We’re Completely Exceptional! Now Leave Us Alone!

Over at the AFT’s anti-NCLB blog One-L makes a revealing point. She asks whether punishment or sanctions will make teachers work harder and says that since teachers like erstwhile Eduwonk guest-blogger Alice in Eduland seem pretty intrinsically motivated, who needs ’em anyway!

Couple of things to unpack here: First, though its opponents have decided (through polling mind you it’s a perfectly rational decision) to call No Child Left Behind’s provisions “sanctions” and “punishment” and too many newspapers have obligingly parroted the phrase, it’s really a very contestable characterization.** Parents who are being given a right to choose another public school if the one they’re at isn’t getting the job done might not consider that right a “sanction” in the common usage of that phrase. Likewise, I’m concerned about NCLB’s supplemental services provisions but it’s hard to say that they’re much of a “sanction” or a ‘punishment” from the perspective of parents and students (remember them?). And, even NCLB’s more serious consequences, curricular overhaul, bringing in outside expertise, and, yes, even firing people are only “punishments” from one point of view. Frankly, saying “sanction” pretty much shows, often probably subconsciously it’s so ingrained, that you think the schools themselves are more important than the kids in them. There are legitimate arguments on both sides about the effectiveness of these various strategies but a term like “consequence” is a lot less poll-driven and a lot more even-handed.

That leads into the second point. Alice in Eduland may not need external accountability but she doesn’t shy from it either. Though One-L wants to reduce it to particular teachers, and we could argue the anecdotes back and forth all day (and there are plenty that One-L won’t want to post on the AFT’s site) this is about large scale policy for a system with millions of students and teachers. There are plenty of examples of good and bad (thankfully much more of the former) but that’s not the point. Good intentions are nice, and talking about them makes great rhetoric, but they’re not much of a public policy.

It’s easy (and fun) to call I’m Rick Hess Bit*h a bully for pointing out this uncomfortable truth about human nature, but he’s basically right. Similarly, Al Shanker unapologetically remarked that sure there are some lousy teachers, any time you have millions of anything you have some lemons. He’s right, too, and there are also lousy doctors, lawyers, journalists, and policy types. It’s a fact of life. But, right now there is less accountability education than those other fields in large part because of customer choice but also various other incentives at play. If we don’t want to use customer choice as the primary mechanism (and, in isolation, it’s a problematic mechanism in education) then other incentives aimed at forcing the system to do the right thing, are the alternative (or at least a choice – accountability hybrid).*

Right now in education the primary accountability mechanisms are on the students as many states adopt various high-stakes testing provisions (something it should be pointed out that No Child Left Behind does not require). No Child is putting to the test the proposition of whether we can actually hold the adults, who hold most of the cards in education game, accountable. But we shouldn’t stop there. States, too, have a big responsibility here and are largely let off the hook in NCLB, something that the reauthorization will hopefully consider. Accountability should be for everyone but right now it’s for about no one except the kids.

*And this is where the onus is on the AFT. It’s hard to disagree with this sentiment (is anyone really against fair assessment, rich curricula, or good professional development for teachers?) but one searches in vain for specific policy proposals that really have any teeth when it comes to the adults. Could be there is no problem there, but the evidence suggests otherwise. It’s unfair to pick on the AFT for this because asking them to address it is asking them to work against the interests of some of their members, which, despite the fact that most teachers don’t fall into the problematic camp, is still not a fair thing to do. But a keener understanding of the dynamics would likely lead to more balanced policymaking and help address the issue that way.

**Update: Here’s a good look at the word “sanction” from Dictionary.com. Bottom line, common usage is “a punitive or coercive measure or action” which, again, NCLB’s provisions are or are not depending on where you sit.

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