September 1, 2008

Shared responsibilities for children II: The loving hardass manifesto

Back in June, I briefly noted the potential political dynamics of the dueling manifestoes associated with the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education and the Education Equality Project, apologized for overplaying that analysis, and wrote an entry to talk broadly about shared responsibilities and education as part of the state. I've promised but have not followed through on my own manifesto, and it's now long past time for that. So, without further ado...


The Loving Hardass Manifesto*

I'm going to cut the shared-responsibility issue in a way that doesn't avoid the hard problems. Essentially, wherever your work touches children's lives, you're responsible for busting your butt without ruining your health or life. Unlike the Education Equality Project manifesto, I do not think that teachers are all-powerful or all-responsible. They're very important and responsible, but not for everything. Unlike the Broader, Bolder Approach, I do not think we can avoid central questions about accountability within school by reference to the other legitimate needs of children outside of schools. Yes, children have lives outside school, but it's acceptable to focus on what happens inside schools for things schoools are responsible for. And unlike Barack Obama, I am not going to say that both statements are right. Both statements are partially right. And while I know and admire several people who have signed one or the other statement, I will not sign either one, because both are flawed.

Let me start with the Project crowd. If you're a politician or administrator and believe that everything you've done is perfect, with no regrets, and all the evidence points in your favor, I hope you brought enough to share, because whatever you're smoking, I want to try it. Using only the high-quality evidence that is in your favor (and here I mean David Figlio-quality evidence), you can make a claim that high-stakes accountability leads to modest improvement in outcomes. But that's about it.

If you're a civil-rights activist and think that the best way to improve schools is to lambaste teachers and their representatives, I have a year for you: 1968. And a book: Tyack and Cuban's Tinkering toward Utopia. I have plenty more to suggest, but I figure that's enough.

But I'm also disappointed by the Broader, Bolder Approach. Everything it says about putting education in the context of broader government programs for children is correct. And yet, if its purpose is to get us to think in a different way about accountability and NCLB, it underwhelms. There's something odd about a statement on school accountability that has precisely one paragraph suggesting vague ways to change how accountability should work within schools.

Let's think about some basic facts: most kids come to school with families they go home to at night. If the children and their teachers are lucky, their families will only have the ordinary neuroses that God or Woody Allen placed there. If the children are unlucky, they'll also deal with poverty, disability, abuse, negligence, or having Paris Hilton as a distant relative. If you're a teacher, you can gripe about the families, but it's probably best not to, for a few reasons:

Your complaining to peers will not improve the parenting of anyone.

We've heard it before, and it wasn't convincing the last time, either.

If you complain about the parents, you will be depriving your students of their internationally-recognized right to be the first to complain to a therapist about how they were brought up. Really: it's in the UN Charter, under "Psychotherapy as an Adolescent," right above the bit about iPods and PlayStations. Go look it up if you doubt me.

I just lied. You may not have caught this, but the 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child does not mention the right to criticize parents in therapy or the right to consumer electronics. There isn't a single mention of either Apple or Microsoft, a shameful omission which Bill Gates is working hard to remedy. But until then, children only have the recognized right to things such as health care, food, shelter, the care of parents or other responsible adults, freedom from discrimination, and education.

I don't know if you've noticed this, but as a society we're not doing so well on fulfilling these rights. 600 million Chinese citizens use cell phones, and in a country that is far wealthier, we've still got millions of children without health care. It used to be that American parents would shame their kids into eating everything at dinner by pointing out that children around the world were starving. That makes you wonder what Chinese parents tell their children to shame them. Maybe they say, "Take your vaccination and stop crying: Kids are getting sick in America!"

Since the dueling manifestoes appeared in June, I've been scratching my head. The broader, bolder approach is fine as a statement of broad social policy but it doesn't work in terms of day-to-day accountability. You are responsible for the people who are in your life. When my children have been sick, and I've taken them to their doctors, I've never once been asked, "How are they doing in math?" and then had a doctor refuse to treat my child because they're not yet evaluating double integrals. They treat the kid in front of them the best they can. My father was a pediatrician and allergist who treated both wealthy families from one side of town and working-class families from another part of town. He never complained about the families from one side or the other. He just treated them.

But that doesn't mean my father had absolute responsibility, either. He was expected to be a professional, to keep up with the literature, and to follow standards of medical practice. But there has never been a "Health Care Equality Project" whose primary activities were to take pot-shots at doctors, call them "interests who seek to preserve a failed system," and want to pay doctors by a handful of measures of the health of their patients. My father was never paid by how much his patients weighed that year, or by how many tissues they used because of colds. We already have accounting-driven health care, and I don't know of any doctors or patients who think it's a good idea.

We also don't have ridiculous fads in medicine. Well, we do, but it's generally called the X diet (for various string values of X), or "alternative medicine," for those who think that if you dilute some processed duck liver by 30 or 40 orders of magnitude, your body will react in any way other than, "I'm sorry if you paid for that sugar pill instead of your mortgage, but the best I can do right now is a placebo effect. I hope you like it." In education, we have far more fads. If we had as many fads in medicine as we do in education, people would think that wearing uniforms made you thinner.

So there is something about the dueling manifestoes that just does not seem real to me. It's not that I am immune to their appeal. I want there to be equal education. And I've already written in many places that schooling needs to be thought of in the context of all the state structures that touch kids' lives. But it's still not resonating with me. My generation of the family takes care of these issues collaboratively. My oldest brother has been a lawyer, lobbyist, and think-tank staff member on health-care policy, which takes care of one right. I teach and write about education. The rest of the immediate family's a bunch of layabouts who do nothing other than have jobs and take care of their families, but Stan and I, we're holding our own on this caring-for-children thing, and if your family isn't, don't blame us. We are the Broader, Bolder Approach. But we're both going on diets soon, so that will change.

Back to the central point about responsibility. The hard task that both manifestoes avoid is defining what we really should expect from schools. I don't know: maybe "bust your butts" isn't something people say in polite company. And it's even harder to define in practice. But since the people who signed the Education Equality Project say they're in favor of holding people accountable, here's my charge: go define what "bust your butts" means in ways that are realistic, or fold your tent. I suggest you start by talking with teachers and parents, not among yourselves. This is just one (loving hardass) reader's response, but I know you can do it, or I wouldn't insist on it.

And for the Broader, Bolder crowd, you know you can do better. As a group, you include a bunch of incredibly well-read, smart researchers. And you're right on putting schooling in a broader context. But you just fell down on the accountability part. That one short paragraph on accountability? Please reread it. Really. You think that was the best you could do? You KNOW what you'd say to a grad student who had that fluff in a dissertation. Revise and resubmit, because I know you can get this up to your usual standards.

And the rest of you in the peanut gallery? Don't think that we can rest on our laurels, either. The folks I'm criticizing at least had the energy and guts to put pen to paper. What have you done to define "bust your butts"?

And, yes, this means that I need to look back at the last chapter of Accountability Frankenstein and see if it needs to be sharper. A commenter some months ago said it was not specific to NCLB, and that's a fair enough point. I wanted the book to be about accountability in general, but if I really know my stuff, I should be able to apply it in specific situations. Want a specific list of changes that should happen with the next reauthorization of ESEA? Coming up this fall...

* While I was drafting this in bits and pieces, I pondered whether to use the term hardass, but since Bob Sutton has written the book The No Asshole Rule and Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit won a book award, I don't think I'm going that far out on a limb. A loving hardass knows that holding people to standards can be in their best interest. So for everyone who signed one of the manifestoes and think I'm nuts here, you're wrong. And in two years, you'll thank me for this.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on September 1, 2008 9:06 PM |