Holding Society Accountable

Talking to my dad on the phone today I found myself searching for words to explain my excitement about Bill de Blasio’s choice of an educator who is skeptical about the value of standardized testing as the new schools Chancellor in New York. I have strong feelings about the misuse of testing and the so-called accountability movement but why, and what do I propose? It seems important to find new ways to articulate what my experience as a teacher has led me to believe…

During the past thirteen years I have been fortunate to work in several public schools. My time in urban schools has made me familiar with scarcity, overcrowding, and buildings in disrepair. When I hear about accountability I think of the learning I have seen happen despite environments where there are holes in walls, water stains on ceilings, regular evidence of rodents, insects that run away each time someone enters a bathroom, and furniture that is falling apart.

When I hear about standards I think of teachers and students in classrooms that linger around 50 degrees in the winter and are over 90 degrees in the late spring. I think of the ways teachers are forced to compete for scarce resources and teachers who spend significant amounts of their own money in order to provide materials for their students.

As someone who has taught and known many hundreds of students I wonder who is accountable for the teenagers who arrive at school hungry and the times when a young person’s only meal of the day is an overcooked, unappealing school lunch that sits in clumps on a small styrofoam tray. I have seen students with health, dental, and psychological problems that go unaddressed because families do not have adequate access to healthcare. During winters I have known students who lived in homes without heat and others who did not have electricity for months at a time and spent their time at home using flashlights. I have seen students with clothes that were filthy and jackets that should have long ago been retired.

I wonder about the standards of being with students the morning after their families were evicted in the middle of the night and about counseling students who have arrived to school after being awake all night listening to arguments. I have had to tackle students in hallways to break up fights and have been to funerals for single parents of my students. I have talked to students who witnessed friends or members of their family shot, and learned that someone was a victim of rape days earlier and had not told anyone.

There is a crisis within our public schools. There is no test that any corporation can write that will begin to address this crisis within our society. This is a crisis of democracy and inequality. It is a crisis of scarcity and suffering within our affluent country. This is a crisis of neighborhoods, communities, and dysfunctional systems.

My vision is of schools that are oases of hope and vibrant centers of learning and caring. I believe in teaching and learning that empower people to understand themselves, analyze society, and discover the power of their own voices and actions.

To continue to spend money on standardized tests and to devote resources to finding new ways to grade schools and teachers is not just foolishness, it is ignorant the realities of public schools. There is no need for anyone else to make a profit for new methods of ranking and scapegoating those whose daily experiences are the educational and societal failures of our country. There is a need to hold our society and our leaders accountable for how badly we have gone wrong and how much change must happen to make things right.

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