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Imagining accountability in the "no excuses society"

Tucked in at the end of Elizabeth Green’s Sun story about Obama’s education orientation, Obama advisor Jonathan Schnur argues that dividing education policy into two camps — those who side with the “Broader, Bolder” platform and those who prefer the Education Equality Project’s — “presents a ‘false choice.’” Philissa hinted at the same point in her post about “total schools.” The more I read posts accusing “Broader, Bolder” supporters of making excuses or “Education Equality” supporters of scapegoating schools and teachers, the more I tend to agree.

As an educator, it makes no sense to sit around and wait for society to level the playing field so that all your kids come into school healthy, prepared to learn, and fully supported at home. You see that you have kids who didn’t benefit from good prenatal care, nutrition, early childhood education, or clean air, and who face physical and developmental challenges as a result – but what are you going to do about it? You throw yourself into your teaching, and, if you’re lucky, your school comes together to tackle the other issues to the extent possible. You can work some wonders this way, but you know, deep down, that while it’s not an excuse, you could do more if the background issues were addressed.

As a policymaker evaluating schools, it makes no sense to ignore context. Set a high bar for everyone, of course – but recognize that it will take a lot more resources for some schools to achieve that than for others. If you don’t provide those resources – I’m talking small classes, rigorous, proven curriculum, recruitment, development, and retention of the best teachers, and it’s all going to take money – then you’re just setting up schools to fail.

And as a society, it makes no sense to put the whole burden on schools. I will know that our nation really wants to leave no child behind when I see a complete package of funded legislation that takes on health care (physical and mental), housing, environmental justice, early childhood education, and a host of other issues that affect the development and opportunities of our kids. “Our schools are failing,” is nothing but an excuse when the rest is left unaddressed.

To me, it looks like common sense: no excuses schools in a no excuses society.

But, as David Hoff at NCLB: Act II wrote in June, “The central question is whether policymakers should expect more from schools without those additional supports.”

How could two-way accountability actually work? If a school fails, but other services aren’t in place, schools are underfunded, and so forth, should the school still be held accountable? How could parents and educators in that school hold the government accountable for doing its part?

Are lawsuits, like the one filed in Chicago this week, the answer? As we know from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit’s decade in the courts, the law lumbers along while children grow up, go to school, and graduate (or not). And it’s hard to imagine the technical grounds for a lawsuit challenging the failure of our society to tackle poverty.

What about holding individual elected officials accountable? Voters can demand with their ballots that our politicians focus not just on what happens in schools, but on all the government services that can strengthen families and expand opportunities for kids. Another slow-moving, blunt instrument; few voters choose solely on a single issue.

Let’s move beyond the “false choice” and explore what two-way accountability could look like in practice. Anyone?

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