Change Issues in Curriculum and Instruction/Accountability

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By Patti Horne and Frank Stonier, June 2007

The Accountability Movement

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Over the last several decades public pressure for educational improvements has grown. After newspapers featured articles of high school graduates who were unable to fill out job applications, the public outcry reached critical mass. Employers wanted assurance that a high school graduate would be literate and capable of performing the duties required in the workplace. The citizenry demanded some accountability when it came to the quality of education students were receiving in public schools. As legislators often do when there is public uproar, they drafted legislation. Suddenly, the federal government became very involved in state and local education. Along with the legislation came money and with the money came accountability measures. And so people, not necessarily trained in the field of education, began to mandate what would and should be done in classrooms. They also decided how "success" would be measured (enter high-stakes testing). As Popham concludes, we have entered into a game of high-stakes testing that we cannot win" (Popham, 12).

The most prominent of the legislative measures was the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001. It was the culmination of "standards-based reform directed at low-achieving students... and historically low performing schools" (Jennings & Rentner, 2006). A major problem with the current legislation is that it was drafted by people who are not education professionals. It seems to reason that if you want to bring about change in schools you need to hear from the people who are in the classrooms daily and understand the real issues that need to be addressed. Cuban believes that "teachers are gatekeepers to learning in schools and crucial to the growth of nearly 50 million young children and youth". A significant problem in the United States is the high proportion of underqualified and ineffective teachers teaching in schools that have high proportions of minority students and students from low socioeconomic areas (Haycock & Peske, 2006). Due to this teacher distribution, the students in the schools that need the most effective teachers do not have them. No Child Left Behind is subsequently trying to "fix" this problem by ensuring that all students meet a given set of standards. Unfortunately, unless high quality teachers are placed in the low performing schools, this is not likely to happen. Cuban further argues that "student learning still depends on what teachers do in the classrooms" (Cuban, 2007). A major obstacle to teachers is the fact that teachers are not adequately supported (due to both lack of pay and lack of classroom support)which causes them to become over stressed in their profession. Those teachers who are teaching the at-risk students have far greater challenges than just getting the students to the point that they are ready to learn. No great change in education is going to happen without the deliberate efforts of the teachers. It is essential that legislatures work with educators to draft reform measures that are seen as worthwhile and achievable. In order to do this, there needs to be active involvement with teachers. This involvement should include some actual classroom visitation time. To truly understand the obstacles that teachers face on a daily bases one must experience the daily workings of the classroom teacher. This will also allow those making financial decisions a view of the lack of educational equipment. This is especially true for the lack of modern computer technology in many of our schools. How can we keep up with the digital natives learning styles when we are denied the equipment to do so?

A study released by the Harvard Civil Rights Project ( summarizes the problems with NCLB by saying the "core of NCLB has simple but controversial accountability provisions: all schools and districts must meet all standards by 2014" (Owens & Sunderman, 2007). This system does not differentiate for the non-English students nor the special education students with IEPs or 504 plans. In addition, with so much emphasis on lower performing students, little time is left for teachers to prepare and teach lessons that challenge high ability students. The focus of NCLB is for all students to reach grade level proficiency rather than for all students to reach their academic potential. The punitive nature of the law causes many school districts to shift their focus, and funding, to those students who are not grade level proficient. For students already performing at proficiency, attention is on their intellectual maintenance rather than intellectual growth. Little attention is given to students already exceeding the goals of NCLB. It is ironic that teachers are taught how important it is to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of all learners but then the government expects all learners, regardless of abilities, to take and pass exactly the same test. This is probably one of the biggest areas of contention for classroom teachers who must administer high-stakes tests to their students.

It is not being argued here that no accountability is needed. Instead, it is suggested that perhaps we are holding the wrong people accountable for the wrong education. There is no doubt that teachers must be part of the accountability formula. What about the first and possibly most influential teachers a child will ever have, the parents? How will parents be held accountable? The problem with the current accountability system is that it makes it very easy to enter into a blame game instead of real discourse about the flaws of our educational system. Are teachers failing, are parents failing,are students failing or is it just possible that our outdated system is failing?

It could be argued that our educational system is in a state of crisis and if we choose not to be part of the solution then we continue to be part of the problem. Meanwhile, all of this debate and stagnation occurs at the educational expense of future workers who will enter an international job market of very well prepared, highly competent workers. It's time for us all to be held accountable.

sidebar—video—children against testing (

Parent and Student Accountability

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"In the best schools, where all children achieve regardless of race or class, several strategies are typically in place, including a commitment to engage parents as partners in the educational process..." (Noguera, 2007). The Parent Teacher Association (PTA) has a long history of promoting parental involvement in education. The PTA (2007) cites many benefits of parental involvement including increased student motivation and self-esteem, better academic performance, decreased absenteeism, better behavior, and increased enrollment in postesecondary education. The PTA (2007) also says that parental involvement increases teacher effectiveness and job satisfaction. Despite all the obvious benefits of parental involvement in education, at present (short of criminal neglect or abuse) a parent is only accountable for their child's education to the point of seeing that they arrive at school. Dorothy Rich (2007) stated that parents should be held accountable for helping their children become successful learners. She shared the key points that students should come to school adequately fed, rested, and in good medical condition. Students should come to school ready to learn with appropriate attitudes and behaviors for school. Also that children should come from a home that encourages and respects learning. These statements are of course coming from her experience as an educator who realizes these are all situations classroom teachers have virtually no input or control over.

How the Accountability Movement Impacts Education

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Accountability can be a valuable tool in the education system, however, it must be determined who is being held accountable for student learning. The current stance on accountability provided by our federal government is that schools and teachers should bear nearly the entire brunt of the responsibility. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has pushed teachers to be "highly qualified". This means teachers must hold at least a bachelor degree in their field and meet the full certification requirements of their prospective state. The NCLB Act gauges schools based on their performance on standardized tests (high stakes testing). President Bush during his April 24, 2007 visit to Harlem Village Academy Charter School once again is trying to renew the NCLB Act this year nearly as is, with the slight tweaks of more funding and school choice. (Kelleher, 2007, U.S. White House, 2007) Schools are held accountable through adequate yearly progress (AYP) and state proficiency tests. Owens & Sunderman (2006) shed light on some of the current NCLB school accountability policies. Through their research they show that state proficiency tests are often inflating student performance. They also point out the sanctions placed on at-risk or Title I schools that are flagged as needing improvement. Even if these schools are making improvement, if it is not enough, they are held accountable with progressively harsher financial penalties. There is also the constant concern over a single subgroup not continuing to improve causing a school to fail to meet the AYP standards.

When a school does not make AYP for five consecutive years the NCLB Act gives districts five options:

• Reopen the school as a public charter school.

• Replace all or most of school staff, including the principal.

• Enter into a contract with an entity such as a private management company with a demonstrated record of effectiveness to operate the school.

• Allow the state to take over the school.

• Engage in any other major restructuring of the school’s governance arrangement (No Child Left Behind Act, 2002).

Other concerns related to high-stakes testing include: teacher retention rates, student drop-out rates, a watered down curriculum and depriving children of the joy of learning with so much emphasis on drill and kill instruction and assessment.{11C6F967-83C9-4260-8B28-4840F4FE7724} Additionally, some feel that diverse schools are unfairly penalized because they have more subgroups that each have to make AYP. Many believe that teachers in "at risk" schools are working very hard and students are making progress. Unfortunately, NCLB has the expectation that everyone will reach a specified level at the end of the year regardless of where they started and what their limitations are.

Ironically, holding schools in poorer areas "accountable" for their students' performance often actually impedes the teachers' ability to help their at-risk students. In the first place, compliance with NCLB requires teachers to complete massive amounts of paperwork, which consumes time that the teachers might otherwise have spent improving instruction or working with individual students: "Nothing could be less efficient than this misappropriation of a teacher's energy and hours" (Kozol, 2005). Moreover, once a school becomes stigmatized as a result of its students' lower test scores, the likelihood increases that the better teachers will look for positions elsewhere, thus leaving the school in worse condition than before. Under NCLB, when a school fails to meet the required standard, students may also request to be placed elsewhere; thus the higher achieving students are also likely to leave the school. Deprived of its better students and teachers and with its funding and very existence threatened, an at-risk school has almost no chance of raising its students test scores to the required level. Finally, if a school is closed down as a result of failing to meet NCLB requirements, as recently happened to a school in Portsmouth, VA (Fernandez, 2006), nearby schools, which may already be overcrowded, could well be harmed by the influx of at-risk students whom these schools have insufficient resources to accommodate. Thus holding these schools "accountable" can ultimately penalize teachers, students, and communities alike.

Repair or Reform?

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sidebar:an interesting video about different school settings

Educators and legislators struggle with how to best bring about the necessary changes in education. Several promising reform models have been proposed. In order to help our children obtain the kind of education needed for a flattening world (Friedman, 2006), our country is going to have to make education a top priority and to do such requires a greater financial investment ( Moreover, if accountability reforms are to be meaningful, the teachers and administrators who are currently being "held accountable" for the schools' shortcomings must have some say in how policies are reformed. Currently, most policy is made at the state and federal levels; however, when these policies prove ineffective, it is not the state and federal officials who are held accountable but teachers and local administrators. Clearly, the responsible officials should be held accountable for these failed polices—not the teachers and administrators who have been excluded from the decision-making process. An in-depth discussion of reform efforts may be found at

Essay Questions

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Should parents be held accountable for their children's learning? If so, how? If not, why not?

Response: Of course parents should be held accountable for their children's learning. If not are the public school merely there as a babysitting service? Is that the big picture that the federal government should view our educational system as an educational daycare provider? Teachers are feeling the brunt of the current accountability system. Basically schools need to score well enough on the tests to appear adequate. Teachers are literally being told by their administration to "teach to the test". The administrators are doing this not out of any desire to rob students of a well rounded or challenging curriculum but out of necessity. This is a necessity for their jobs and even to keep the school open. Basically if the school doesn't perform well enough on the tests their toast. I've been at the presentation to parents on school vouchers when it looked like the school wasn't going to be able to beef up those test scores. As an educator it was a sickening prospect to think our students would be bused off to other schools because our school wasn't accredited. It questioned not only the school at large but my own competency and that of my colleagues as educators. Why were we to blame? We were all highly qualified. Some of us even had master’s degrees in our fields. Majority of our team were seasoned veterans having several decades under their belt. We hadn't given up on our students why was our district giving up on us? To bring this back on course the reason I shed this light was to show where the accountability currently lies. The teachers/administrators are the only ones really accountable for our nation's children's education. Why is that? How can a parent not even send their child to school with a meal, or proper clothes, or even allow for proper rest? I'm not even talking about homework or help with projects, I'm talking about basic human needs. I know there are situations where the poverty can be extreme but I'd bet a week's pay 90% of those households have more video games in their house than books. Parents are allowed to put their kids in a corner, plug them in, and call it a day. Today's teacher often has to serve not only as the educational facilitator but as student deprogrammer as well. I would be a gross figure to tally up the hours I waste a day trying to untrain bad habits. Sadly the old saying "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree." rings true far far too often. Can students change for the better, yes. Can parents change for the better, yes. Will they do it on their own, no. Parents must be held accountable for their children's education. Whether it be mandatory parenting classes, school service, or shoot maybe the government could offer tax breaks for parents identified (by teachers) as active in the child's learning? I don't have the answers but unfortunately the NCLB Act doesn't either. Our government needs to hold parents (and students) accountable in addition to just teachers, administrators, and schools.


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Kozol, J. (2005). The shame of the nation: The restoration of apartheid schooling in America. New York: Crown Publishers.

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