I have been an education activist for about eleven years now. I have clashed with the district about two hundred times. I have never won. People wonder how I can keep doing this. Don't I get burned out? Don't I get tired? What the hell is wrong with me? Is it some kind of neurosis?
There are two secrets to my endurance.
- I don't expect to win. Ever. If I have clashed with the district two hundred times then my won-loss record is 0-200. My greatest successes have been taking them to overtime on a couple of occasions. As I have long said "The futility of my efforts does not excuse me from the obligation to make those efforts."
- I don't suffer from any outrage fatigue because it is always something new that outrages me. I am not some kind of Johnny-One-Note. I don't keep repeating the same complaint over and over (although some of them do recur). If I pick a new fight with the District every two weeks it is because the District has done something new that angers me every two weeks.
Sometimes, however, the limits of my endurance are reached in a different way. The League of Education Voters just hit it for me. With this blog post of theirs On Teacher Performance: Be Excellent by Hope Teague-Bowling, they rang the bell. It isn't this piece alone. I don't have some special grudge against Ms Teague-Bowling; her silly article was just the last straw. This story sings the praises of the bill presented in Olympia to increase teacher accountability. She would no doubt praise the legislature if they pass it. It pushed me over the edge and, before I could stop myself, I had responded with a screed (below).
That brings us to the third secret of my success. I write really fast.
Are our education failures a result of failures in the system or are they a collection of individual failures?
Some believe that they are a collection of individual failures. They see thirty students sitting together in a class and getting the same instruction. Twenty-five of them pass the state test; five fail. These folks believe that the five who failed got everything from the system that the other twenty-five got, but, as individuals, they failed to take advantage of the opportunity placed before them. Those folks believe that the five students failed individually, not as a systemic outcome.
Similarly, theses folks see classrooms in which five students pass the test and twenty-five fail. From these numbers they conclude that the teacher failed to provide the opportunity for students to succeed. Again, since other teachers who got the same resources – materials and content – saw a majority of their students pass the test, the failure was in the teacher who saw disappointing student outcomes, not in the system since the system worked elsewhere. These folks also label schools as failing if the student outcomes from the school are disappointing. Those schools also were provided with the same resources as other schools which saw higher student outcomes, so the schools are individual failures, not the system.
I’m not hearing this perspective expressed much by people who actually know what happens in schools. I’m not sure that the League of Education Voters would accept or endorse this perspective. Most folks realize that the failures are systemic, not individual. That’s why student outcomes are so predictably correlated to SES. The school in a low-income neighborhood isn’t necessarily doing any worse of a job educating students than the school in the affluent neighborhood; they are just hamstrung by the structure, the budget, and their students’ limited opportunities outside of school. No one really believes that the high-scoring and the low-scoring school would get the same outcomes if they swapped students. The school isn’t the determining factor. Neither are the teaching staffs. The high performing school and the low performing school would not swap test scores if they swapped teachers. No body really believes that they would.
You can continue to believe that these are individual failures – by students or teachers or schools – or you can acknowledge the obvious: there is a systemic problem. If you acknowledge that the problem is bigger than what is happening in a large number of individual cases, then it seems not only foolish but cruel to hold individuals accountable for these outcomes. Unless, of course, those individuals are responsible for the system.
The students are being held accountable. If they don’t get the test scores they will not get a diploma. That’s real accountability. The students, however, are the people with the least power of anyone to change the system. How does it make sense for the people with the least ability to change the system, the people who are, arguably, already the victims of the system, to be held individually accountable for the failure of the system? It makes no sense. It is cruel beyond words. You kick these kids and then punish them for having ugly bruises.
The next step up the totem pole are the teachers. After the students, the teachers are those with the next smallest ability to change the system. We are just starting to hold teachers accountable for the student outcomes. The next step up the ladder, then next least powerful, are principals. The wave of “reforms” to hold principals accountable is the next wave coming. We’re starting to see it in bills in Olympia and state houses across the country. There are already school turn-around programs that begin with firing the principal.
This accountability is exactly upside-down. Accountability and responsibility need to go together. We recognize that the problem is in the system and the failure is a systemic failure rather than a collection of individual failures. If any individuals are going to be held accountable for the failures, the accountability needs to start at the top with the people who have the greatest power and authority to change the system. However those folks are not being held accountable at all. There is no accountability at the top where it could be paired with the responsibility to create the needed systemic change. The legislators who refused to fully fund public education are not punished at all. The OSPI who promoted a failed math program goes unscathed. District leadership is under no pressure to change their practices and to allocate the necessary resources to close the opportunity gap.
Instead, these folks are out there selling the story that this is not a systemic failure. They are out there trying to convince us that it is a bunch of students who are slacking. They are trying to blame it on the teachers. Oh, right, those lazy, free-riding teachers who are just in it for the money. The people responsible for the failure want to tell a story of individual failure and they are going to punish the people closest to that failure – even if that failure is largely outside the students’ or the teachers’ control.
You can buy that story. I’m not buying it. I’m not signing on to the idea that we need to withhold diplomas from the same students from whom we also withheld an education. I’m not signing on to the idea that we need to damage the careers of the teachers who accept our greatest challenges. I don’t believe that we should label schools as “failing” because we have failed them. I’m not signing on to the idea that the people who have the least ability to control the system should pay for the system’s failures.
But you go ahead. Go ahead and protect the people who control the system at the expense of those crushed under its treads. I can’t stop you. After this fails – as it surely will – maybe then you will be willing to look for real reform. If you don’t just walk away from public education entirely.