In class last week I said, during our discussion, that I didn’t have a good answer – or more specifically, I don’t have my words well organized enough – to clearly address the “accountability” question in education. These days, I find it very difficult to engage with this question well since the conversation about accountability is framed by testing and what I believe is a deficient-model approach to the situation. I can therefore only be critical within that context although I strive to also be constructive.
Diane Ravitch does a good job unpacking the various assumptions in the teacher accountability debate. And they are helpful to me to clear some of the air towards a potentially more useful path for accountability overall.
Also, I think my professional background is important here I think because it provides me a view of what is possible. I have been working with educators within a large almost 40 year old communities-of-practice network connecting K-University teachers across disciplines, and increasingly, inside and outside of school. The philosophy of this network is one of “teachers teaching teachers” and therefore grounded in a democratic vision of learning where the things that everyone brings to the table are important and vital in the mix. This impacts how professional development is approached as well as what happens in the classrooms and with youth on the ground.
My vision of what is possible is grounded in these beliefs then that we are all learners, that knowledge is something we build and construct together and that schooling is the place for us to foster democracy. This vision has also been expanded by the larger network of the Internet and what I can see was happening as the teachers I work with explored these tools with their students as well as with their colleagues. Teachers and students making, creating and ultimately, leading their own learning, together in an increasingly decentralized knowledge economy.
So, when the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative (of which my network is a part and I co-direct our DML work) came out with the principles of “Connected Learning” last March, I could see so clearly that we had, as a community, returned back to Dewey and to the traditions that I so deeply care about in considerations about learning. And there are exciting and rich conversations that get to what we mean by accountability in this arena too, from discussions about what does equity mean in a connected learning framework and how do we assess outcomes so that we can continue to grow it together.
All this while another accountability struggle has raged on various levels in the schools and on the streets. This return to Dewey is essentially happening while teachers strike in Chicago against a “neo-liberal disciplinary machine that would turn public schools into another tool of casino capitalism while destroying any vestige of the relationship between education, public values and democracy.” The irony in all this, and even some of the interconnected bedfellows, can sometimes be very confronting to me.
But this is where I have landed. And I do believe we are accountable for both what does work as well as what doesn’t in education. I am interested in being part of a movement to build more equitable public institutions of democracy and learning for all. And I am accountable for all this too. So I am asking myself, where can I find some answers and language that ties the pieces together in a way that is useful to the larger conversations, and important advocacy, happening today? This, I believe, is my current inquiry.
Taking this inquiry into our readings this week then, I found the article on Chicago’s Board of Education and taxation from the turn of the 20th century both fascinating and thought-provoking, with a new-to-me heroine Margaret Haley from the Chicago Teachers’ Federation (Taxation and Social Conflict, Marjorie Murphy). So many notes and parallels that made this think of things happening today. It took me first to Chicago and the more recent strike by teachers there and then back here to Philadelphia where the property tax battle rages on and the Philadelphia School District faces a multimillion dollar deficit and is talking about closing schools.
Post-Chicago, there are many lessons to be learned and many educators who have been collecting reflections and thoughts so I gathered together a few of these to review and share:
- Andrew Cody writes for EdWeek and is an organizer himself. He talked to several of the teachers in Chicago and asked “how did the teachers in Chicago pull off the most successful strike of the new century?”
- Sam Chaltain writes “The teachers’ strike has ended, but the teachable moment remains ripe.”
- Henry Giroux writes On the Significance of the Chicago Teachers Strike: Challenging Democracy’s Demise
- And as Bill Hangley in the Philadelphia School Notebook reports, Learning from Chicago: As charters and cuts erode teacher jobs here, Philadelphians draw lessons from the organizing successes of another big-city union.
Bill’s report, of course, brought me back here to Philadelphia, where groups like the Teacher Action Group have been working to put this learning into action through inquiry groups and coalition building with the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools around a community-based proposal for the future of our local schools.
Around all this, a schools and property tax battle is playing out here today too. Even as I was drinking coffee and browsing my twitter feed, a local teacher colleague tweeted something about how Philadelphians shouldn’t be angry about tax increases as they will fund her school. A short conversation followed with one person countering that the solution to the school situation should not be about taxes and another person agreeing with that but also adding that we should pay for what we value. I agree with both, so I spent a little time digging into this topic a little bit more, finding resources like the Philadelphia Idiots guide to Property Taxes and the City School published by the Committee of Seventy.
60% of Philadelphia’s property taxes go to the schools and the Philadelphia property taxes haven’t been re-assessed in over 10 years says the Committee of 70. I am one of those property owners, with a small house in Center City, and I know that I pay far less property tax than the potential value of my house would be if I sold it today. That is not fair and I support the movement towards property reassessment because of that.
However, there are real hardships in this and the burden of over a decade of (incompetence? deliberate avoidance? need to do more muckracking on this to find out) is hard for many, impossible for some, to absorb quickly. I’m in that position too as Center City real estate is still a high-valued market. And the rub of the situation is that the $94 million that is supposed by recouped here is being planned for to help the school district close it’s current budget gap.
What an official mess.
This made me turn to look more closely at some of the alternative plans for the schools to see if there were suggestions around the budget in particular. There are many plans that have been put forward as alternatives to the “BCG Plan” made by a hired external consulting group for the School Reform Commission (SRC) back in August. The Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools community-school proposal discusses the budget (pgs 11-15) and puts the financial responsibility squarely at the feet of the state (and the SRC), describing how they believe that with a reassessment of priorities, the district “would be enjoying a budget surplus rather than a deficit.”
The original plan by BCG has been highly criticized as relying on market-driven and anti-community solutions. Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan originally called the plan to hire BCG “cynical" (well, he called it more than that, but let’s stop on cynical for a moment) which, I would say, seems well said based on PCAPS description of the situation. The PCAPS authors write:
“… because the BCG Plan assumed that state funding would not return to pre-2011-12 levels, even with the state’s fiscal position improving, the harmful effects of the governor’s budget cuts for Philadelphia weren’t limited to just one year. Under the BCG approach, that reduced funding amount becomes the norm, and Philadelphia schools must then learn to continue operating with substantially less assistance from the state. Thus, because the BCG Plan projects ahead five years, that one-time reduction ultimately has at least a six-year impact.”
So even just stopping here, let’s look back to the accountability question. Who is accountable here?
And then, in terms of my own inquiry, what then can I specifically do about it?