The public more and more is demanding accountability in the education sector. Egads, when someone needs to have a masters degree to effectively be a clerk as happened to a friend of mine, there is something massively wrong. When a high school graduate can’t follow the most basic manufacturing safety course there is something wrong.

These problems are widespread, and as such there are pushes all across the nation for teacher accountability. My premise is that such accountability efforts are misguided, premature, and will likely be counterproductive. Rather, the problem is a societal one, and that must be addressed first, or we shall jump the gun to the peril of the next generation

The big elephant in the room is a function of the divergent opinions as to what educational goals should be. If the end goals of education are in conflict, pretty much everything that spins out of them will be sub-par. I told one fellow on twitter, when such divergence occurs, only the least common denominator is possible, and as such it is likely to be a failure to all.

Some folks see subject mastery as the goal of education… ok, but considering that only 10% of a given class could really attain a high level of mastery in a given period of time, should 90% fail? Or perhaps we reduce the standard of mastery…but how many should fail as a result? If the standards are lowered to the least common denominator, does such really help anyone? One must also consider that some students may enter a classroom having already mastered the subject material far beyond the standards selected… and as a result, are bored to death and spinning their wheels.

One must also consider what subject mastery comprises. Is it merely the ability to do well on a standardized test? Is it the ability to parrot back canned answers via memorization? Is it the ability to understand, derive and create? All of these issues must be considered should subject mastery be a goal.

Some folks see a student’s future as the goal of education. Ie, do well in school and you will get into a good undergrad program. Do well there, and you will get into a good grad program. Do well there and you will get a good job. Of course, such falls apart in that high school graduates in some cases have better jobs than PhD’s, being there are so few jobs in the PhD area. Also, most students with a BSEE will do better financially than those with a PhD in biochemistry, until perhaps the later years of their careers. Unintended consequences of the student’s future potential goal include cheating, student whining, whining parents, grade inflation, degree deflation, and/or social promotion.

Some see the development of lifetime learning as the goal of education. The idea being to take even the smallest spark of interest, and fan it into a flame, and that such is possible for all students. It may in some cases mean that mastery of a subject area may take much longer for some, and much less for others… but timing is not so much an issue as it is that such is occurring. By the same token, such an approach is perhaps the hardest one to measure.

Some see the development of a student’s potential as a goal of education. They understand that some will excel in one area, and not so well in others. The view is that if a student is given the opportunity and encouraged to put in equal effort in any number of areas, the student, as well as society will receive the greatest benefit. Such of course creates huge disparities in the amount and type of resources required.

Being that resources are constrained, some see equal distribution of educational resources to be the goal of education. The idea being that while a given student may not live up to their own potential, they at least get a bit of a push. Also, that some students who need a lot more help will not get it, they too get at least a bit of direction.

Some folks see student seat time as a goal of education. Ie, the more time that is put in, the more varied the experience, the greater potential for understanding. Such is common in the professions of aviation, law, and medicine. Its also possible, that if enough seat time and variation is presented, sooner or later a spark for learning will develop. It should also be considered that some students need extended time for percolation and reflection in contrast with others. A cynical view is that if a student is compelled to be in a seat at school, they are less likely to be creating havoc outside of it, and/or costing parents money.

Some folks see education as a way to get rich and/or increase ones power, and as a side issue to also better individuals and society. The idea being that if they can skim off a bit of the financial or physical resources through a long term proprietary economic lock-in, they will be in good shape for years to come. While such is admittedly a cynical view, it is far too realistic when one considers that only about 30% of any given states education budget goes towards classroom teacher’s compensation. Another way to view this, albeit cynically is the great emphasis on seat time and lack of cross-institutional credit transfers in post secondary ed. Such an approach inflates revenue via artificial supply limits, minimizes branding dilution, focuses power, and saves money via limiting institutional overhead.

High stake state based standardized testing is the least common denominator of many of the above goals. Its also known that each state can create their own tests and standards and that they vary widely. Next throw in the potentially huge dollars and power that are at stake and things get really messy. When one considers all the above factors, it really makes one wonder if such tests are really of any use at all education wise. It appears Campbells predictions have become all too true.

So what is the answer? Before you even think about educational accountability, it is absolutely imperative that you define what the end goal(s) are and from there, pick the appropriate tool(s). Choosing the wrong measurement tool would be like using a weigh scale to measure the length of a trailer. Yes, there will be some correlation… but its not gong to be very accurate, and in a vast majority of cases such an approach will be totally wrong. Making decisions based upon errant data will likely put us in a worse situation than we are already in. Part 2 of this series will take a closer look at misguided attempts at accountability.