We may be in the middle of a pandemic but Chester Finn is worried about the tests. He’s not alone. Education reformers like Finn who’ve dedicated the last couple of decades to test-based school accountability are nervous about the growing backlash that threatens to undo their considerable efforts.
Finn, in this article, acknowledges the many problems with our test-driven education system but concludes that it’s not really the tests that are the problem. It’s accountability. Teachers, like everyone else, don’t want to be responsible for their students’ results. He sees tests as nothing more than an unwelcome messenger and asserts that “if testing vanished but some other form of results-based accountability remained, educators would complain just as much—and work just as hard to recruit allies among parents and others to discredit them.”
Finn is right. Educators would complain just as much. We would enlist others to our cause. We would continue to stomp our feet, inveigh, and even strike against whatever results-based accountability system others would impose on us.
And we would be right to do so.
Why Teachers Should Reject Results-Based Accountability
In fairness, it should be noted that Finn doesn’t blame teachers, writing, “Nobody likes to be held to account for their results, particularly when embarrassment, inconvenience, and unwanted interventions, possibly even the loss of one’s diploma or one’s job, hangs in the balance. “
But what Finn fails to appreciate is the difference between being held accountable for that which is under your control and being held accountable for outcomes over which you have minimal influence.
There’s a difference between a teacher who is sanctioned for her students’ poor results and a restauranteur whose establishment is closed down because there are rats in her kitchen.
The father of our country, George Washington, understood that difference and acted accordingly. Ron Chernow, in his biography, Washington: A Life, writes:
Washington was always reluctant to assume responsibility without the requisite powers to acquit himself honorably. As he put it, “No person who regards his character will undertake a command without the means of preserving it.”Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin Press, 2010. Print. p 64
That is exactly why teachers should fight against any results-based accountability system.
In today’s world, teachers have been pressed into accepting responsibility without the power to acquit themselves honorably. They must take the students given to them. They must teach standards that they had no hand in selecting. They must use programs written by one group of detached content creators and chosen by another group of detached administrators. They must follow pacing guides. They must abide by an ever-expanding glut of regulations that at times impede learning. Some are forced to teach unimportant content in uninspiring ways. Most receive training that is inadequate to prepare them for the realities of the job they are about to attempt. Once hired, they are micromanaged, nitpicked, and second-guessed. And after all of their efforts, many of which they had little say in, they are judged on their students’ performance instead of their own.
This is why teachers must reject results-based accountability, no matter its form. How can one be fairly held accountable when so little of the results such accountability is based on is impacted by factors within an educator’s sphere of influence?
How can you blame teachers for poor student results when teachers have so little say in what they do in a classroom?
What George Washington wanted when he accepted a command is the ability to lead. If he was going to be judged on outcomes, he thought it only fair that he be given the autonomy and power to determine those outcomes.
Right now in America, teachers no longer have that autonomy and power. Until they do, teachers should reject any attempt to hold them accountable for what an education system that so systematically excludes them produces.