Shuls: Accountability Has Built a Regulatory Iron Curtain Around Schools That Shuts Out a Child’s Most Important Teachers: Parents

In education, we toss around the term “accountability” as if we all know exactly what it means. For many, the term represents the test-based accountability system that has taken root since the 1980s and was thrust into national consciousness with No Child Left Behind. While standardized tests changed the dynamic of accountability, these systems were hardly the first effort to improve the quality of public education. For decades, there has been a march toward greater oversight of public schools. At each step, the quest to improve public education resulted in greater regulation.

After all this time, we still don’t have an education system that is truly accountable; we have a system that is heavily regulated, and regulation is a cheap substitute for accountability.

Think about this for a minute. From top to bottom, we have put in place standards, rules, practices, and expectations that govern nearly every aspect of how we educate children.

First, state departments of education dictate standards for colleges of education. In some cases, they even specify specific coursework that aspiring teachers must complete. To be traditionally certified, a teacher must complete an education degree from one of these approved universities. Then, when a teacher completes the approved program of study, he or she may be certified to teach. That is, of course, if he or she can pass exams that test content knowledge and understanding of accepted pedagogical strategies.

The states then go through a similar process with K-12 schools. They dictate standards, telling schools exactly what they should teach and, in some cases, which textbooks they can use. They then require public schools to hire certified teachers, from approved programs, to teach the required content. Then, just to make sure those teachers are doing an adequate job, they administer standardized tests to students.

At best, this system is accountable for mediocre test scores. And to whom is it accountable? Certainly not the parents or the community in which the school is located. They have little say in any of this.

What recourse does the average parent or even the average citizen have in our current public education system if they don’t like what or how their child or children in the community are being taught? They can approach the teacher and they hear, “The principal says we must do it this way.” The principal says, “This is district policy.” The superintendent says, “This is state regulation.” And the state says, “We’re following federal guidelines.” The individual is powerless to effect any real change.

For years, public education officials have groused about the rigid requirements and heavy reliance on test scores under No Child Left Behind. Increasingly, their voices have been joined by those of education reformers who previously used test scores to advance their agendas.

Seeing this sea change, Sandy Kress, one of the architects of NCLB, came to the defense of test-based accountability. He suggests that test-based accountability systems have led to “very good gains” and have “narrowed achievement gaps from the mid-’90s through the 2000s, at the height of the accountability era.” Kress worries that by abandoning test-based accountability, we will be abandoning progress.

Let’s assume Kress is correct and the test score gains represent true growth in learning — and not just an improvement in test-taking skills or some other factors. That means over the course of nearly 30 years, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress went up by just 20-something points — nothing to write home about. Through all our efforts to hold schools accountable for student success, we’ve made minimal gains.

At what cost?

Forget the untold millions or even billions that have been spent on standardized tests; what we have actually done is far more costly. Through our efforts to build an accountability system, we have inadvertently built an iron curtain around public education.

Thanks to our heavy-handed efforts to improve public schools, we’ve successfully shut out the most important educators in a child’s life — parents — who are left with little say in where their kids go to school, little knowledge about what goes on there, and little ability to do anything about it.

Test-based accountability does not change this. While it gives some power to the state to impose sanctions on schools if they fail to achieve a minimum standard, it does nothing to encourage excellence. Moreover, it does nothing to address the needs of the individual student, or parental or community concerns. For parents, standardized tests equate to us standing outside the schoolhouse walls waiting for snippets of information to filter out. The scores are almost meaningless, and the information comes six months too late to be useful.

If this is accountability, count me out. What I’m interested in, and what I think we are all interested in, is making sure that schools are working for each and every student. We can’t accomplish that by fiat from a centralized agency. True accountability comes from engaging parents in the education process and allowing them to have agency in directing their child’s education.

James V. Shuls, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

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