Thursday, September 02, 2010

Redefining accountability

Yesterday I visited with Dr. Thomas James, Provost of Teachers College and as I sat in his office I found a publication describing Diane Ravitch's recent lecture there. Dr. Ravich was an early proponent of No Child Left Behind testing but then became very vocal in opposition when she became witness to its destructive effects. Now she says that testing should be used as a diagnostic tool rather than be used for ranking and for teacher and student accountability.

Under NCLB and "Race to the Top" schemes, underperforming schools have faced forced closure, and Ravitch maintains that if we were to apply that same logic to making cities crime free, "we would be firing cops and closing police stations and turning a bad situation into complete disaster." That is what we have chosen to do to some of our poorest schools. Can you see how it is quite reasonable to assume that we have become a nation of idiots?

Dr. Ravitch said we should be looking for another means of assessment. "Schools are part of the community, representing traditions, values and cultures. It's not like managing a stock portfolio, it's like managing a family."

That is exactly why the arts should be the assessment tool used in our nation's schools. As I mentioned to Dr. James yesterday, if you ask parents to come to a ball game, they have a 400 percent greater likelihood of showing up than for conference night. Standardized testing is abstract and impossible for most people, parents, teachers and administrators to understand, and we have thus done a tremendous harm to our children and our schools by making our tools of assessment distant from commonly comprehensible community values.

Diane Ravitch, in being an early proponent of testing, was sincere in her belief NCLB testing might help. That it hasn't and won't is a matter that she has honestly faced and we must as well.

So what will work? My proposal is unusual. While some like those involved in Harvard's Project Zero, are concerned with figuring out how to assess of the arts so they can compete with other separate subject areas, we are overlooking the most valuable assessment tool for achievement of quality schools. Assessment by and through the arts. The arts illustrate engagement, sincerity, attention to detail, breadth of interest, successful intellectual grasp of material, skill, and mastery of intellectual concepts and a very long list of more. An examination of a child's engagement in the arts is the one tool that parents, teachers, children and community can actually understand and relate to.

Last night my wife and daughter and I went to see Billy Elliot on Broadway. It was an incredible show. That it was about a child's engagement in the arts, his passion for ballet, is something that anyone in his right mind, hand and heart could understand.

And so what the heck are we waiting for? Chuck the reliance on standardized testing, and restore the arts. Where to begin? I propose wood shop. By crafting things from wood, the child exhibits a whole range of important skills, intelligence and character that can be easily observed without taking a college level course on statistics.


  1. I second this. (Not that a second is needed.) Restore arts curriculum and start with woodcraft.

  2. My wife and daughter believe that I won't make any progress on this issue until I get advanced degrees in education. My feeling is that we all have hands and if I can actually get people to re-examine their own relationships with learning, they will find all this to be a "no brainer." Does anyone need a Ph.D to tell them what should already be there within our grasp?

  3. Anonymous5:41 AM

    The advanced degree wouldn't add anything to the sense you're speaking, or make your message any clearer. But changing people's thinking is no easy task.


  4. Anonymous11:39 PM

    I agree with you re: advanced degrees - you're a self-motivated learner reaching out to other kindred spirits. A graduate program would accelerate that process, but not fundamentally alter it.