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

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

An Overarching Accountability System Requires an Overarching Accountability System-Maker

Like his The Allure of Order, Jal Mehta’s“From Bureaucracy to Profession: Remaking the Educational Sector for the Twenty-First Century” provides an awesome and eclectic explanation of how to break out of the blame game and create a 21st century educational sector. “The political science concept of “path dependence” explains why the well-meaning efforts of accountability-driven reformers have failed. The educational history that they do not know has doomed top-down reform. But, history is not destiny, Mehta proclaims. He argues that, “by creating a professional rather than bureaucratic orientation, we could escape the downward spiral that we have been in and move toward the kind of upward spiral that is characteristic of high-performing nations.”

My problem is with Mehta’s word “we.” Although he bends over backwards – too far backwards, in fact, to be inclusive, I worry that he would need a smarter, wiser version of reformer to create what the test-driven reformers of recent years have failed to do.

Mehta proposes a four-part “sectoral” approach to “organize the work of the sector as a whole.” (Emphasis is Mehta’s) His first two steps are great. He would draw additional talent to the education sector and train it better, and build a better knowledge base to inform teaching. I’m not sure how Mehta, who repudiates top-down micromanaging, would accomplish steps three and four. How would he create “processes … to ensure that knowledge is consistently used at the delivery site?” How would he then make sure that the “aforementioned steps are aligned around an overarching system of accountability?”

Mehta explains that “in the absence of countervailing powers that exist in medicine, academia, and more developed professions” a “compliance-oriented approach” to education has developed. That approach has been unquestionably beneficial in ensuring the rights of minorities, students with disabilities, and English language learners. But, in the 21st century, Mehta believes, government must do more than set floors. It must create the conditions for “deeper learning” or the more ambitious instruction that is necessary in the global marketplace.

While I don’t disagree, there is something unsettling about Mehta’s statement that “Driven by a combination of civil rights imperatives and the economic shift from an industrial to a postindustrial economy, policy makers now expect students to achieve academically at fairly high levels.” He thus seems to agree with reformers that there is something fundamentally wrong with the entire educational system and not just the schools that are failing to overcome the legacies of poverty. Otherwise, Mehta would not need to take the third and fourth steps towards designing a new teaching profession and a new educational sector. Then, he even goes as far as saying, “Changing who become teachers and how they are trained will matter little if there is not a publically shared and vetted knowledge base that underlies that training.”

I cannot put my finger on precisely the problem I see with Mehta’s vision, but I am concerned by his statement that “good teaching also has an affective dimension.”

No! Good teaching is fundamentally based on the affective dimension. Mehta embraces pluralism, but it sounds like he seeks answers among “the best and the brightest.” (not Mehta’s term)

His path towards attracting more teaching talent also sounds excessively rational and, at the same time, unrealistic. He would start with a commitment to become more selective. Mehta acknowledges, “Higher standards will cause shortages initially, but it will be critical to hold the line if the goal is to signal that teaching is a serious profession.” Then, “if the public were persuaded that tenured members of the profession had demonstrated their ability to teach,” that “might eventually lead to higher salaries.”

I must stress that Mehta is not a union-basher, but he seems to feel obligated to make some an a-historical criticism of collective bargaining. He seems to appease market-driven reformers like Terry Moe by conceding, “policies that seem sensible from a union perspective – limiting work hours, protecting members from firing, ‘step and lane’ pay scales – are frequently seen as getting in the way of improving school quality.” He praises astroturf organizations like “Educators 4 Excellence,” and like charter management organizations. Mehta really seems to be grasping at straws if when praising “portfolio” districts in New York City and New Orleans. After all, The Allure of Order documents how the top-down reformers who gave us those teacher-bashing, test-driven systems have failed in their efforts to improve schools by turning them back into the educational version of the Model T assembly line.

My big concern about Mehta’s otherwise excellent work harkens back to the old Rationalists’ debates. Before Charles Darwin, if a watch was found a beach, it seemed logical to assume a watchmaker. When Mehta seeks to align education around “an overarching system of accountability,” doesn’t he need to posit an accountability system-maker? Bill Gates would be willing to volunteer for that position but …

I’d prefer to implement Mehta’s practical suggestions and trust in a bottom-up evolutionary process to improve our schools that are failing.

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