Testing, Accountability, and Standards

It’s school testing season again. The Fraser Institute is issuing it’s report card. The Teacher’s Federation is advising parents to pull out of the FSA. The government is debating achievement legislation. The Vancouver Sun has even published competing commentaries on this issue: download commentaries.

What’s the deal? For politicians and pundits, parents and almost every wag on the street, there is a deep seated belief that our education is failing. Even in the face of evidence to the contrary this is a persistent belief that has been growing over the past couple of decades.
Here’s a different tack – how about parental responsibility and accountability. Why do we expect the school system to do everything for our children? Isn’t it time that we grew up and accepted the consequences of our decisions to be parents?

It is so easy to say the system has failed. That teachers have failed. That politicians have failed. But don’t we all have some small bit of responsibility in this picture? The two income professional parents who warehouse their children in daycare from 7-5 and then can’t understand why their child is a ‘problem’ at school. The parent suffering from substance abuse who can’t meet their own needs let alone their children’s. The many parents who don’t really seem to think it matters whether or not their children play computer games and MSN all night long.

If 1000s of children are just being babysat all day, as one commentator said, then why don’t those parents go into the schools and do something?

Maybe it’s just easier to complain from the sidelines. It’s tough being a parent on call 24/7. It’s hard to do all the ‘right’ things. There are few among us (unless we are somehow able to walk on water) who don’t harbour regrets that they could have done more for their children or for themselves.

I constantly wonder why we expect so much from public education but seem so unwilling to give or do more?

If testing and measuring and comparing and setting standards is really about learning and teaching than why hasn’t it led to a better society? We still have poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, wars and crime all over the place.

I guess it all comes down to the belief that somehow teachers should be doing more. It’s as though we –parents- seem to feel that if teachers don’t deal with our child according to our expectations then there must be something wrong with the teacher.

But what do we really want from teachers?

  • Do we really want them to be superhuman and more accomplished and dedicated than parents?
  • Do we really want them to solve all of the world’s problems?
  • Are we willing to allow them time to have their own family life, their own children, their own cares, worries, and pleasures?

Apparently not because if truth be told we seem to want them to solve every single problem that we have in society.

I must confess to having grown tired of the following complaints:

  • If my child can’t read -it’s the schools fault.
  • If my child is unhappy at school -it’s the teacher’s fault (how often have parents said/heard “that teacher doesn’t like my child? be honest).
  • If my child is failing in math -the math teacher can’t teach.
  • If my child is bullied at school -the school is at fault.
    and on it goes.

I think that we need to take responsibility for our own actions. And we need to start at home. Sometimes it’s a hard to accept that our children won’t be able to fulfill all of our dreams, or that our children have different dreams than we do.

But rather than that we opt to have ‘greater’ accountability (and the emphasis is completely upon counting). The way in which the ministry operationalizes accountability in terms of IEPs is to have measurable outcomes.

For example, in terms of a child confined to a wheelchair the measurable outcome is how many times did the child attempt to wheel themselves to the washroom rather than asking to be wheeled. For a child with a learning disability we have a measurable outcome that tracks how often the child self-advocated. Etc. . . These measurable outcomes are compared to rubrics listing expected outcomes in a range of items that can now be placed on a graph and in a table. These charts and tables are passed up the system and finally we read about ‘achievement successes’ in the deputy minister’s newsletter where he artfully combines school success stories with comparative data from across the province that ‘proves’ 8 out 10 students confined to wheelchairs have met or exceed the standard set for them. W o n d e r f u l. And this can be repeated for every category.

So what are the alternatives? The testing mania seems to be so ingrained in our psyches that it is practically unimaginable for most people to see an alternative. Further more, some of those who are opposed to the testing frenzy are opposed because it is simply one more thing that they are being told they have to do in the face of many other things that are far more important.

For solutions: How about individual responsibility combined with collective concern? Rather than complaining about school failure perhaps we should take a more active role in our children’s education. I don’t mean hire more tutors or raise more money. I mean take the time to be with your children, to learn about what they are learning, to read with them, to play with them, and to participate in the life of your children’s schools. We also need to take a greater social and collective concern for our education. Rather than relegating education to the realm of consumer choice we need to reinvigorate education as a n activity of learning which prioritizes exploring the world within which we live. We have to stop seeing education as training and job placement. We have to replace trust in testing with trust in teaching. In short we need to value education in a way that doesn’t involve charts, graphs, numbers, tables, or dollars. It’s time to create the possibility for learning absent the mania of accountability.