Accountability and Testing: Systems of Educator Mistrust by J. Robinson

Accountability systems whether in education, business, or government are based on mistrust; a mistrust that those who are its subjects are unable to or unwilling to carry out the jobs they have been assigned. Theodore Porter, author of the book, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life, writes:

"Perhaps most crucially, reliance on numbers and quantitative manipulation minimizes the need for intimate knowledge and personal trust."

It stands to reason that when education systems, (or any governmental or business system) come to rely on accountability systems, trust is shifted from the “intimate knowledge" of individuals and their capabilities to systems of numbers and statistics that are declared by the hierarchy in the system as being both more trustworthy and representative of truth. In order words, when there’s an intense distrust that those who occupy production positions in the system, systems of accountability and audit are established in order to force the system to do what it’s designed to do. In education systems, “learning” is the object of production, so naturally accountability systems are designed to force the system, made up of administrators, teachers and students’ to “produce learning.” However, “learning” is an object of contention in the first place, with few people agreeing on what it is.

Even with the disagreement on what learning is and what learning is worthwhile, there is more contention with how to measure “learning" it in a way that accurately captures it.Accountability systems look to tests for this task. Tests are developed, one after another in a fruitless effort to measure this idea of “learning” which is actually an exercise in trying to grab water. Just when educational measurement thinks it has “grasped the learning” that it thinks is significant; it escapes through their fingers. That’s while since the dawn of the accountability era, there have been wave after wave of “new standards and new tests,” all in an effort to try to capture the elusive quarry, “learning.

But I have a novel idea, at least novel in the face of accountability and testing; if teachers are professionals, then what if we were to transform teaching back into a profession where practitioners exercise “professional judgment” to determine whether learning takes place and that the system “trust their judgment"? Teachers could once again be educated to teach and use their judgment to decide whether learning has happened, and be trusted, rather than subjected them and to the mistrust of an accountability and auditing system that fails to capture the nature of “learning” in the first place. This endless pursuit of new standards and new tests that have costs millions and billions of educational funding could be shifted to fostering more effective professional teachers and a teacher professionalization system, that avoids trying to mimic and ill-suited medico-professionalization system, to create its own, never-before-realized profession.

At its heart, we are deforming our education system with both accountability and auditing methods that inadequately define “learning” and by default, are incapable of capturing “effective teaching." The mistrust of the professional educator and “trust in numbers and quantitative manipulation” doesn’t fit the task of teaching. It’s perhaps time to stop trying to make education into the image of either business or medicine, and invent a whole new profession that remembers that teaching and learning are much too complex to reduce to numbers anyway.

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