The Chicago teacher strike may officially be about salaries, benefits, and procedures because of the city law that stipulates that these can be the only grounds for a strike, but it is more deeply about so much more. As Karen Lewis, president of the CTU, so powerfully points out, it is about the attack on public schools that has gone on for years under the cover of the concept of accountability. In an interview on Democracy Now, she put it bluntly: “The idea of the market approach for public education tramples on democracy.”
In the world of public education, the word “accountability” has come to strictly mean the results of student scores on standardized tests. Using the scores as a kind of currency, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation created a national system for blaming schools based on the capitalist vision of ever-expanding growth. Schools were mandated to show an Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) on the scores so that all students would test above the cut scores designated as proficient by 2014. Impossible – this has never been done. It was a set up to show the failure of public schools so that the funding for them could be diverted to charter schools, vouchers, and other privatization schemes.
At this point, the very word “accountability” has been so corrupted by its identification with blame and punishment that it constitutes a form of bullying whenever politicians utter the word. In their spin and that of most of the mainstream media, the word conjures up images of widespread school failures, lazy or uncaring teachers, a system that has been running out of control and that now needs disciplining.
From its inception in the 1980s, the modern accountability movement has operated on the unfounded assertion that our schools are not keeping our country economically competitive in the world, using the fear-inducing metaphor that our neglect of schooling has been equivalent to an act of war that might have been waged against us by a foreign power.[i] What has ensued has, in effect, been a War on Public Schools, brought to us by our own presidents, governors, and corporate executives. Like the so-called War on Drugs and War on Terrorism, initiatives have been framed around threats to our very civilization, using alarmist rhetoric and misinformation to garner public support and resources for the attack.
The so-called school reform movement that has evolved over the years has no more been about improving schools than our many imperial wars have been about making the world safe for democracy. Instead, it has been aimed at exerting centralized political power over public schools and shaping the purposes and processes of schooling to serve the interests of the corporate and military worldviews that have come to dominate our society and world.
Why this Accountability System?
It is hard these days to find any good news about our public schools. As test scores have become the only measure of school success used by the media and policymakers, what constitutes good news in the first place has been severely constrained. In the public discourse, good means that the numbers in the testing score sheet are going up; bad means the numbers are going down. Mostly and persistently, the numbers held up for us to see reveal the continuing failures of public schools. Just as increasing arrest statistics seem to tell us that crime is getting worse, so too do decreasing or stagnating test scores seem to tell us that student “achievement” is deteriorating. Numbers don’t lie, right?
Moreover, just as the country’s leaders do not question whether the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are warranted or even moral, but only whether the proper tactics are being used, so the official pronouncements about school reform never question the fundamental assumptions of the accountability system itself. It is a given that schools are failing because the scorekeeping system has told us so.
And so national and local education policymaking focus on tactics. The reauthorization of NCLB will likely abandon the automatic trigger mechanism of AYP, instead targeting the schools with the lowest 5% of test-scorers. It will also continue the priorities established in the competitive grants provided in the Race To The Top (RTTT) program: evaluating teachers by the test scores of their students, institutionalizing a national system of Common Core “voluntary” curriculum standards, and providing private market choices such as charter schools and vouchers as an escape valve for the schools found to be “failing.” The system will be redesigned to be more effective, more accurate, smarter. The technology will be upgraded. And the War on Schools will continue.
Never mind the continued well-documented casualties, in terms of real students and teachers as well as democratic values – the increasing numbers of dropouts, the narrowed curriculum, the focus on test-taking instead of thinking and problem solving, the deprofessionalization and demoralizing of teachers, the regimentation of following externally prescribed texts and tests.[ii] Collateral damage, all, in the interest of a higher purpose.