On February 19th of this year, to little initial fanfare, the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute conjured another education report, “The Accountability Illusion,”1 and issued a news release. As of this writing, only a few news articles crediting the Associated Press have appeared in regional news outlets. “The Accountability Illusion,” somewhat aptly named given the propensity for legerdemain in U.S. public philosophy of education, would surprise even the most accomplished magician, whose work performing complex illusions appears rather translucent when compared to the convoluted assumptions and rhetoric in the report.
Perhaps one of the greatest sleights of hand performed historically by the U.S. public philosophy of education, itself riddled with conflicting impulses, was the substitution of equality of opportunity for equality of condition. This was an effective way of shifting the onus for educational outcomes onto individuals, while ignoring the entire social system that set up glaring social distance and “cultural capital” gaps among students of different social classes before they even began the formal schooling process. Under that premise, if one failed, one failed because of lack of initiative or “intellect,” not because of the failure of a system rhetorically based on the ideal of equality and structured in actuality on precipitous material inequality. If Horace Mann had proposed anything more radical than creating a common political culture and human capital for the then-emerging industrial machine in his vision for the U.S. common school, it is likely that the economic players of his day would have more ardently resisted his vision, just as the powerful today resist the idea of equity in their talk about achievement. This is, as the renowned legal theorist Lani Guinier put it, the “myth of meritocracy” on which primary social, political, and economic institutions, like public schools, in the U.S. rest: All are entitled to a free public education; the wide discrepancies in career paths, income earning capacity and, ultimately, life chances of groups of people are the consequences of deficiencies or gluts in individual merit. As Guinier puts it, “what we’re calling individual talent is actually a function of that individual’s social position or opportunities gained by virtue of family and ancestry.”2 And, it looks like this myth will get a neo-makeover with the “change” president’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, given his response to the “The Accountability Illusion” report.
In contemporary language, this sleight of hand can be understood by the deep-rooted propensity of education policy makers to hammer on the idea of achievement, while ignoring and even exacerbating differences in equity and equality of condition. The system that this rationality in policy making has reinforced with particular vigor over the last 30 years is tantamount to a Grand Prix race where drivers compete in Lamborghinis and K-cars alike. Hey, everyone has a car to drive in the race—it is the driver’s fault if s/he cannot get it to go faster, control its banking capacities more efficiently, direct its movements more strategically. And if the Lamborghini, under the control of a professional driver, races head-to-head against a K-car, maneuvered by a less-accomplished or novice driver, the inequities in those initial conditions merely get intensified. Too, such a metaphor easily enables one to illuminate the patently problematic nature of standardized schooling and, in particular, the report’s assumptions.
Even if all schools were equal in terms of facilities, infrastructure, curricular materials quality, and teacher quality, how can we ignore the wildly different worlds children inhabit before and after their school days? This omission in the public philosophy of education was always a dangerous one, and it is particularly dangerous as it seems that Secretary Duncan wants to intensify the basic thrust of the woefully failed No Child Left Behind policy of President Obama’s predecessor. “The Accountability Illusion” report stated a long known fact that states set different bars of achievement to demonstrate “annual yearly progress” (AYP) (most likely in their attempts to either get a competitive advantage or simply try to compete in the rigorous market model that NCLB imposed). In response to that, Duncan said, “we have some important problems to fix in the No Child Left Behind law” (emphasis added).3 Notice he did not say, “We have some important problems to fix in public schooling and society, and one is the No Child Left Behind law, a law that has been consistently found to reinforce the most central problem inhibiting educational achievement: social and economic inequality.” More explicitly, Duncan, and other supporters of the approach and assumptions embedded in the Fordham report, wants to standardize standards rather than standardize the conditions within which children develop and students and teachers work.
Duncan’s tentative recommendation: national education standards. Why? Who benefits? International counterparts with whom the U.S. “competes” or “loses” to all have national standards. The logic is this: if national standards work for them, they are bound to work for us, too. However, many of these nations also have national standards for provision of healthcare, social welfare, childcare, and universal preschool, all of which are nearly universally considered as the foundation on which educational outcomes are built.4 These provisions seem to have an impact across a range of indicators. Consider Sweden, a nation that consistently outpaces the U.S. on international educational measures. Sweden ranks 12th of the top 28 nations on “percent of population below median income,” while the U.S., until recently the richest nation in the world, ranks 28th of those 28 nations–last. Sweden has 1/3 more doctors per capita than the U.S. Sweden’s average infant mortality rate is half that of the U.S.’s, 3 and 6 per 1000 births respectively. For students at age 13, Sweden has an average class size of 13, while the average for the U.S. at the same age is over 18.5 While all children are provided healthcare in Sweden, one of five uninsured people in the U.S. is a child—11% of children are completely uninsured and 14% of children are underinsured for necessary vaccines in the U.S. as of 2007, meaning that 1 of 4 children in the U.S. goes without insurance or without enough insurance.6 To put this in Duncan’s and his cronies’ language, don’t these factors negatively impact the system’s inputs, thus ensuring, even if the system is systemically coherent and fairly allocating educational opportunity (which is doesn’t), differences—or inequalities—in the quality of the system’s outputs?
It has long been known that differential school outcomes are rooted in class biases and racial and ethnic inequities. Since at least the 1960s Coleman Report and the work of Christopher Jencks, it has been known that the most important factors in a child’s educational achievement are those extant in the communities in which schools are embedded. No, this is not a cultural deficit theory (though the Fordham report locates the origin in “students’ primary deficits” on which “perhaps a school improvement plan” might focus); it is an observation of phenomenon associated with racial and social class politics in a society built upon a dual class structure. Concentrated poverty, communities resembling expansive prison yards, rampant police brutality and quite palpable intra-racial violence, family upheaval (1 in 3 young black men are living under some arm of the pervasive prison-industrial complex), unimaginable rates of unemployment (even before the market crisis), and decades of political and economic disinvestment—these contextual dynamics hardly contribute to the conditions in which young children and youth develop the sorts of cultural capital and “readiness” schools demand and legitimate. But, this, of course, is only one band, or nest, of inequality.
Jennifer L. Hochschild points to the nested nature of inequalities. As she notes, these inequalities depend on the region and state in which one lives, but nested inside these are the intra-state inequities across districts, within districts, within schools, and within classrooms.7 For example, “The nation as a whole spent about $7,080 per student in 2001.”8 However, New Jersey spent $9,360, while Utah spent only $4,580.8 These gaps in allocations between states are also reflected, if not magnified, within states. Per pupil allocations in the Detroit area have narrowed over the past decade, but still ranged in 2002-2003 from $9,576 in Detroit Public Schools to $12,825, just 20 miles away, in Bloomfield Hills.9 Greater disparities can be seen in the metropolitan Philadelphia area schools. Philadelphia Public Schools spent on average $9,299, while nearby Lower Merion spent $17,261 per student in 2003.10 As can be shown across metropolitan areas in the U.S., the least valued schools and students, judging from the price tags we put on students’ heads, are consistently those schools that are constituted primarily by poor,11 African Americans and Latinos.12
These allocation disparities bleed into the explicit and hidden curricula of schools, the so-called text of the school most closely associated with racial disproportionality in discipline and exclusion and a pedagogical climate where the emphasis is put on fear and punishment, not learning and achievement. Under-funded urban (and rural) schools generally have less-qualified teachers than their well-funded suburban counterparts, and they also have larger class sizes with higher student-teacher ratios, substandard or outdated explicit curriculum materials, faulty infrastructure, and overly regimented discipline philosophies and practices. They also have more police, school security officers and surveillance equipment, and disproportionately higher rates of exclusions.13 Accordingly, the idea is to test some students from schools and communities in which almost every message tells them they are already successes, and have them compete with students from schools and communities in which almost every message tells them they are suspects. None of this was controlled for in the Fordham report. All of this, of course, occurs in a national context of rapidly increasing socioeconomic disparity.
Clearly, there is a problem here. But that problem is neither the No Child Left Behind Act alone that obviously aggravates and intensifies the problem nor the lack of national standards. Rather, the problem resides in the uneven social conditions and contexts within which each child and school is embedded. And national standards will not repair this problem; only when those initial conditions are equalized will we be able to approximate equal outcomes because of the innate variability of students.
To visualize how this might work, a brief examination of the material reported in “The Accountability Illusion” is warranted. The report is based on two samples of elementary (26 states) and middle schools (28 states) that were created in order to compare cut scores and Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Data were compiled for the following variables: student performance (average difference between student performance and median performance for their grade), income level (based on proportion of free or reduce-price lunches), and student growth (a comparison of fall and spring term student scores relative to average growth for students starting with the same scale score in that grade). The conclusion? Meeting AYP depends—to a great extent—upon which state one is in due to different state requirements for AYP, Annual Measurable Objectives (AMO), the use of statistical confidence intervals related to actual cut scores, and requirements to report performance of different minimum size sub-groups (e.g., race, special needs, Limited English Proficiency (LEP), etc.). To reiterate, however, even though the report only calls for creating “incentives for states to sign on to common standards and tests,”14 establishing national standards will intensify rather than solve the problem unless initial conditions are also standardized.
We do not support standardized outcomes and tests for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the people and systems to which they need be applied are too complex, standardized tests do not adequately discern what students have learned and what they can do, and they are of little use in finding out if students are approaching the ubiquitous “adult outcomes,” which are mostly affective and related to citizenship. As Guinier puts it, “there are fundamental flaws in the over-reliance on these supposedly objective indicators of merit. This approach positions poor people and people of color as the problem rather than problematizing the ways we measure merit in the first place.”15 Given the long history of criticism of standardized tests regarding their tendency to measure cultural capital, rather than intellectual capacity, we should take pause at recommendations to nationalize such a system of “accountability,” especially if we are not adequately informed of what is being measured, under what conditions, and in whose interests.
Nonetheless, assuming we had national standards and tests (though we would apply the following critique to the current situation with state standardization and tests, too), we could begin by extending an illustration utilized by the authors of the report, namely, the difference in difficulty of the objective when one expects a golfer to make a two-foot putt or when one expects a golfer to make 100 of the same putts in a row.16
While there are a few other sports and games in which adjustments are made to enable participants of different proficiency to play on a relatively level playing field with or against each other, golf handicapping is probably the most developed, and certainly the most widespread, of these systems. In golf, each player may establish a handicap index (negative or positive) based on experience and ability that, when put in the context of the difficulty rating of a particular course, enables golfers to play against each other with an expectation that the final, handicapped scores may be comparable and the actual outcome of the match (potentially) literally up in the air until the final putt has been made.17
If we were to extend this illustration further, we can see that an educational handicapping index might be calculated for each student by considering (minimally) the following: a student proficiency index, a student context index (we might also, here, consider moving away from age graded classrooms or incorporate this into the index), a school resource index, a community context index, a teacher quality index, and a course difficulty index, etc. Then, when we compared two students, or two schools, etc., we would first enter the appropriate handicapping index (which might be negative or positive) in order to be able to make legitimate comparisons. Of course, we are not proposing this as we are immediately bothered by both the bureaucratic nightmare that would ensue and the potential misuse to which such detailed surveillance data might lead.
Proposals to use some “value added” accountability system in schools have already been made,18 and, as we noted above, the complexity of such an undertaking would effectively prohibit implementation. Further, “value added” models are little more than window dressing on punitive accountability models; “value added,” for instance, is being considered seriously by stakeholders in higher education as a consequence of the 2006 “Spellings Report which argued that one college choice should be tantamount to selecting a car.”19 So, in this instance, how will schools be held “accountable” if they fail to demonstrate adequate “value-added” scores? Will the government, like it does in the case of NCLB when it punishes schools for failing to meet AYP, withhold monies for grants and student grants-in-aid packages from schools that fall short of value-added targets? To have somewhat legitimate methods for comparing different universities, won’t this inevitably lead to the standardization of curriculum? What schools, given the political economy of higher education, will be most likely to ultimately resort to drill-and-grill pedagogies to be successful on value-added measures and what schools will likely be able to continue offering critical and exploratory forms of pedagogy? Importantly, such a view of the purposes of schooling assumes that learning is, or should be, completely controllable. This further entrenches a fixed notion of knowledge (and culture). So, in this case, whose or what knowledge, operating in whose interests and to what effects, will be legitimated and controlled for? As sociologists of education, notably Pierre Bourdieu, demonstrated in the 1970s, controlling for knowledge acquisition and production is a powerful mechanism for guarding and reinforcing social class boundaries by making school knowledge (a fortiori, the knowledge deemed valuable by the ruling classes) seem “neutral” and the processes that control for those who have access to that knowledge “objective.”20
If we want to talk seriously about educational achievement in the U.S., we need to talk simultaneously, and very seriously, about the damaged state of democracy in the U.S. How can we talk about achievement as if it occurs in a vacuum without the requisite need for equity? How can we talk about accountability while eliding social responsibility? If we are concerned, as a society, about education and its relationship to both the economy and public life, why are federal allocations to education generally ten times less for education than they are for the military, at the same time many schools at all levels are expected to assume a more militarized relationship to knowledge and knowledge production? We should focus on standardizing the conditions before we can even hope to expect standard outcomes. The authors of “The Accountability Illusion” note that most families aspire to college readiness for the children and this might be the goal to which national standards are set. For them, college readiness should be the bar: “We believe students would be better served by a model that focuses on how effective schools are in promoting student growth.”21 If the Fordham bar were set, then an appropriate measure of proficiency would be growth toward that bar. While college readiness is an important issue, what about the concomitant need for parents and students to be able to pay for college? Would college readiness encompass the civic and social competencies individuals need to navigate the unpredictable and volatile social, political, and economic landscape of contemporary society? While individuals might have sound numeracy and technical literacy skills, does this necessarily mean that they can use these skills for self- and social development in the public interest?
While we are certain in our suspicions that the Fordham Institute and its supporters would be exceedingly unwilling to fund the requisite conditions for standard outcomes, with the Fordham bar, one could only affect a legitimately comparable measure of progress toward college readiness by using a handicapping index for each student. But, as we have already noted, this would not be enough. Revisiting Hochschild, as well as Berliner, we can see that this also would entail (minimally) ensuring standard conditions of such factors as eliminating disparities in school funding, providing resources to eliminate the social, health, and other problems with which poor children arrive at school, redistributing teaching staff, implementing clear higher-order learning standards, eliminating detrimental ability grouping, and redrawing school boundaries to ensure a broad and diverse mix of all students in all schools. In addition, we would add a need to control for local costs of living in addressing many of these conditions,
In sum, “The Accountability Illusion,” if it contributes anything positive to the discussion on school reform, points to the vacuity of our contemporary social imagination. And it does so by drawing our attention to the futility of standardizing standards without also standardizing provision of healthcare, resources, and community development. By focusing on groups (and sub-groups) in their analysis and expecting individuals qua individuals to make up for socioeconomic differences, the authors misdirect our attention, expecting that we too, like the audience experiencing prestidigitation, are entertained. We are neither amused nor entertained given that our children experience daily the abuse imposed on them by practices condoned, expected, and ensured under the current NCLB framework. Yes, let us expect accountability and let us ensure that it may occur.
- Thomas B. Fordham Institute, “The Accountability Illusion.” (February 19, 2009). [↩]
- Rebecca Parrish, “The Meritocracy Myth: A Dollars & Sense interview with Lani Guinier.” Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, 263 (Jan/Feb). [↩]
- It is of more than passing interest to note that the only source we can seem to find for this quotation is on Fordham Institute affiliate sites (e.g.) as well as in press releases issued by the Fordham institute (e.g. [↩]
- David C. Berliner recently argued that there are seven out-of-school variables that need to be addressed if educational achievement (and gaps in it) is to be addressed. These range from provision of pre-natal care and reducing low-birth weight and “other non-genetic prenatal influences on children” to mitigating family stress and providing “extended learning opportunities” like pre-school and summer educational programming. See David C. Berliner, Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success, Education and the Public Interest Center, (Boulder, CO: School of Education, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2009). [↩]
- These statistics come from Nationmaster, available here and here. [↩]
- See Carmen DeNava-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Cheryl Hill Lee, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2005, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, 2006), p.25. See “Gaps in Vaccine Financing for Underinsured Children,” The Center for Health and Health Care in Schools (2007). [↩]
- Jennifer Hochschild, “Social Class in Public Schools,” Journal of Social Issues 59(4), 821-840. [↩]
- Ibid. p.828. [↩] [↩]
- See Jonathan Kozol, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, (NY: Crown, 2005), p.322. [↩]
- See Jonathan Kozol, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, (NY: Crown, 2005), p.322 [↩]
- We note with utter dismay that (2006 figures) 16.9% of all children in the U.S. under the age of 18 live below the poverty level. For White and Asian and Pacific Islander children these percentages (13.6% and 12%, respectively) are significantly lower than those for Black (33%) and Hispanic (26.6%) children. [↩]
- Detroit Public Schools is 95% African American and Hispanic and 59% poor, while Bloomfield Hills is 92% white and other and 2% poor (p.322). Chicago Public Schools is 87% African American and Hispanic and 85% poor, while Highland Park and Deerfield are 90% white and other and 8% poor; Chicago Public spent about $8500 per student, while Highland Park and Deerfield spent about $17,291 per student in 2003 (See Kozol, 2005, p.321). [↩]
- Michael Eskenazi, Gillian Eddins, and John M. Beam (2003) detail these relationships with devastating clarity in their study Equity or Exclusion: The Dynamics of Resources, Demographics, and Student Behavior in New York City Public Schools. They found that poor, African American and Latino students are subjected disproportionately to exclusion in New York State. This is partly the consequence of their high concentration in New York City Public Schools, as opposed to being dispersed and integrated across suburban districts in New York. However, the concentration of African American and Latino students in urban schools is also propounded by unequal resource allocation—or the nested inequalities–between suburban and urban schools in New York and, in some instances, between schools in New York City Public Schools. They also found, with some high levels of significance, that sound infrastructure and “softer” variables like quality libraries, functioning computer systems and adequate curricular materials are not only wanting in New York City Public Schools, while they are near givens in suburban districts, but also tied to higher rates of student exclusion and/or mis-identification for special education services. As Eskenazi, Eddins, and Beam and others consistently demonstrate, these factors produce conditions in which disruptive behaviors not only are more likely to occur, but also in which (under-qualified) school professionals have more difficulty in resolving the behaviors because they are strapped for hard variables–like money–and soft variables like adequate training and experience and, importantly, wider senses of control over time and curriculum. For New York City students, the paucity of resources, both in terms of competent professionals and learning materials, is compounded by a school police force of over 4600 and a city-wide policy (Safe Schools Against Violence in Education Act 2000) that permits teachers and school officers to exclude students for up to four days without administrative oversight—which eliminates the prospects for due process—and it does nothing to resolve the conditions that are promoting “disruptive” student behaviors in the first place, if they are, in fact, even disruptive. [↩]
- Thomas B. Fordham Institute, p.9. op.cit. [↩]
- Guinier in Parrish, op.cit. [↩]
- Thomas B. Fordham Institute, p.23. op.cit. [↩]
- Our thanks to Michael Bretting for clarifying for us how golf handicapping works. [↩]
- These include the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 2008 and Jefferson County Schools in Kentucky, 2003. See also “Value-Added Assessment: An Accountability Revolution.” In Marci Kanstoroom and Chester E. Finn, Jr. (Eds.), Better Teachers, Better Schools. (Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, 1999) and Richard J. Murnane, “Improving the Education of Children Living in Poverty.” (The Future of Children 17.2 (2007) 161-182). Also available here. [↩]
- The archived version of the report in which it is noted “speaker sometimes deviates from text” is located here. The text as archived: “We live in the “Information Age.” If you want to buy a new car, you go online and compare a full range of models, makes, and pricing options. And when you’re done you’ll know everything from how well each car holds its value down to wheel size and number of cup-holders. The same transparency and ease should be the case when students and families shop for colleges, especially when one year of college can cost a lot more than a car!” Washington Post (26 Sep 06) reports the delivery of the text thus: “Her overarching theme is to make everything about college _ choosing one, affording one, succeeding in one _ easier for families. Parents should be able to shop for a college as simply as they shop for a car, she said, with a clear expectation of what they will get.” [↩]
- See Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, Reproduction in Society, Education and Culture, (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1977). See also Michael Apple, Ideology and Curriculum, (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979) and Henry A. Giroux, Ideology, Culture, and the Process of Schooling, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981). [↩]
- Thomas B. Fordham Institute, op.cit. p.48. [↩]