Back in 2008, in response to an open call, I wrote this piece I titled We Have It Backwards: Accountability vs. Responsibility. The most read piece I've written for Open Salon, I make the point that the language of accountability, that teachers and students are held accountable to politicians, is precisely the opposite of what school should be about, that if we were serious about improving education in the United States we would insist on the language of responsibility, the language that puts the needs of teachers and students above the needs of politicians to collect numbers, which is what standardized testing is all about. I wrote that standardized tests teach nothing but fear and conformity. Our culture of educational accountability, and the testing fetish it enables, damages our children, and it should have no place in education.
My assertions, it would seem, have been supported by recent revelations from Finland, which has built one of the best education systems in the world with its emphasis on responsibilty and an almost complete disregard, a shunning, of standardized testing. David Sirota deserves praise for bringing this important issue to Salon.com's audience in his interview of Harvard educational researcher Tony Wagner. Wagner narrates the new documentary film "The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World's Most Surprising School System" and Sirota's interview of Wagner is a must read for those of us who would like to see America's education system put the needs of teachers and students above the needs of politicians.
Wagner asserts that Finland's emphasis on respecting teachers as professionals has yielded amazingly positive results for both teachers and students in Finland, and he contrasts that emphasis on responsibility with the United States, claiming that the professionalism of teaching in the U.S. is downright "medieval" by comparison. Teachers in the U.S. are isolated and have few opportunities for collaboration and professional development. Add to that the emphasis on standardized testing, (which seems to be the politician's only answer to our educational failures), and the rhetoric that demonizes teachers as overprivileged charlatans, (rhetoric that comes from both the right and left; Wagner emphasized that Finland has a strong bipartisan consensus that emphasizes responibility, or the dogged support of teachers), and we have the only result we could possibly have, an educational system that fails to prepare students, fails to nurture students, fails to elevate students. Our education system in the Unites States is a dismal failure.
Sadly, depressingly, Wagner believes that the changes needed to improve our educational system in the U.S. will take "generations" to be realized, if they are realized at all, and given that President Obama’s Department of Education, in what can only be called a shameful continuation of President Bush's language of accountability, is calling for the testing of four year olds, (yes, you read that right, the standardized testing of four year olds) it is hard to be anything but pessimistic with regard to American education.
And the real shame is that generations of children will suffer. Something should be done, immediately. When the language of accountability is trotted out by the likes of the President, he should be rebuffed with extreme prejudice. Responsibility, responsibility, responsibility is the word that should be chanted until it is finally heard in Washington. And further, standardized testing should be ended now, right now, as this new school year approaches. Those students should be liberated from the big test. It won’t happen, of course, but it should. It is that important, that critical. Parents, teachers, and students, should rise up and demand change, now, because that is what our children deserve. They deserve a world-class education, and they deserve that politicians be held accountable to them, not the other way around.
As I ended my last piece about this topic: Accountability goes up. Responsibility goes down. We have it upside down. We have it backwards.
Our children deserve better.