Read the whole article, here: http://theeducatorsroom.com/2012/09/contextual-accountability/
I don’t write to argue that improvement in the education of American minority students isn’t necessary. The reformers are right at the beginning of the conversation—there’s an emergency in our urban schools. But they are consistently wrong about their monolithic, ideology-driven cause, and about how to fix it. They are also wrong to pretend that there isn’t a whole family of non-school emergencies in our urban areas, and to play-act that schools should somehow be immune from the general devastation around them. If an earthquake hits, should the school building’s pictures not move? If a wave of poverty, drugs, and obliterated families inundates a neighborhood, should the school float above the fray?
They are at their most wrong and most disingenuous when they proffer exemplar schools and say, essentially, “Look here. This is what you could all do if you cared enough.” Secretary Duncan was wrong when he told us that Urban Prep Academy in Chicago was showing us the way; President Obama was wrong to single out Bruce Randolph School in Denver as a model of “what good schools can do.”
I believe fervently that Michelle Rhee and an army of like-minded bad-schools philosophizers will one day look around and see piles where their painstakingly-built sandcastles of reform once stood, and they will know the tragic fame of Ozymandias. Billion-dollar data-sorting systems will be mothballed. Value-added algorithms will be tossed in a bin marked History’s Big Dumb Ideas. The mantra “no excuses” will retain all the significance of “Where’s the beef?” And teachers will still be teaching, succeeding, and failing all over the country, much as they would have been if Michelle Rhee had gone into the foreign service and Bill Gates had invested his considerable wealth and commendable humanitarian ambition in improving law enforcement practices or poultry production.
They are building castles out of sand because they are deliberately ignoring the humanity of both student and teacher. What they are calling “excuses” are really “lives.” They are really saying, “No lives.” Lessons, yes. Teacher evaluation systems, certainly. Data, of course. But lives—real human idiosyncrasies and foibles and challenges that exist neither inside nor outside the schoolhouse but rather transcend both—those are left out of the reform equation.
If numbers-and-labels accountability is the way it’s going to be for schools then the only appropriate accountability possible will be contextual. A simple look at test scores—or even the slightly more granular value-added look at test score improvement—is grossly insufficient when one considers the vast differences between schools and the communities they serve. Socioeconomic differences, for example, but also school-to-school funding differences, student-selection differences, and attrition rates cannot be ignored. These are left out of the formulas, but not because they don’t make a difference in outcomes. Of course they do.
So we must ask the psychometricians to do much, much more; or we must ask them to quit. We must not allow them to burn up our fuel and funding and popular will on moonshots taken with half-right calculations that leave out inconvenient variables.
My nephew is studying to be an engineer. He talks about a course in fluid dynamics and leaves me with the impression that engineers use formulas that are accurate to a degree very near perfect. When we build towers and dams and bridges in our country, we rely on measures that don’t really allow for error. An engineer can tell you with absolute precision how much water can flow through a pipe of a given size buried at a given angle and pushed by a pump of a given capacity. Not with sixty percent accuracy, but with stunning exactitude. Construction is too important a task to leave variables out of the formulas. With big projects, failure can be catastrophic.
The formation of our children, of course, is even more important than that of our bridges. Formulas whose inaccuracies result in the annual arbitrary firing of several great teachers and the blanket terrorization of many, many more will undoubtedly be as devastating for our society as an erroneous building code. If the people who teach our kids are going to live and die by a value-added measure, it must be a comprehensive, context-honoring value-added measure. Per-pupil funding distinctions must be incorporated. Outside-of-school factors positive and negative must be figured in.
Until policy mavens give them contextual accountability, the ever-bitterer voices of teachers and their supporters will condemn the flawed formulas, along with heavy-handed tactics, profitable privatization schemes, and cheesy Hollywood anti-teacher porn. Educators whose livelihoods and reputations are being tossed around by pundits and policymakers deserve accurate labels and honest weights and measures; anything less is careless at best and reckless at worst. And until the psychometricians can come up with formulas that accurately reflect the reality of this amazing thing called education, they won’t truly be measuring what they claim to measure, and many of us will insist that they add nothing of value to the conversation.