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John Kuhn: The Big Error of “Accountability”

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John Kuhn, Texas superintendent, is a brilliant orator and writer. In this article, he skewers the cheerleaders for high-stakes testing in Texas by showing how they cherry pick data to buttress their case for testing kids more and more instead of providing adequate resources for them to learn.


He begins by demonstrating how they situate their love of testing as a civil rights issue. They cite the Brown decision and in other ways claim that they love the children who are poor and needy and want the best for them. But what they never do is to advocate that the Legislature restore the billions of dollars that were cut from the schools attended by the children they claim to love.


Here is a small sample of a smartly argued and well documented analysis:


In “The Big Idea of School Accountability,” their slick apologia for high stakes testing and punitive accountability, both of which have dominated American education politics and pedagogy since the 1980s, Bill McKenzie and Sandy Kress start out on the high road. McKenzie is a high-ranking opinion-shaper at the George W. Bush Institute and a former editorialist for the Dallas Morning News. Kress was an architect of Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and, though he leaves this out of his bio attached to the essay, a long-time lobbyist for Pearson, the world’s leading vendor of K-12 standardized tests. The two edu-lobbyists begin their essay by mentioning historical moments in education policymaking and politics that would seem to appeal to a wide audience. They condemn segregation and celebrate Brown v. Board of Education. They praise the Elementary and Secondary School Act of 1965 (later renamed ESEA) and they celebrate its noble intention that “schools in disadvantaged communities would receive the resources to provide their students a decent education.”


Pay close attention to that statement, because it is the last time the authors will refer to resources as a necessary element to ensuring quality education in disadvantaged communities. Through the sleight of hand that has been perfected by the modern education reformer—and McKenzie and Kress are education reformers of the highest order—the writers deftly pivot from any and all talk of the need to provide equitable educational resources across all communities so that schools in even the poorest areas can deliver on the promise of education, and they spend the remaining pages of their article discussing something much easier on the taxpayer’s pocketbook: accountability, or the careful creation of just the right punishments to make teachers and students succeed in making learning happen, without respect to the pesky details of resources available to them (or unavailable to them, as they case may be). In the next paragraph—without establishing that the equity of resources LBJ’s law intended to guarantee was ever successfully attained—the writers begin to speak of campuses being “held responsible,” of the need to “hold schools accountable” and of “what should happen if schools do not show progress for all their students.”


Pivot complete.


The authors have shifted totally from an inconvenient conversation about fair and equitable investment in children and communities—investment that is adequate and comparable regardless of a student’s zip code or skin color—to one about holding children and communities responsible for their own outcomes. Accountability is constructed on the principle of blame and consequences as leverage to move schools and kids forward (blame and consequences, it should be noted, entirely directed at the teachers and students, with no consequence whatsoever reserved for citizens outside the schoolhouse who may or may not provide adequate fiscal supports for schools and children). At the urging of testing advocates like the authors of this essay, educational improvement via punitive test-based policies has eclipsed humane concepts of shared assistance and support for hurting American children (particularly anything resembling the investment of tax receipts) as the “civil rights issue of our time.” Educational accountability is designed as a low-cost replacement for social responsibility.


Children in America’s poorest neighborhoods lack all manner of opportunities and resources from birth that many American families take for granted. This isn’t to say they can’t learn. Of course they can learn, but there are obstacles they must overcome that society has kindly ensured do not litter the path of many other children from middle and upper class areas. From birth weight forward, all the data in impoverished zones is stacked against children, and elevating accountability for schools as our primary lever for improving these children’s lives has the effect of squelching any urgency and attention directed at efforts to feed and clothe and love and help them outside the school. We hear reformers speak of “the fierce urgency of the now” when they speak of improving schools, but we never hear it when they speak of improving lives. More than anyone in the United States, the poor child needs a hand up. More than any organization in the United States, the public school—the place where our children gather, and where they come as they are—needs support…..


Folks in the accountability camp like to say “we can’t throw money at the problem.” In fact, they apparently prefer actively pulling money away from the areas where the greatest problems exist. It is lunacy to believe that a testing program can do anything to help children who are being denied the same educational resources provided to their peers in wealthy communities. And to compare those under-funded students with their better-funded peers is nothing short of cruelty.


Thanks to the shift in focus toward testing and away from resourcing, in 2015 Texas sank to 49th in the nation in school funding (2). The accountability clique convinced lawmakers that funding was of little import; academic success could be forced upon children at a discount via test-based coercion and threats. An analogy might be if the Good Samaritan in the Bible story had stopped beside the injured traveler and, instead of lifting him out of the dirt and paying for his recuperation at an inn, had stood over him with a stopwatch and told him to hurry and get up, and assured him that he was comparing his time with that of uninjured people.


After quickly dismissing the topic of equitable funding for schools in poor areas, the authors praise bipartisanship and claim the legacy of Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert Kennedy as they discuss the debate surrounding ESEA. But even as they quote LBJ opining how his signature education law meant more “to the future of America” than anything he had signed before, they neglect to mention that what they are advocating in this essay—the continuation of required annual standardized testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school and significant punishments for schools, teachers, and students based on said tests’ results—were nowhere in LBJ’s bill.


Kuhn knows that reformers like to say that any reference to poverty means that you don’t believe poor children can learn. He knows that poor children can learn, but he also knows that poor children need at least the same resources as affluent children to learn. The “big error” of the accountability hawks is that they think that high-stakes testing is a substitute for resources. It is not. A brilliant and powerful essay.

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