February 25, 2008

NCLB and where we sit

In my undergraduate social foundations class, I spend some time explaining the politics of accountability. For the last few years, a critical mass of students (either a majority or a vocal minority) have consistently opposed accountability, taking on the mantle of professionalism, and it's my job to rattle their cages and make them see things using at least one other lens.

I usually explain things in words something like the following:

Views of accountability depend dramatically on where you are. At the classroom level, teachers trust what they do and would like to trust parents but aren't exactly sure. Parents may want to trust teachers, if their children's experiences have generally been decent, or may be entirely untrusting if not. Principals generally trust their own judgment and would like to trust teachers but have a supervisory responsibility (and the level of supervision they exercise will depend rather dramatically on a variety of factors).

Once you get above the level of the school, each level tends to want to impose some accountability on the level below it. For NCLB purposes, the key issue is the state/feds split: in a number of states, officials in the state capitol don't trust local districts and feel that it is their responsibility to regulate the districts, while a number of federal officials are skeptical that states will do the right thing unless there is a federal level of accountability.

NCLB forced states to define a variety of measures and set targets for those measures. At the local level, the state plan is often viewed as onerous, unreasonable, and inflexible. But the state plans are inherently compromises, and so various parties in Washington have looked at the state plans with skepticism.

For example, let's take a look at graduation, which states often defined to mean one minus the proportion of high school students identified as dropouts. That too-easily-falsifiable "dropout rate" is very low in many places, for reasons largely unrelated to the actual proportion of teenagers who graduate from high school, and the official graduation rate if defined as the complement will be wildly inflated.

To local residents and some educators, it looks like the state is hiding a sizable dropout rate, which many view as a consequence of out-of-control accountability systems. That's the type of local or educator-centered view many of you have described.

But you also need to look at it from a federal perspective, from those who see state plans and state commitments with enormous skepticism. To them, what would be the logical conclusion drawn about such graduation rates?

Linda McNeil et al.'s recent article on high-stakes accountability in Texas and Charles Barone's entry today, The Games States Play: Graduation Rates, are Exhibits A and B the next time I have this discussion.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on February 25, 2008 9:31 PM |