Came across two very different journalistic takes on the impact of accountability, on different sides of the country. This piece in the San Diego Union-Tribune focuses on a junior high school principal in National City who pushes, pushes, pushes academic achievement and student as well as teacher accountability. Principal Susan Mitchell requires students getting D and F grades to stay for mandatory study hall and extra tutoring. Remedial math classes have all but disappeared, replaced by algebra and geometry. The article created some traffic on The Education Wonks website, with a teacher writing in to say that “at the California junior high school where I teach, we cannot even require that students stay after school for remedial help. We can however detain them for up to an hour after school for disciplinary reasons.” A teacher from the school featured in the newspaper report also commented here that the changes have been dramatic. “I’ve personally seen a twenty-fold increase in homework production and quality from students, and that can be directly correlated back to Mrs. Mitchell’s after school tutoring program. Changing fifty years of working a certain way, fifty years of slow, grinding progress (if at all) has not been easy for either Mrs. Mitchell or the staff. Parents, who pay us, are only concerned with one thing: their children learning. Granger students are more focused on academics than at any other time in my five years of teaching here.” One is left with the impression that, while the press for performance has made some teachers uncomfortable, it’s making a difference for kids.
The Pittsburgh Post-Dispatch’s Amy McConnell Schaarsmith on Tuesday concluded a beautifully written three-part series that focuses much attention on the lives of fifth graders whose school is facing interventions as a result of several years of poor performance. She shows in great detail the obstacles they face outside the school—the effects of generations of poverty, family disintegration, substance abuse, street violence. The parents of these children want them to succeed and they know what’s at stake if they don’t. And the school is clearly worried. “There’s nobody here who can say they left a stone unturned,” principal Martin Slomberg says. “I did all I could do. Teachers did all they could do. Students did all they could do.”
I was left wondering, though, what has the district done to improve the school? Has the curriculum changed to better fit the standards of the test? I was left with the impression, here, that accountability and testing has done more harm than good and that, no matter how hard the school tries, it won’t be able to counteract the social forces arrayed against it.
Guestblogger Richard Lee Colvin, Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, Teachers College, Columbia University