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From the Principal Files

Has Accountability
Taken All the Fun
Out of Teaching and Learning?

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Does the accountability movement in schools force teachers to spend more time teaching to the test? Does the emphasis on testing take all the fun out of teaching? Education World's Principal Files principals share their thoughts about the impact of standards and testing on classroom teachers and students.

Standards. Accountability. Testing. Those things are serious business -- on that point most educators would agree. Has the emphasis on accountability had an overall negative impact on teachers and students, however? Has it taken all the fun out of teaching and learning?

It has, if you believe Gail Collins. In a recent New York Times editorial, Collins wrote about a hurricane unit once taught at a Scarsdale middle school. Students loved that unit, which involved them in tracking storms online. The state doesn't test eighth graders about hurricanes, though, so the school dumped the unit.

"School is not about hands-on learning -- it's about how to take tests," one teacher commented. New York City school chancellor Harold Levy told Collins, "Creative teachers hate [testing]. And bad teachers need it."

Testing "is a way of dumbing down the teaching profession, making the job simpler for the instructors who are struggling and making it simultaneously stressful and boring for the people who are capable of working at a much higher level," concluded Collins.

Are Collins's comments right on the mark, or does she overstate the case? Can teaching and learning still be fun in an environment that emphasizes testing and accountability? This month, Education World asked the Principal Files principals what they think.

ACCOUNTABILITY NEED NOT STIFLE CREATIVITY

"I believe we can have accountability, testing, and high standards and still have fun at school," principal Les Potter tells Education World. "We just have to be more creative."

Creative teachers who inspire kids to learn will get the expected test results, agrees principal Mary Ellen Imbo. She recalls when the state of Oklahoma introduced its annual PASS (Priority Academic Student Skills) tests. The tests didn't stop her fifth-grade teachers from having fun, Imbo says. Those teachers teamed up and brainstormed ways to achieve the goals that testing imposed. Content teachers worked with art, music, and physical education teachers. They created integrated units, such as a colonial fair to meet their colonial period objectives and a re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg to meet their Civil War objective. The teachers even went for special training in a hands-on algebra technique to help them teach the problem-solving components of PASS.

"I fully understand that creative teachers feel stifled by testing," Imbo explains to Education World. However, the teachers at her school put on their thinking caps and came up with creative solutions. "They had to," she says, "because 83 percent of parents surveyed by the Association of American Publishers want testing. Testing is here to stay."

The importance of brainstorming and getting creative was reinforced for Imbo when she attended a technology conference in 1996. The Japanese secretary of education was one of the conference speakers. "He said that Japan aggressively recruits Americans because our schools foster creativity," says Imbo. "I hope we never lose that quality. If all we do is teach to the test, we will."


ACCOUNTABILITY IS NOT A BAD THING

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Les Potter has been an educator for 31 years. Never before has he seen such an all-out emphasis on accountability. However, raising the bar -- creating tougher standards and testing for achievement -- isn't necessarily a bad thing, says Potter.

"I remember my days as a coach, when athletes took the fewest academic courses possible to keep them eligible to play," Potter tells Education World. "When they were ready for college, they went to a community college or a lower-tier college. Worse, I saw many non-athletes who were unprepared for the rigors of college or work because of the weak graduation requirements."

"Standards and accountability take the fun out of teaching only if we choose to focus on all the reasons they might be wrong," adds principal Norma Chenevert.

"Educators have to stop providing all the reasons something won't work," Chenevert states. "We are supposed to model what we expect of our young people. We should not be modeling problems. Instead, we should be modeling teamwork, brainstorming, hands-on learning, critical thinking, and problem solving. If we use those techniques to solve the testing and accountability dilemma, then we will model what we expect of our students."

The movement toward tougher standards and testing can challenge good teachers to find new ways to do it even better, administrator Lyn McCarty tells Education World. "Standards do not have the power to make teaching joyless," McCarty adds. "Good teachers have always been able to lead students to the threshold of their own wisdom, whether they were teaching Spanish, dance, hurricanes, or hexagons. ... The joy is in teaching people to think. A good teacher can do that with a Chilton's Auto Manual for a scope and sequence!"

McCarty feels that the stress on accountability will increase scrutiny on the classrooms of marginal teachers. The changes that result from that scrutiny, and the support that those teachers will get to improve, will likely take the form of new and better teaching that might make the job of teaching "wonderful in new ways."


GO AHEAD -- HOLD ME ACCOUNTABLE -- BUT...

Principal Bill Myers's son is a quality-control supervisor for a large corporation. In that role, the young Myers rejects supplies his company purchases that don't meet minimum standards, his father explains.

"How many teachers and administrators would leap for joy if every student who entered the door had to meet minimum standards?" Myers wonders. "How about if every student came to school each day from a loving household, having eaten a nutritious breakfast, being able to read since pre-school, and understanding the value of education?

"Most people, presidents, senators, representatives, governors, state legislators, and other public-policy people truly do not understand the act of teaching," Myers continues. "Please hold me accountable. Set high standards. I'm not afraid. Just make sure you know what you're doing.

"Testing is not teaching!" Myers concludes. "The more testing we do, the more instructional time we lose. When Illinois students take the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests, they receive feedback only on their scores. They don't even learn what questions they missed or what the correct answers were. What does that teach them? How does that help them learn?"

Mary Ellen Imbo agrees. When it comes to testing, the bottom line is that testing and learning are not synonymous, she tells Education World.

"If teachers are doing effective teaching, and learning is taking place in such a way that kids are really engaged and excited, good test results will follow," maintains principal Judy Burt. Burt and her staff evaluate each year's test results. They target the weakest areas for school-wide emphasis. The real bottom line, Burt adds, is that "we try to do the best we can for the kids as young human beings. If that means spending more time on interpersonal relationships and the arts, then so be it. The students will be happier and more able to learn if there is a joy and friendship in their lives."

"I am not going to get my guts in an uproar over testing," Burt states.


DID EDUCATORS BRING ON ACCOUNTABILITY?

Could it be that the current emphasis on accountability is something educators brought on themselves? Is it just the inevitable extension of approaches that have proved successful in business and government?

High-Stakes Testing: A Call to Action

The Alliance for Childhood issued a statement regarding high-stakes testing. Following are a few points from that statement:
* The massive [testing] experiment, intended to raise educational achievement, is based on misconceptions about the nature and value of testing and about how children develop a true love of learning.
* We know a great deal about the kinds of schools and assessment practices that best support children's learning. The proliferation of standardized tests places those schools and practices at risk.
* Research suggests that the increased emphasis on standardized testing contributes to the flight of good teachers from public schools.
* Children in low-income areas, where test scores are lowest for reasons mostly unrelated to the quality or dedication of the teachers, have the most to lose. Their teachers are the ones most likely to be branded as failures by high-stakes testing policies.
* Standardized testing may harm children's health by causing excessive test anxiety and stress.

We can be our own worst enemies, principal Walter Lutz tells Education World. "As I reflect back over the past 35 years, I can clearly state that we have done very little to validate exactly what we have accomplished. In many states, we have demanded and gained substantial salary increases, but we have done next to nothing to validate what we have done within our classrooms."

Missouri principal Lolli Haws supports that contention. "Educators and school leaders have not always done a good job of using data -- all types of data -- well. We have not used the excellent information we have to demonstrate that what we're doing is good for kids, that they are learning, and that schools are doing their jobs.

"Because we haven't shown good measures of accountability, we are in a terrible conundrum of having external sources -- usually legislatures and the public they represent -- insist on accountability and actually present educators with the data collection and analysis that they have derived," Haws explains.

"We must become more adept at collecting data to document and prove our excellence," adds Haws. "We also have to make a public case against using a single test as the measure of a child's growth, a school's effectiveness, or a district's quality."

Accountability is not new to the education community, principal Norma Chenevert says. "What is wrong with asking for accountability or a means of assessing it? We are the largest business in our country, and we should be held accountable for achieving what we set as goals.

"We have a lot of flexibility in how we use accountability," Chenevert continues. "Let's move on to finding the best way to do it!"

A SINGLE, HIGH-STAKES TEST IS NOT THE ANSWER

"Most colleges, universities, and businesses want schools to prepare students who can think critically, solve problems, and apply knowledge to a variety of situations," says principal Jim Jordan. "Policy makers, on the other hand, have decided that high-stakes tests provide the measure of a school's ability to prepare students to do those things.

"Teaching students to take tests will make them good test takers, but will it prepare them to be meaningful contributors to the future success of our nation?" Jordan continues.

Many of Education World's Principal Files principals agree with Jordan. Standardized tests don't test a student's ability to classify, hypothesize, generalize, or synthesize. In addition, tests often underestimate the true abilities of students who are not good test takers or overestimate the skills of students who memorize easily but who don't understand.

"It amazes me that there is so much confusion regarding accountability and high-stakes testing," Jordan adds. "Most educators are not opposed to being held accountable as long as everyone who has a role in education is held equally accountable. When communities set high expectations, outline appropriate support strategies, and properly fund the initiatives, we usually see improvement.

"The problem is the incongruence between expectations and accountability measures," Jordan concludes. "Can we evaluate with a paper and pencil test? I think not. Can educators develop better ways of assessing student and school performance? I think so."

Jordan wonders though: Will educators have the opportunity to sell the community at large on better assessment tools? "Probably not," he tells Education World. "Most politicians feel they are experts on schooling because they once attended one. I have attended legislative sessions. Does that make me a legislator?"

Contributors to This Article

The following principals contributed to this Education World article:
  • Judith S. Burt, Walton Ferry Elementary School,
    Hendersonville, Tennessee
  • Norma G. Chenevert, Pittsburg School,
    Pittsburg, New Hampshire
  • Dr. Lolli Haws, Avery Elementary School,
    Webster Groves, Missouri
  • Mary Ellen Imbo, Westwood Elementary School,
    Broken Arrow, Oklahoma (retired)
  • Dr. James W. Jordan, Buford High School,
    Lancaster, South Carolina
  • Walter J. Lutz, Berwick Middle School,
    Berwick, Pennsylvania
  • Lyn McCarty, coordinator of special education services,
    Sacramento, California
  • Bill Myers, Lincoln Elementary School,
    Sterling, Illinois
  • Dr. Les Potter, Silver Sands Middle School,
    Port Orange, Florida

Would you like to have an opportunity to contribute to an Education World Principal Files article? Click here to learn how.

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