Diane Ravitch Condemns ‘Accountability’, I Dissent, She Responds. So: Let’s All Discuss It.

Eric Zuesse

On August 29th, America’s leading voice on ‘reform’ of k-12 education condemned President Obama for being supportive of ‘accountability’ in our educational system. Headlining “Why Is the Obama Administration Making War on Teachers,” she closed by wondering, “Why did President Obama embrace the Republican agenda of testing, accountability, and choice?” She blanket-condemned there all three of those.

In a reader-comment (as “cettel22”), I responded to another reader’s comment, which seemed to be endorsing Ravitch’s opposition to “accountability.” I pointed out that a falsely-measured ‘accountability’ should not be understood as diminishing the value of truthfully-measured accountability:

“The current formula [for evaluating teachers] calculates the performance of entire classes of students, not the improvement in performance of individual students — the latter isn’t even tracked at all; only the performance of the collective is. Consequently, teachers in rich districts, with well-endowed students, needn’t worry — their jobs are safe. It’s only teachers in poorly-endowed districts who are jeopardized by the existing formula.

The current formula doesn’t measure a given teacher’s actual achievement (the improvement-percentage of his or her students) at all. Only by calculating the improvement in students’ performance can that be tracked — and it’s not tracked; it is not the basis for evaluating teacher ‘performance.’

The current formula is designed to turn the screws on teachers in poor districts. Those are the very same teachers who ought instead to be paid extra, because they face the most difficult and challenging jobs.

Obama is the friend of the rich and comfortable, and the enemy of the poor and uncomfortable.

You’re fooled by his rhetoric.”

A reader then requested clarification, considering that the current education policies are “fully bipartisan,” and I responded with this:

“The teachers’ unions accept the jiggered formula for rating teachers. The reason they do is that the unions’ leadership want to stoke the conflict, not to end it. The conflict would quickly end if management were to change the formula so as to rank performance on the percentage-improvement in each teacher’s students during the course of a year under his instruction, instead of on the sheer performance of that teacher’s students. Of course, the sheer performance will be relatively low in low-income, under-resourced, districts, and relatively high in affluent schools. Changing the formula would transform everything. But none of the elites would gain from that. All of the elites would lose from the change.

There would no longer be any motivation for gaming the system, such as by excluding from a school low-performing students. There would also no longer be faked test-scores, because only a student’s improvement, or test-score-increase (as compared to that student’s prior-year test-score) would count in calculating the given teacher’s ‘performance.’ Everybody except the elites would gain, and everything would be much fairer. But in today’s U.S., only the elites gain. As a result, all of the income-gains are going to the richest 1%. They’re the only ones with power. They crush the lower 99%. So: we stay with ranking teachers on the basis of their students’ test-scores, instead of on the basis of the improvement in their test-scores.”

Then, I directly addressed a comment to Ravitch herself:

“Diane, if you continue to say that “accountability” is bad, then you are supporting Obama’s entire agenda, because his basic agenda is to enforce responsibility (obligations upward in the power-structure, such as of employees to employers, and borrowers to lenders) but not accountability (obligations downward in the power-structure, such as of school-administrators to teachers, management to unions, etc.).

Teachers aren’t opposed to accountability. If teachers are evaluated according to proven-successful criteria for evaluating their individual performance, then teachers will support that. They won’t support criteria that merely blame teachers when the system itself is rotten from top to (even including some teachers) bottom. They certainly won’t support criteria that hold teachers accountable for, basically, teaching in the lowest-income and most-stressed school districts, the very same “hazardous-duty” districts that should instead be paying their teachers extra for teaching there.

Your use of the term “accountability” is sick, and it provides a very false view of the teaching profession. If anything, teachers want fair accountability, rather than the existing ‘accountability’ which is the reverse of that and rewards the teachers who need (and often deserve) it the least: the ones in rich districts — the teachers of the rich.”

Ravitch replied directly to this, by saying,

“I don’t agree. When “reformers” talk about accountability, they mean punishment and reward based on test scores. I oppose carrots and sticks to reward or punish. So is modern cognitive science.”

And I responded to that with:

“I agree with you on the over-emphasis upon test-scores. But that’s not the only, nor even a large part of the, problem.

Both with regard to test-scores and other criteria, there can be no improvement in American education until teachers are measured on the improvement in their students’ performance under their tutelage, instead of (as now) on their students performance under their tutelage.

A student’s performance (especially in the early years) depends more on what the parent, and the neighborhood, has provided to that child in the way of his preparation, than it does on whatever the teacher does with that child.

What a teacher provides (or fails to provide) to benefit that child during the student’s year under his tutelage is that student’s improvement, rather than that student’s sheer performance itself (which depends primarily upon factors other than that teacher).

Diane, I know that you sincerely believe that a system can function well without accountability. But it simply cannot. Accountability is the foundation-stone of justice. No societal system can perform well without justice. People won’t trust such a societal system, nor should they. The problem in our society, and in all societies, is injustice.

It’s unjust that merely because a teacher is teaching in a low-income school district, that teacher is penalized (instead of especially rewarded) as compared to a teacher who teaches in a wealthy one (where the students’ performance is higher — no thanks to the teachers there, who are getting paid more and having more-secure jobs because they’re not teaching in a more-difficult environment). You support that injustice, even without wanting to.”

Then she responded with a comment to which there was no reply-button, so I quoted its entirety in an independent comment of my own:

“Diane, regarding your:

“Cettel22, you echo what I have written so I have no idea what you are talking about. I repeat: NCLB and Race to the Top define accountability as rewards (merit pay for higher test scores) or punishments (you will be fired or your school will be closed) based on test scores. I oppose that. It is not supported by research or experience.”

 —

That’s not true. You oppose accountability in education-policy; you even said here, “Why did President Obama embrace the Republican agenda of testing, accountability, and choice?”

You included “accountability” in with those other two. You have consistently condemned “accountability” as if it were something to be minimized (or vaguely measured) instead of increased (and more clearly defined) throughout our (and any) society.

The basic problem is that there is no accountability (there is only responsibility); that’s the problem throughout America’s body-politic including education. No bankster who defrauded both home buyers and MBS (Mortgage-Backed Securities) investors and crashed the economy in 2008 has gone to prison for it. George W. Bush lied the country into invading Iraq and wasn’t even impeached for it. Barack Obama and our major ‘news’ media are deceiving America into supporting the ethnic-cleansing of ethnic Russians out of southeastern Ukraine, and millions are now going into refugee camps because of it. Where are the bad consequences for these and other criminal malfeasances of our elites?

You mis-locate the problem as “accountability,” instead of as mis-measuring the performance of everyone — including of teachers, and of principals, and of politicians such as Bush and Obama. Everything is being misrepresented, lies are rampant, and there is no justice exacted against such mass-deception. And this is the reason why the dedicated teachers in low-income schools can get fired en-masse while even mediocre or low-quality teachers in upper-income school districts have no need to worry about that happening to them. Instead of teachers in hard districts getting extra pay for that, they get fired for it. This is not ‘too much’ accountability; it is, instead, fraudulent ‘accountability.’

I believe that your focus, Diane, is wrong. The question isn’t whether the performance of everyone should be measured; the question is how to do that in an honest, fair, and just way, so that excellence will be especially rewarded, and mediocrity (in rich schools) no longer will continue to be (as it currently is).

This will help advance improvement of American education in both poor and rich neighborhoods.

The core problem is how to achieve authentic accountability, rather than the fake version that now reigns throughout our society and is really little else than status-affirmation — appropriate only for a feudal or fascist society.

I believe that until you wrestle with that problem, your proposed solutions will be mis-focused, on things that aren’t necessarily even part of the problem, and that might even be essential parts of its solution.”

Inasmuch as I believe that lack of accountability is the chief failure of our society, I invite readers here, and/or at Ravitch’s blog, to contribute to the discussion.

The consequences of changing the rating-system for teachers so that it measures how much a teacher improves a given student’s skills over a year, as opposed to how skilled that student is at the end of the year, would transform education, in a very positive way, and would stop the excessive government funding of the education of the students in rich districts.

A reader there said that until Ronald Reagan, everything in American education was fine. This person said: “Before that the people being held accountable were the students and the people holding them accountable were the teachers.” I replied:

“You confuse accountability with responsibility. A student has a responsibility to the teacher, not an accountability to the teacher.

The teacher has an accountability to the student. The teacher is obligated to improve that student’s performance. By contrast, the student is obligated to obey the teacher.

As long as you and Diane Ravitch and everyone else in education refuse to understand what accountability is, there isn’t even a hope of doing it right.

The only way to get accountability of teachers right is to reward the most the teachers who improve their students’ performance the most (the largest percentage) per year of that teacher’s teaching of that student. In other words: what counts is not how well that student performs at the end of the year (as the current formula does), but instead how much (how big a percentage) that student improves his performance during that year under that teacher’s tutelage. If the improvement-percentage is average, the teacher is average. If the improvement-percentage is sub-average, the teacher is sub-average. If the improvement-percentage is above average, the teacher is above average. The incentive then becomes to teach so as to improve one’s students’ skill (in the given subject-area) the most.”

Ravitch responded:

“You seem to be defending VAM, although truthfully I have no idea what you are saying. Have you read Audrey Amrein-Beardsley on VAM? Or Edward Haertel? Or the joint statement by AERA and the National Academy of Education? Or Linda Darling-Hammond?”

I replied:

“I am speaking clear English, and you are responding with jargon. I know the reality that teachers are struggling with. I am not proposing VAM. I am not proposing any complex formula that incorporates personal information about a student: disability, “gifted” status (which is a crock), race, or anything other than measures of the student’s level of skill in the given field when entering this teacher’s tutelage, and the level of that student’s skill in that field when leaving that teacher’s tutelage at the end of the academic year or beginning of the next academic year. That’s all. If the student is disabled, or else gifted, the percentage-rise in skill over the given year is all that should matter. A low-IQ student might start from, say, a rating of 50 out of 100, and rise to 55. A high-IQ student might start from 80 and rise to 88. the improvement-percentage would be the same. Improving the formula is not complex to do. Evading the issue is to evade the problem that must be addressed.”

Ravitch answered:

“Are you aware that no high-performing nation in the world judges teachers by student test scores?”

I replied:

“I am not proposing that. However, tests or some other quantifiable performance-measures need to be part of the evaluation-process in some subject-areas, such as in language-arts and in math. Furthermore, subjective measures of teacher-performance should be done by strangers who are carefully trained for the purpose in the given subject-area and who are themselves tested and constantly re-evaluated so that those evaluations will be as objective as possible. To the fullest extent possible, personal prejudices and personal relationships should be left out of the process. The whole institution of k-12 education needs to be restructured so as to serve the needs of the children, focused only on that. Of course, it ought to be fully funded via broad-based taxes, and there should be no public subsidization of any education that is not being provided by the government. Privatization is poison. Mussolini introduced it; Hitler then took it up. Then, finally, Reagan championed it. That’s for fascisms, not for democracies.

It needs to be made totally fair, especially because nature itself is the opposite.”

Another reader commented:

“Should American public education have the function of sorting and separating students so that some may receive greater benefits than others, especially considering that the sorting and separating devices, educational standards and standardized testing, are so flawed not only in concept but in execution?

My answer is NO!!!!!”

I replied:

“Mine too, which is the reason why the system that I have proposed removes the existing system’s incentives for teachers to seek and be especially high-paid for employment in rich school districts with few if any disabled or low-functioning kids. Improving from a score of only 25 to a score of 35 is the same 40% increase as is improving from a score of 50 to a score of 70. The disincentive for having low-performing students in your school is thus gone. Suddenly, the most rational response of both the teachers and the administrators becomes to devote equal educational resources to each and every student. Disabled or ‘retarded’ students might qualify for public assistance on other (not specifically ‘educational’) criteria. But the system of education would be incentivized to devote equal expenditures to each student, ‘gifted,’ ‘normal,’ or ‘retarded.’ They are all equally worthy, and all equally served by the educational system, as I have proposed.

You are defending a system that’s anything but equalitarian — that is, in fact, highly prejudiced in favor of star students and rich parents.”

If an educational system is going to move toward a more-quantitative and thus less-prejudiced system for assessing the effectiveness of teachers (and this is the only rational approach to improve teaching), then the only way to do it without making things even worse than they already are in education is to switch from measuring performance, to measuring improvement in performance, because that’s what a teacher is supposed to be conveying to students: improvement. It’s similar to the distinction between speed versus acceleration. Nobody evaluates automobile engines for their speed, but instead they’re rated for their acceleration, such as zero to 60 in five seconds. Thinking about education has still not yet reached the stage of development that Galileo reached for physics: he introduced the concept of acceleration. Theory in the field of education is still that primitive: pre-scientific. This is the reason why the existing measures that are used for determining the performance of teachers are wrong: we have to look at their students’ acceleration not their speed, look at their improvement not their performance. Only then can accountability of teachers be measured truthfully.

Ravitch’s blog is the leading edge of the intellectual school-reform movement. She should be held accountable for any fundamental misrepresentations that she makes there. It can’t happen if the interested public simply ‘behaves properly.’ Martin Luther King ‘misbehaved.’ Sometimes, it’s necessary. The public is invited here to this intellectual protest against the Establishment counter-Establishment regarding K-12 education.

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Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of  They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010,  and of  CHRIST’S VENTRILOQUISTS: The Event that Created Christianity.

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