24 April 2009

Secretary Duncan and the Unaccountable

In an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal two days ago (22 April 2009), education secretary Arnie Duncan discusses school reform, stimulus billions, best practices, and stakeholders who ought to want kids to have better educational opportunities. But through all of his chatter about billions and change, one group is conspicuously left out: students.

That Mr. Duncan would so plainly leave out what I would argue is one of the most important groups when regarding educational accountability is a bit strange. The only slight nod to student accountability – and one would have to read a lot into it to get there – is a reference that the country should be “pursuing what works best for kids”.

Here’s a quick stab, in the few minutes I have to write here before I go to work for the day, at what I think “works best for kids”. I think that setting a limited number of clear, understandable, and measureable learning objectives is a good start. Those should be stated up front and reviewed from time to time with the students. Then, students should be taught to those objectives (and beyond, if the occasion arises). This should be done in a way so that the students internalize core knowledge. Finally, students should prove that they have met and mastered the learning objectives. This does not mean perfection on the part of the student. It means that the student can work with a level of proficiency appropriate for his age (and beyond, for those who can).

School and teacher responsibility rests in setting up such learning objectives, providing a good classroom environment, to include the knowledge dispensed, and properly measuring student proficiency. The students, and their parents by extension, are responsible for the students’ learning.

As I’ve written before, this model requires a great deal of professionalism. There can be few or no “victims” in this system. And there must be honest, ongoing, and frank assessments of abilities, limitations, and shortcomings on the part of all involved in this system, along with individual commitments to always, always improve themselves. Students included. Learning is a serious business, and it is important that those who engage it in most regularly – students and teachers – view it in this way.

I do not expect this to happen on a national level; I do not share the federal government’s belief that the federal government can provide the basis for equally wonderful education across our entire country. This is a utopian vision. It would be nice, though, if localities in public education were given a free hand to strike forth on their own and find better ways to education the children in their districts, to use accountability models that work for them. But in a land in which the growing thrust is toward central planning, education seems to be a leading indicator. No Child Left Behind was the beginning, and it may well be that Mr. Duncan and the Obama administration will look to push a unified vision of reform and progress on all schools. But given Mr. Duncan’s own words, we might expect that students, and most importantly, student accountability, will be left behind.

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