It’s time to discuss ‘equity’ instead of ‘accountability’

There’s no word that a political candidate could utter in regards to education that causes me to turn into a raving lunatic faster than “accountability.”

Our teachers and schools have been clubbed over our heads with the “accountability bat” by legislators and school board candidates for 10 years in Indiana.

Frankly, I’m tired of hearing it.

“Accountability” has been the guiding factor in every single policy decision made in Indiana education in that time, and these policies have only weakened our schools.

The lie that our schools and teachers must be “more accountable” has led to a climate of number crunching, standardization, and educational jargon and endless acronyms that now control our schools and stifle far too much critical thinking and creativity.

“Accountability” has led to an era of fewer educational options for our children. How many Indiana schools have lost their arts programs, electives, and even libraries in this era of tight budgets that are often so strained because our state spends so much money on standardized tests?

Yes, we have replaced the joy of books and music in our schools with the art of filling in a bubble with a Number 2 pencil.

All because we now worship data, most of which is used to prove what we usually already know anyway.

Our public schools have become “accountability factories” in America’s desperate race to prove that every fact, standard, and nugget of knowledge can be fully measured at any given moment.

Educational historian Diane Ravitch says it best in the documentary “Rise Above the Mark,” which reveals the truth about what’s happening in Indiana schools right now.

Ravitch says, “What the standardized test does, over time, is that it rewards conformity, it rewards the people who can pick the right bubble…it punishes divergent thinking, it punishes creativity, it punishes originality. If you think about what that’s going to do to this country over the long haul…we are raising a generation of children who have been taught that there’s only one right answer.”

That’s the true irony of the “accountability movement” in education. The very policies designed to ensure teachers and schools are “accountable” — standardized tests, overly complicated teacher evaluation models, letter-grade labels for high achieving and low performing schools — actually prevent the most essential kind of learning.

Because the truth is that the most valuable kind of learning so often simply cannot be measured.

Certainly, no one would argue against the notion that our schools or teachers should be accountable to ensuring that students are learning.

But far too often legislative and school board candidates use the idea of “accountability” as a convenient catch phrase — it sounds impressive.

However, “accountability” has far too often been used as a weapon against schools by those who are often the least accountable themselves.

So, until we are ready to talk seriously about parental accountability to their children, our legislators’ accountability to their communities, corporate and business accountability to ethics and the truth, and even students’ accountability to themselves, then we need to stop overusing and misusing this concept as a basis to manage our schools and monitor our teachers.

We have seen over 10 years of “accountability” in Indiana education policy.

Those policies have failed. Those who have voted for and supported those policies in the legislature have failed.

It’s time replace “accountability” with “equity.”

T-shirts, tornadoes, and other lessons we can learn from the Class of 2004

by Jim Lang

One of the fun parts of teaching high school is taking the occasional trip down memory lane to reminisce and laugh about the good ol’ days. It’s what we teachers do when we want to avoid grading the stacks of papers that clutter our desks or ignore the streams of data we’ve collected to demonstrate our highly effective status.

So, it was in the spirit of needing a few laughs that an English Department colleague and I spent a few minutes this week remembering – and laughing about – the Floyd Central Class of 2004.

Those who graduated from FC ten years ago will remember some of the reasons why that class remains etched so clearly in our memories. This was a class of students who could ace their tests while wearing the infamous “Real Men Are Measured In Yards” t-shirts. These kids were dedicated to service and helping others, yet still found the time to construct a wooden bell tower in the front of the school as a prank. This was the class that endured their six-hour graduation ceremony in the middle of a tornado by recording the entire event as a “news report” that included interviews and fake weather reports.

Yes, even in the face of impending doom the Class of 2004 was laughing. They were smart, generous, moral, creative, and yes, a little sneaky. They weren’t perfect – no class is — but more often than not, they managed to make a difference while still having fun. They were serious about their learning and commitments without taking themselves – or school – too seriously.

And perhaps that is why I remember that class so fondly. Because aside from the specific students in that class, that time – 2004 – represents a time when Hoosier educators also worked hard but refused to take school too seriously.

2004 was a time when we tested, but not too much. It was a time when we valued “competence” over “competition.” We collaborated and shared ideas without the need for prescribed professional development sessions. We trusted that a teacher was qualified, competent, and trained enough to make instructional and curricular decisions in his or her classroom without having to collect and record data or lesson plans into a template. We understood that academic growth and learning could – and should – be measured by means other than through test scores and data because too many of these “objective” numbers are easily manipulated and rarely tell a complete story.

And by the way, that is true of much of the data that seemingly demonstrates that our schools are more effective today than ten years ago.

Because here’s the truth from a veteran Hoosier educator – while much has changed since the Class of 2004 grabbed their diplomas in the midst of a tornado, many of our schools, while still special, rigorous, and incredibly effective, are not any more effective than they were ten years ago.

Today is a different time, and education in Indiana has drastically changed, largely due to the myriad of legislative changes that have forced schools to move in a different direction. We measure success differently now. We track scores. We worship numbers. We test more than ever.  We seemingly have an AP or IB class for every subject under the sun (except, apparently, for journalism and media, perhaps because we’ve been emphasizing those higher level critical thinking skills all along). We stress over lost time due to snow days because our students will not be sufficiently prepared for their ISTEP, AP, or IB tests. And this stress occurs partially because we now tie teacher and school effectiveness to student test scores, and partially because we test far too much.

We have been conned into believing the lie that improving standardized test scores and voluminous rows of steadily increasing numbers demonstrate academic rigor and success. We have been conned into equating “competition” with “success.” We have been conned into taking “school” more seriously than any true critical thinking or learning by our students. And my fear is that our students and their parents take “school” — this combination of test scores, class rankings, weighted grades, and grade-point averages — too seriously as well.

Of course, we educators have also bought into the con. We spend an astounding amount of time and energy simply documenting our “success” to remain “accountable” to our administrators, while those same administrators spend an astounding amount of time and energy documenting our schools’ “successes” to remain “accountable” to an intrusive state government that is too incompetent to even choose a set of academic standards for Indiana. Yes, we have become highly effective at jumping through hoops.

So, as I laughed about the Class of 2004 this week, I was laughing about more than just their ability to embrace the absolute fun of high school. I was also remembering a time when it was easier for me to do so, too.

There are those who would argue that education has improved so dramatically since 2004, that our schools perform better and that our students are more prepared and “college and career ready” than ever before. They’ll whip out their data spreadsheets or dramatically point to lists of improved test scores and arbitrary letter grades assigned by the state as proof of our success, as demonstrations of our rigor and accountability.

Highly effective hoop jumping at its best.

I’m not really a “numbers guy” – I never have been. When I measure my own success as a teacher, I think about who kids are when they enter my journalism or English classroom and who they are when they leave. If I have done anything to help them become the people they are destined to be, then I have been a successful teacher. And if they have impacted me or have somehow shaped my classroom or their school for the better, well, that’s real education – that’s real rigor. It really is that simple. And I can tell you that my students were as prepared ten years ago as they are today, and that I was as “effective” then as I am now. This is true of most educators. The only real “change” has been how we choose to define and measure success.

It’s important to measure success – and it’s important to be accountable – but not at the expense of also enjoying learning. So while some claim we’re better or more effective now, I reflect back to 2004 and argue that our schools are not better – they’re just remarkably different. And while others may point to arbitrary sets of numbers to prove their point, I’ll point to the Class of 2004 to prove mine.

The Class of 2004 was as “college and career ready” as the Class of 2014 soon will be. Their successes in furthering their educations, finding careers, starting families, and shaping their communities as much as they did Floyd Central speak for themselves. And while I am certain that the Class of 2014 will be just as successful and just as special, I also know they will not be more so.

So, while we continue to debate how to improve our schools, we could learn a valuable lesson from the Class of 2004 – that it is as important to enjoy and laugh about the high school experience as it is to learn, and that the value of real learning cannot ever truly be measured.

Because at the end of the day, if you can laugh your way through a tornado, you can conquer any other challenge that high school is supposed to prepare you for.

Education ‘reform’ that only Dwight K. Schrute could love

by Jim Lang

Ever since Indiana governors and legislators began dismantling our public schools through their education reform schemes, I have wondered how they developed such an exhaustive list of idiotic ideas.

After all, it takes a special kind of stupidity to be so consistently, well, stupid.

This week I think I have discovered the answer. They have apparently been consulting Dwight K. Schrute.

Corporate education "reform" that only Dwight K. Schrute could love.

Corporate education “reform” that only Dwight K. Schrute and The Office gang could love.

For those who do not follow the antics of NBC’s The Office, Dwight is the power-hungry assistant to the regional manager of Scranton paper company Dunder Mifflin. When Dwight’s not feuding with his co-workers or digging his stapler out of a lemon jello mold (trust me…just watch Season 1), he’s developing new schemes to take over the office and make his co-workers miserable.

As I re-watched an episode titled “Doomsday” from Season 8 this week, I suddenly realized that Dwight may be sharing his management techniques and not-so-brilliant ideas with Indiana’s elected “leaders.”

In the episode, hapless regional manager Andy Bernard is ordered by CEO Robert California to “end the mistakes” being made by his workers. Dwight then eagerly implements his new “accountability booster” management system that, as he puts it, “holds people accountable for everyone else’s work.” The system is designed to severely punish the entire office staff if they make five or more errors during the work day. Always the voice of reason, it is Dwight’s rival, Jim Halpert, who rightfully describes the “accountability booster” as a “doomsday” strategy.

The idea of “holding people accountable for everyone else’s work” to “end the mistakes” makes for an entertaining half-hour of comedy with Dwight, Andy, Jim, and the rest of The Office gang. However, here’s a truth that’s not nearly as funny — thanks to our own merry band of “accountability boosters” here in Indiana, this has also become the driving philosophy behind the education of our children in school.

Consider the new evaluation systems that now tie teachers’ pay and “measure” their effectiveness with student scores on standardized tests that can be easily affected by a student’s bad day, lack of sleep or breakfast, test anxiety, or indifference to taking any test at all.

Yes, teachers are being held accountable to everyone else’s work, as well as societal problems like poverty or poor parenting that studies prove will impact those scores as much as — and possibly more than — teacher instruction.

And, let’s not forget the consistent problems Indiana and other states have had with testing irregularities that can also impact those same scores.     Perhaps Indiana officials should ask CTB/McGraw-Hill to use Dwight’s “accountability booster” to “end the mistakes” that continue to cost taxpayers money and disrupt our educational process.

Or how about the controversial plan to grade and label each Indiana school with an A-F letter grade and a promise (or is it threat?) that the state will take over failing schools?

Ah, yes, the ultimate “doomsday” strategy that turns “failing” public schools over to charter school corporations that will magically solve the problems, or, as Robert California says, “fix the mistakes.” Of course, it’s easy to “fix” the mistakes when the system allows for convenient manipulation of data. Kind of gives an entirely different meaning to Dwight’s concept of  being an “accountability booster,” doesn’t it?

In fact, most Indiana education reform is based on the false premise that we can improve our schools and more effectively educate children if we just make teachers accountable for everyone else’s work.

When was the last time any of our elected officials in Indiana or nationwide developed an effective plan to address poverty, especially child poverty? How about debated ways to hold parents accountable for their children’s performance in school? Held a legislative hearing on the shrinking middle class? Boldly analyzed the fact that the wealthy continue to get richer in this country despite our harsh economic conditions? Examined why higher income communities have “more successful” schools, or questioned why “failing” schools are primarily in urban (and poorer) communities? Addressed the easiest and most obvious way to enhance student performance: reducing class size?

In other words, when will our “leaders” address everyone else’s responsibilities to educate our children, and examine the real reasons for struggling schools?

Instead, they follow the Dwight K. Schrute management model. They waste our time and money on more intrusive teacher evaluations, a punitive (and failed) A-F school rating system, government-sponsored voucher handouts, and corporate education reforms that are all based on the idea that children who struggle or fail are “mistakes” to be fixed, and that teachers must fix these mistakes…alone…or else.

It’s a scheme that would make Dwight Schrute proud. Almost.

You see, the truth is that comparing Dwight Schrute to our current crop of factually-challenged, willfully ignorant “leaders,” especially those in Indiana, is an insult to Dwight Schrute.

Yes, Dwight Schrute, the misguided, stubborn, fictional office manager, is more capable, reasonable, and ethical than any elected official that embraces education reform, because Dwight actually listens to reason.

At the end of the “Doomsday” episode, Dwight ultimately listens to his co-workers and abandons the punitive measures that would cost them all of their jobs. And while this is the kind of conveniently compassionate response that we usually only see in half-hour sitcoms, it is also the most necessary element to truly improving schools in Indiana and beyond.

It is time for our governors and legislators to finally listen to the millions of dedicated, devoted, talented educators to find real solutions to hold us all accountable for our children’s educations.

Because unlike most of the people currently making decisions about education, we are actually qualified to do so.

And because our children are not “mistakes” to be fixed.

If our “leaders” want to truly — and finally — lead, they should also remember another piece of wisdom from Dwight K. Schrute:

“Before I do anything I ask myself,  ‘Would an idiot do that?’ And if the answer is yes, I do not do that thing.”

The real story of Indiana education ‘reform’ — it’s a fraud

by Jim Lang

Another week, another news story revealing the truth about Indiana education “reform” — it’s a fraud.

A few weeks ago, the story was former governor Mitch Daniels’s attempts to ban historian Howard Zinn’s materials from Indiana classrooms.

As I wrote last week, Daniels’s actions revealed the motivation behind all Indiana education “reform” legislation — the cynical belief that teachers cannot be trusted.

This week, the focus shifted to former Indiana superintendent of public instruction Tony Bennett, now also the former school chief for Florida, after an Associated Press story revealed that under Bennett’s tenure in Indiana, an Indianapolis charter school run by a wealthy Republican donor had its grade changed.

Most Hoosier teachers and education experts have fought against Indiana’s education “reform” agenda because we have long realized the truth: it is a system based on half-truths, skewed research, and selfish motives, and it only improves one thing — the wallets of wealthy corporations and donors seeking to exploit our children and our schools for profit.

When you inject vast amounts of cash into the educational system, the system becomes political and corporate, and all decisions become self-serving. And, here’s the great irony of an education system that was sold to Hoosier voters as enhancing “accountability” — the very people who now hold schools and teachers “accountable” are the people who are contributing to the real problems in our schools in the first place.

School reform cannot be genuine or effective until we address the failure of the American family, increased poverty, and the problem of a shrinking middle class in a country where the rich continue to get richer. School reform must begin with honest discussions about family, poverty, and income inequality. Until we begin to address these issues, forget about effective schools in struggling communities.

So, Indiana and other states that have gleefully jumped on the corporate “reform” bandwagon have not improved schools at all. Not one bit. In fact, they make our schools worse. And, while I am sure that a defiant education “reformer” could very quickly toss out a statistic that reveals a stunning education miracle to prove my assertion wrong, remember this: we have learned this week that numbers can certainly be manipulated.

If we continue to support and elect corporate education “reformers” to distract us from our real problems with fake solutions like A-F grading systems, government-sponsored vouchers for private schools, corporate charter schools, merit pay, Common Core Standards, and other market-based “reform” solutions that improve virtually nothing, our true problems will only grow worse.

And so will our own culpability for these problems.

Public school educators who truly care about our children and our schools were right all along. There is no doubt about this now.

They fight for and teach our children despite the fact that their jobs grow more difficult with each new piece of “reform” legislation. They make a difference in the lives of children despite the fact that our state government now meddles in our schools and their classrooms more than ever before and continues to enact legislation based on a distrust of all educators.

My admiration for Indiana teachers grows each day. And yours should, too. And it’s time to finally listen to them. It is time to vote out anyone and everyone who supports these destructive policies.

It is time to finally address and solve our real problems.

So, those of us who truly support our schools and value education must carry a simple message to voters and citizens: the failure of Indiana’s education “reform”… and it will fail … won’t be because of Mitch Daniels or Tony Bennett, because the real story is not about these two men.

Indiana education “reform” will fail because it is a system designed to destroy rather than improve public schools while distracting us from our real problems and helping corporate “reformers” get richer. It is a fraud.

This is the real story.