Improving Education With True Accountability
Sunday, February 13, 2005
Page C - 5
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Since our governor's State of the State address, talk of merit pay for
teachers has resurfaced. We've been there and done that.
Let's see what happened with the merit pay system we had from 2000-2002,
before the funds vanished. Frankly, there were problems: We got paid more
for giving students less! As soon as it was known what was needed for
"success," we teachers were issued powerful de facto mandates -- which are
still in effect -- to feed students a rigorous diet of the targeted
material, to the exclusion of virtually all other curricula. Naturally, our
test scores experienced a sudden dramatic inflation for a couple of years.
What else would you expect? However, the ensuing flattening of test scores,
and then decreases in 2004, raise doubts about the efficacy of a curriculum
based on test preparation.
I recognize that, like McDonald's, we've expanded our menu. In 2001,
writing was added to elementary grades' multiple-choice tests. But
teachers, so busy preparing students for testing, no longer have time to
work with students on creating original literature. And yes, due to
expanded tests, we now teach some science at some grade levels. And social
studies? It's not tested. So guess how much social studies most kids learn?
(Somewhere between slim and none!).
Just as fast-food entrees are bland accommodations to the masses, so is our
test-preparation curriculum. We're not producing gourmet thinkers; we're
churning out one-size-fits-all test-takers. And the "one size" is
Pseudo-accountability brought us here. Genuine accountability can lift us
out of this fast-food mentality and into true education. How? By holding us
accountable for things we control. True accountability must be aligned with
responsibility. So, here are the three responsibilities of teachers:
-- Classroom delivery skills, including firsthand/hands-on deep knowledge
for students in all content areas. Hold us accountable for our delivery. If
we can't perform, don't sign our checks. Likewise, if we're doing well we'd
love some tangible appreciation. But please do it with significant
Also, gauging how well students "receive" our deliveries and translate them
into test scores is limited. How much of those test scores are attributable
to moodiness, hunger or, especially, home influence? Nobody really knows.
Statisticians can only render "probability," based on their mix of
variables. So don't hold us accountable for student receptivity until you
can determine an unbiased, exact measure of the extent of our impact.
The next two responsibilities aren't easy to objectify. But they're
critical components of true answerability and true education. The governor,
indeed everybody, must also actively promote these ideals:
-- Following the mandates of my heart: Our most powerful teaching skill is
what and who we are deep inside. That takes place without saying a word. We
must each find the real truth within ourselves, accompanied by daily self-
reminders and refocusing, and with unselfish love and concern for the well-
being of each student. This mandate also includes being creative and
teaching to the needs of individual students, even when our beloved
curriculum silently yells, "No. Don't you dare!"
-- Helping parents hold themselves accountable: There's a cultural gap
between the values that drive education and urban families. All
socio-economic classes share identical beliefs and attitudes about
education. But less-than- affluent families often haven't been through "the
system" and thus tend to lack experiential knowledge for translating those
beliefs into actions. They must know what behaviors are required. We must
teach those critical behaviors and provide parents with cultural capital to
buy into the system. I use a first-day-of-school meeting with parents, at
least one home visit per year, monthly evening trips to public library, and
a few extra phone calls when they aren't needed. Teachers should be family
and parents should be teachers.
So I ask the governor to enthrone substance -- true accountability -- over
show. We need our governor to pave the way for us teachers to magnify all
these responsibilities, over and above scrambling to satisfy some new
program that will be replaced in a few years.
Davy McClay (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a National Board certified teacher
at Sylvan Park Elementary School in Van Nuys and an instructor at Michael
D. Eisner College of Education, CSU Northridge.