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© copyright 2013 Betsy L. Angert. BeThink

In the minutes, hours, and days after a "natural" disaster, such as the Oklahoma tornado or the recent Hurricane Sandy storm, we "assess" the damage. No one thinks that someone or ones must be held "accountable." Our hearts and minds are open to discovery.  We are able to embrace the unexpected and learn from it. We suspend disbelief and see countless causal relationships, each of which might help us assess.  This more thorough look at life, at the causes and effects does not lead us to draw spurious conclusions. Those come as a result of evaluations, a construct that is pervasive in today's education conversation. You might think the analogy a stretch, but please stay with me for at least another moment.

In our communities, parents have come to accept the narrative; we are in the eye of the storm. There is an education crisis.  Schools are a disaster. Students and Teachers are failing.  The question is do we assess the damage and learn how to improve or instead, do we lay blame?  Do we consider the countless possible causes and effects or do we arbitrarily anchor on correlations?   Immediately after a catastrophe, typically, we look around and assess the situation. This is being done in Moore, Oklahoma this evening.  It is only after calm has returned, or once we become comfortable in the new normal do we do as was done in education, evaluate, evaluate, evaluate.  Rarely if ever do we acknowledge that all we are doing is seeking affirmation for our beliefs and expectations,

Enter "accountability." In America policymakers and the people say, schools, Teachers,  and students too must be held accountable.  Even Educators articulate the meme, "take responsibility."  Do what is right.  The question is how do we determine what is "right" and by whose standards? Opinions vary.  Such is the nature of evaluations.

Evaluations quantify what occurs.  When we evaluate, we measure.   We count and calculate numbers. Look at the statistics and ultimately see little beyond gains or losses.  How many people died?  How many times has Moore been hit?  How fast were the winds moving? What about the expanse and/or intensity?  Can we actually gauge the force or fury felt when our loved one is killed or injured?  Is there a scale that weighs our heart or the joy we feel when we find a treasure we feared lost buried in the wreckage? Few of us can put a price on personal pain and pleasure. We cannot begin to imagine what another might experience.  Consider two persons in the same storm. If my home is in ruins and yours' remains standing will we assess the damage differently?  Who will be the judge or jury that evaluates our claims?

Scientists will try.  Statisticians too will look at the data.  Each will offer evidence and either could claim to be correct.  Certainly, we see this in education.  As a nation, we attempt to quantify learning, a concept so amorphic that it is invisible to the eye.

Philanthropists pour over the statistics.  At times, a notable such as Bill Gates will retract their earlier assertion.    However, before they do, experts will hold his or her opinion dear and act on it.  That is what evaluators do. An examiner, with little consideration, will seek to prove the theories that they or their client adopted.

Tornados and testing, either or each reveals nagging variables. The path and performances cannot be predicted. We can ask one of many questions, and assess countless causes and effects. Perhaps, we could begin with one. "Does School [Teacher or Student] Accountability Lead to Improved Student Performance?"

Research would say the answer is no. Innumerable assess the damage, and have, but that matters not.  Examiners, evaluators, and the entities which fund these measurements continue to favor measurements.

Imagine what might occur in Oklahoma, or in other areas if during a disaster Evaluators came in to quantify what occurred. Would we have time or an interest in making improvements or would we be busy rendering judgments and offering blame? 'The Weather Bureau did not provide adequate notice.' 'School buildings were not strong enough.' 'Safe-houses, there were not enough.'  'A lack of preparedness is liable for the deaths.''  We might conclude any and all of these are true. We can easily lay blame on one group or another, but will that help? Has placing the onus on schools, Teachers, or students helped our children or our communities?

Let us consider the findings of a thorough Report on "school accountability, the "single policy instrument did not… lead to any narrowing in the black-white achievement gap…Moreover, the black-white gap appears to have been harmed over the decade…" Likewise, let us look at an assessment authored by the Wisconsin Education Association Council in a report titled Accountability is Not Educational Reform.

The Fascination with Numbers
More than four decades ago, the distinguished philosopher, Abraham Kaplan, wrote about the mystique of quantity, which he defined as “. . . an exaggerated regard for the significance of measurement, just because it is quantitative, without regard either to what has been measured or to what can subsequently be done with the measure. [A] number is treated as having intrinsic scientific value.” To a large extent, Kaplan could have been writing about the latest advance in quantifying educational accountability.
Numbers are nice. However, numbers alone do not teach.

History does. When we assess the past authentically, we are better able to appraise every cause and effect. We can analyze the situation, survey the landscape, and do as is done well during a disaster, invite improvements.  

Realize that assessments and evaluation are not the same.  Blame?  It does not build.  Let us do more for Moore residents and the millions of learners who look to us for authentic assistance. Today, tomorrow, and after the streets in Moore, Oklahoma are cleaned up consider the circumstances, the causes, and effects of policy and practices.

Embrace the invisible, people's emotions. With respect to a tornado the possibility exists that the indistinguishable progression that is climate change contributes to what comes.  In education the possibilities too often hidden from view are many, beginning with Poverty and Hunger.  Family Dynamics too may be profound, and perhaps what hurts us most is the tendency to confuse "evaluation” and "assessment."

Please ponder ignorance is not bliss. It only "makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern." “The emotional tail wags the rational dog." (quoting Jonathan Jaidt)  Scholars too comprehend.  Evaluations are client centered and may be characterized as the emotional tail.   Assessments help us reflect and rationally consider means for improvement.  [Please refer to  Distictions Between Assessment and Marie Baehr (Vice President for Academic Affairs, Coe College).  Then ask yourself do you think the accountability strategies we as a nation have adopted serve our children well? Do we currently evaluate performances and at whose behest, or do we assess means for greater growth?   Which would we want to do and why?  Perchance, the answer  can be seen in the face s of our progeny who at best are in the midst of a daily disaster.

Save Our Students from the education storm!

References and Resources…

Originally posted to Education Alternatives on Thu May 23, 2013 at 11:56 PM PDT.

Also republished by Teachers Lounge and Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter.

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