This blog will take a week long Thanksgiving break. Look for a new post on November 29. Good wishes for Thanksgiving!
In its October 2018 issue, Phi Delta Kappan magazine features a pair of articles that, from two entirely different perspectives, trace declining civic engagement around public education to the philosophy at the heart of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act.
In Preparation for Capable Citizenship: The Schools’ Primary Responsibility, Michael Rebell worries that schools driven by a pinched, test-and-punish agenda—schools designed to force all students to demonstrate basic proficiency in language arts and math—have narrowed the curriculum and dangerously reduced what has been understood historically a primary purpose of public schools: the formation of engaged citizens. Rebell is the executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is an attorney and one of the founders of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc. He was executive director when the Campaign for Fiscal Equity successfully sued the state for more adequate and equitably distributed school funding.
Rebell argues that high-stakes, test-based school accountability—the system which rates and ranks schools and school districts on standardized tests of language arts and math and punishes the lowest scoring schools and teachers—has squeezed out much that is important: “Over the past half century, the scope of American democracy has expanded to include a more diverse population and a greater understanding of the need to respect and embrace the needs and aspirations of all our citizens, yet the schools’ civic focus has eroded, leaving our democratic institutions substantially at risk. Interestingly, a series of recent cases regarding the adequacy of funding for public schools has led state courts to examine the meaning of state constitutional clauses—most of which were written in the 18th and 19th centuries…. The courts have consistently emphasized the continuing importance of educating students to be effective citizens. For example, the New York Court of Appeals held that the purpose of public education today is to provide students the skills they need to ‘function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury’ (Campaign for Fiscal Equity,Inc. v. New York State, 2003).”
Rebell defines the skills he believes are needed for citizenship: “(1) basic civic knowledge of government, history, law and democracy; (2) verbal and critical reasoning skills; (3) social and participatory experiences, and (4) responsible character traits and acceptance of democratic values and dispositions…” He adds: “Certainly, preparing students for civic participation in a society beset by ideological polarization, racial inequality, accelerating economic gaps, rapid demographic shifts, and changing social norms is a formidable challenge.” He adds: “In the mid-20th century, three civics-related courses were common in high school: civics, problems of democracy, and American government. Today, civics and problems of democracy courses have largely disappeared. In many states, no civics courses at all are required; in others, the only mandate is for a one-semester course in American government.”
What is needed, in Rebell’s judgment, is not merely knowledge of government, but also exposure to the values that have been understood as central to our democracy: “Most contemporary educators who are concerned about civic preparation believe that schools also need to promote certain character values and civic dispositions. They emphasize that democratic citizens need to be responsible, honest, hard-working, caring, and have the courage to do what is right and just, even in difficult circumstances. In addition, most contemporary educators and policy makers also emphasize equality, tolerance, due process, and respect for the rule of law as important democratic values.” And in education policy and funding, states need to do a better job of modeling the values we expect the schools to teach: “Schools cannot fully accomplish the goal of civic preparation unless our society productively addresses the legal and policy context in which schools operate. Positive intergroup relations cannot flourish if students are treated unequally or if some students lack important opportunities that students who attend other schools regularly enjoy. In 23 states, the poorest school districts receive fewer per capita dollars in state and local funds than affluent school districts, even though the students in poorer districts have greater needs….”
While Rebell is concerned with narrowing of the content of America’s school curriculum through test-driven accountability, in Putting the Public Back into Public Accountability, Derek Gottlieb and Jack Schneider attack the current test-and-punish accountability system itself for misjudging school quality. Gottleib is assistant professor at the University of Northern Colorado. Schneider is assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and the director of research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment.
Here are three shortcomings of our current accountability system, according to Gottlieb and Schneider: “(T)o the state, good schools matter insofar as they produce industrious workers and competent citizens. But for members of the public, schools also serve a number of noninstrumental purposes—purposes worth pursuing for their own sake… A second shortcoming in present accountability systems is the fact that states can’t ‘see.’ Unlike members of the public, who gauge school quality holistically, states rely on standard, highly simplified information that can be compiled and combined… Thus, because measurement systems tend to include only the data in which states are interested—test scores, graduation rates, and the like—they overlook any additional aims that schools serve… A third shortcoming in present systems is their inflexibility, especially in prescribing consequences or solutions for lower-performing schools.”
Gottlieb and Schneider explain that true democratic public accountability must come from the active public engagement of citizens: “Our public schools operate within a pluralistic democratic society. In our national mythos, this has been a source of unique strength, even as it has presented challenges. But present school accountability systems seem to wish away this complexity—obscuring the challenges of pluralistic democracy behind a system that will smooth over the vagaries of difference among us.”
So… what would it look like if citizens got together to decide whether their community’s public schools are operating responsively to the public? “Presently, most measurement and accountability systems rely on mechanistic rating systems, which generally rank school against each other on a narrow set of measures. Done in the name of public accountability, such an approach falls short in two ways. First, it disregards the fact that communities may prize some aspects of school quality above others…. Second, it ignores the fact that school quality is not a zero-sum game. All schools can succeed, even if some are stronger in particular areas than others, and the public must have a say in determining what constitutes success and failure. Public involvement in conducting evaluations would draw upon local knowledge as a resource rather than a hindrance. Local stakeholders, who are attuned to their community’s needs, are best positioned to apply what they see as the most salient criteria of school quality.”
Skeptics will wonder: “Won’t allowing significant local control in accountability undercut the state’s ability to meet its responsibility for ensuring equity among schools throughout the state?” Gottlieb and Schneider answer: “The possibility of local control undercutting state oversight responsibilities is an important worry. But involving local stakeholders in making decisions does not exclude the state’s official concerns.”
And anyway, explain Gottlieb and Schneider, the current test-and-punish system isn’t the kind of truly public, democratic school accountability anybody wants.
“As for the risks associated with treating schools differently, we have a substantially more robust version of fairness in mind than the sort expressed through present accountability systems. Current practices ensure fairness through a mechanical version of objectivity in which schools are evaluated through an algorithmic combination of a handful of measures, without significant public input or engagement. We believe that deliberations are fairer than algorithms and that a more substantive and less procedural version of fairness will be both more just and more democratic. Because a school’s real quality depends on the values of its community, a school must be evaluated holistically and multidimensionally.”
Gottlieb and Schneider continue: (S)ome may object to how unwieldy this whole process may become. Such a concern is answerable in two ways. First current practices are far from simple, despite their widespread acceptance. Present accountability systems require massive expenditures of money and time that might be spent more profitably in other ways… A second response to the objection of unwieldiness is to reiterate the local nature of these deliberative groups. In each case, we imagine cohorts of 10-20 people, some of whom—namely district and state officials—will be extremely practiced, serving on these groups multiple times per year.”
Michael Rebell and Derek Gottlieb and Jack Schneider seek to bring back public engagement, a dimension that has gone missing from today’s corporate, accountability-based, test-and-punish driven education policy and from the narrow curriculum that has resulted.
Phi Delta Kappan has been exploring the meaning of “the public” in public education. This blog reported last week on another article in the recent issue—David Labaree’s reflection on the role of public schools for serving the public good.