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Measure This! The Accountability Sham

EDUCATION WATCH - Some days when I actually spend most of my day teaching composition and reading, I think about what a luxury it is for a teacher to be able to do that. Because so much of what we do -- what we are asked to do, required to do, compelled by our own conscience to do -- isn't exactly teaching.

You can say that everything we do is part of the job. You can say it all goes with the territory.

Most of us accept that notion and we're so used to it anyway that we don't generally waste our time on what could or should be. We accept that what is referred to as classroom management is a requirement. That many students are not entirely willing participants in their own education and if we want to make them willing -- and we can hardly teach them anything without their cooperation -- then we will most certainly have to address some underlying social or psychological baggage some of our students have dragged with them to school each day.

We might have to find a way to convince some students that they can learn. And should learn. We might have to invest ourselves emotionally in them so that they might invest in themselves. And we must protect our willing and semi-willing learners from the most recalcitrant students who, while we are trying to reach them, might otherwise sabotage instruction for everyone else.

So it can get irritating when people who don't do this work take what we do for granted. When they start saying that we need to be more accountable and mean simply that they wish to judge the quality of our teaching on the results of standardized tests.

We want to ask them if they know what a classroom is like -- if they know what our classroom is like.

In the age of so-called accountability measurements, why isn't anyone measuring the totality of what we do?

If, for example, one of us can teach students who cannot sit still for more than 10 minutes to sit still for 30 minutes and produce a coherent essay or a page of mathematical calculations, shouldn't that kind of progress be recognized?

If a teacher can teach students to express themselves without using excessive profanity or misogynistic sentiments or if a teacher can teach a student to value human life, shouldn't such an accomplishment be rewarded?

The only data anyone ever shows me are the results of those annual tests my students take -- tests they dread because of the tedium, because the questions seem to be the same ones every year (I doubt they are but the process is so mind-numbing as to suggest endless repetition).

Some of those students still manage to improve their test scores after being in my class and that might indicate that I deserve my job and my salary and maybe even some small bonus. Sometimes a student's score will decline and that is supposed to indicate a failure on my part. And maybe it is. But maybe it's not:

It recently came to my attention that one of the students from last year went from "proficient" to "basic" on her Language Arts test this past May. Those results concerned me, until I discovered that during that school year the student was the victim of two rapes and was contemplating suicide at the time she took the test. She told me that some of the literature we read and discussed and the humorous tone of our class discussions and activities contributed to her desire not to end her life. She said similar things about some of her other teachers.

Of course that isn't reflected in the data.

Shouldn't it be?

The teachers I admire don't mind attempting the seemingly impossible -- teaching beyond the curriculum if that is what the students need, reaching out to the unwilling, whatever it takes.

But we resent being measured by the empty numbers that result when politicians and test printers try to reduce our impact -- and the challenges we must overcome to make that impact -- to a flow-chart that flows from ignorance devoid of imagination.

(Larry Strauss is a veteran high school English teacher, a basketball coach and a novelist. This article was posted first at -cw

Tags: education, teachers, teaching, schools, classroom, accountability

Vol 9 Issue 79
Pub: Oct 4, 2011