Time to Choose Equity Over Accountability

My home state of South Carolina is an ideal lesson in education reform.

SC is a high-poverty state (in the bottom quartile of affluence in the U.S.) that committed early to the accountability era built on state standards and high-stakes tests (exit exams, school report cards, etc.).

Currently, SC has in quick succession adopted and then rejected Common Core, resulting in the state having about 5 or 6 different versions of state standards and tests in those thirty years.

And as we watch winter turn to spring in 2015, ain’t nobody happy with public schools in SC. Also, SC continues to struggle with pockets of extreme poverty and segregated affluence as well as entrenched racism, hostile policies for workers, and Teflon-conservative politics.

That should lead one to question the process of accountability—although apparently it doesn’t.

Two examples, however, can help us here.

First, despite the demonstrable failure of the accountability era to improve schools adequately over three decades by focusing on test data to evaluate school quality and student achievement, the test-mania has now been targeted on teachers with the endless consideration of how best to use value added methods (VAM) to evaluate teachers.

Continuing down the technocratic road of making VAM work statistically, I argue, is another example of how to do the wrong thing the right way.

It is entirely possible that we can develop a scientifically credible use of VAM and also do more harm to education than good—and again, we will suffer the bitter lessons of chasing better tests.

And here comes the irony: If we are determined to keep our eyes focused on test data, why are we not recognizing what those tests tell us over the long haul?

The second example was highlighted for me at Schools Matter, where two charts from longitudinal NAEP data were posted, one of which I have recreated in a different format to highlight phases in education:

NAEP gap simple 2

Before us now, after ample time has passed experimenting with accountability, we can drawn some tentative conclusions [1]: (i) the Civil Rights era from the 1950s into the 1970s (for example, SC schools did not fully integrate until early 1970s) when the focus was on equity seems to have fostered greater narrowing of the achievement gap than either (ii) the state-based accountability era or (iii) the NCLB accountability era.

And so: A lack of accountability, standards, or “good” tests was never the problem in U.S. public education, but as my home state of SC shows, a crippling history of inequity driven by racism, classism, and sexism is the primary plague reflected in the measurable outcomes found in our schools.

It is time to choose equity over accountability for our education policy. In fact, it is well past time to hold the advocates of accountability accountable for misreading their own data.

[1] FairTest has offered a more detailed analysis, drawing similar conclusions.

One comment

  1. Jessica Burnette

    Such a small world! I am currently working on the first class of my doctorate and I am doing some research to go along with my first case study and debate. My posing question is “Does a set of required standards improve or limit education for all students in state schools?”, so obviously, I sought out for literature to share about my home state’s lack of responsibility where standard adoption is concerned…and who pops up, but Paul Thomas! I have enjoyed reading some of your articles and look forward to citing them in my discussion post this week. Although I was not in your class, I still know of and remember your high regard at Woodruff High. Hope you are doing well! (Jessica Sloan c/o 1999)

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