build our “human capital” and fuel future economic growth. They have little respect for a system that stresses feel-good notions like “self-esteem” over hard work and rigorous preparation.
The World-is-Flatters are the true Neanderthals of the accountability movement who have never noticed that improving curriculum and beefing up science and math standards do not require putting a gun, or club, to anyone's head to get it done.  In fact, it was done back in the 90s, only to washed away in the NCLB tsunami. These accountability advocates have a hammer as their only tool, and everything to them is a nail.  They cannot appreciate the possibility that coercion and punishing may be counterproductive in situations that require collaboration and cooperation to get the job done.  These folks prefer to kill what they cannot control, thus their fascination with rigor, as in rigor mortis.
The Poverty Warriors view accountability as one weapon in the battle on educational inequality. By shaming and sanctioning schools that don’t do right by poor or minority kids, they seek to shift resources (money, strong teachers, challenging courses) to the neediest schools and kids. They are happy to push for redistributionalist [sic] policies in other ways too—via school-finance reform, closing the Title I “comparability” loophole, etc.—but they see this brand of accountability as changing the political dynamics on the ground in ways that would favor kids who would otherwise be marginalized.
The Poverty Warriors would make the world their way by testing, punishing, and (most importantly) wishful thinking.  These accountability advocates believe or pretend to believe that poverty and social inequality can be fixed by what happens in school alone, and they will embrace any crackpot and dangerous scheme to advance their brand of chimerical thinking.  They are prone to positivity training, self-sacrifice, and a glassy-eyed and callous disregard for anything that stands in the way of their fanciful thinking.  These are the people Education Trust, TFA, and KIPP are looking for. They can make some of the most dedicated fascists and are regularly used and discarded by the three other categories of "accountability" supporters.

In fact, that is exactly what the thought-stuck Petrilli advocates.  He says it's time to double-down on the first three antiquarian avenues to continued rule by the One Percent, and to throw the poverty-warrior sorority sisters from Education Trust under the bus:
. . . it’s the Poverty Warriors, by my read, who are in the most precarious situation. It’s not that they don’t have a strong case on the merits. Our education system is horrendously inequitable. It’s criminal to spend twice as much on the education of the rich as on the schooling of the poor. And we’ve all heard compelling stories about how NCLB-style accountability has given “political cover” to district and school leaders, allowing them to shift attention and resources to the kids most in need.

The kind of “accountability” we should be promoting would be responsive to the arguments of the Tough Lovers, Tight-Loosers, and World-is-Flatters, while being flexible enough not to antagonize niche schools in our pluralistic society.
Still, as a center-right country, America is deeply suspicious of redistribution in any form. Furthermore, the Poverty Warriors haven’t been honest about their motives. Their slogan has been “leave no child behind” when it’s really closer to “take from the rich, give to the poor.”

Of course, that class warfare rhetoric won’t sell. Not back then, and certainly not now, in the midst of the Great Recession.
No more Mr. Nice Guy, when you show up trying to tax my corporate jet or every penny I make over a measly million a year.  But don't despair entirely, Poverty Warriors--there is still a place for you in the Accountability Firmament with KIPP and TFA, where poverty is never mentioned and where it is ostensibly eradicated by altering the minds and behaviors of children and sterilizing their cultural memes.  It only seems to work, however, with just less than half the kids who are KIPP-notized.  But then the ones who remain do damn well on the tests, and those, after all, are the only ones that Count. That's real "accountability" that you can take all the way to the bank.

One more thing about Petrilli, although I shouldn't pick on him, alone.  These self-serving policy-bankrupted deadenders, whether writing for the LA Times, FLYPAPER, or for their toilet paper, all speak and write with a Reaganesque accent, a kind of bad-joking, avuncular over-familiarity that was novel and fresh in 1980 when Reagan came to town to burn down Government.  Over thirty years ago.  Calling Jerry Brown, the hard-nosed, corporate pragmatist, "Mr. Moonbeam"?? Really.  Brown has moved on since the 70s and mostly not for the better, but when you're stuck, I guess, in your Flypaper, or your other paper, like the corporate d-ed reformers, then the past, present, and future all share the same address.  Well, there he goes again.

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