It has been a great year for education scholarship with masterpieces like David Kirp’s Improbable Scholars and Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error. Jal Mehta’s The Allure of Order provides a timely review of a century of failed top down reforms and, now, Jim Horn and Denise Wilburn offer an equally timely and profound history of the failure of test-driven reform. Horn’s and Wilburn’s The Mismeasure of Education is a must-read, a scholarly tour de force comparable to Daniel Koretz’s Measuring Up. The two aspects of Horn’s and Wilburn’s research that taught me the most were their accounts of the roots of accountability-driven reform, “accountablism” as they call it, and the mess that reformers have created in Tennessee.
This first post will be on the origins of the strange idea that accountability could drive systemic improvements in education or, for that matter, any sector of the peacetime economy. Horn and Wilburn explain something that perplexed me back in high school. All of a sudden the word “accountability” was ubiquitous. Obviously, it was meant to be a derogatory word hurled at teachers. My high school teachers would roll their eyes and explain that the Rightwing always has to coin some new verbal weapon to be used against the principle of public education in general, and “government school” workers in particular. In my hometown of Oklahoma City, at least, teachers would laugh and say that their previous assault on the public sector, and a Republican’s previous charge - that “sociology is a fad” and that it was dragging America in to the abyss - had not worked so well. So, repeatedly using the word accountability was a way of attacking teachers and schools without foaming at the mouth as much.
I had been too young to fully understand it but, not surprisingly, the roots of this sorry tale of accountablism began in the 1960s during desegregation and the War on Poverty. Had the times not been so tumultuous, perhaps the research of James Coleman would have not been twisted in such a disgusting manner. As Horn and Wilburn explain, the 1966 Coleman report found that “a pupil attitude factor, which appears to have a stronger relationship to achievement than do all of the “school’ factors together, is the extent to which an individual feels that he has some control over his own destiny.” (Emphasis by Horn and Wilburn)
Coleman said that “a child’s performance, especially a working class child’s performance, is greatly benefited by his going to a school with children who come from educationally stronger backgrounds.” He declared, “a child’s learning is a function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher.”
By 1973, they report, it was clear that the Washington elite understood the implication of Coleman’s findings. Alice Rivlin, for instance, explained that Coleman and other scholars did not say that “‘schools don’t matter’ – but they certainly provided a basis for considerable skepticism about using test scores as measures of the output of the education industry.” “Test score changes may primarily reflect changes in school population and the way it is mixed,” Rivlin noted, “rather than the productivity of school resources themselves.”
President Richard Nixon disagreed, however, or else he claimed to think differently as he appealed to the “Silent Majority,” who he rallied in opposition to desegregation. In a 1970 “Special Message to Congress,” Nixon introduced “a new concept: accountability.” He proclaimed that “dependable measures” could hold educators responsible for their students’ learning, and they must be “held accountable.”
The rest is history. In 1970, the ERIC federal education clearinghouse used the word in nine documents. Sightings of the word in ERIC took off between 1971 and 1972. The use of the word “accountability” really soared after 2008, eventually reaching 2,200.
While I had primarily seen accountability as a quick and easy way to beat up on teachers, Horn and Wilburn then show how the word provided a cheap and easy way to get away from litigation over educational equity. Kentucky, for instance, took the more expensive approach of meeting a legal challenge by investing in schools in a more equitable manner. Tennessee, however, tried to avoid that challenge by claiming that output-driven accountability could improve educational opportunity for poor children.
By the early 1990s, accountablism had become Tennessee’s preferred option for claiming it was improving schools. The state was able to drop its education spending from around 75% to about 2/3rds of the national average. By keeping standards and the quality of assessments low, Tennessee could claim to be improving student performance. It also adopted the value-added models of William Sanders and, before long, Sanders and the states TVAAS value-added models were propelled into the center of national reform debates.
On the other hand, Tennessee’s NAEP scores stagnated. The gaps the state’s elementary and 8th grade math and reading scores, in comparison to the nation, grew by one to three points. In comparison with the rest of the nation, Tennessee’s ACT test scores dropped even more. At the end of a twenty year economic boom, the state’s child poverty rate was nearly 25% higher than 1992. But, Tennessee could claim that it was first in the “Race to the Top” competition to use test-driven accountability as the lever for school improvement. I will address the more recent history of Tennessee’s reforms in a second post on The Mismeasure of Education.
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