Superintendent John Kuhn turns failure on its head

Top-down accountability labels the poorest children and their teachers as failures rather than building them up in response to their actual needs. Jon Kuhn’s view on replacing real educational opportunity with a focus on accountability is shared.

Some may be put off by Superintendant John Kuhn of Texas calling out politicians directly, and flipping the notion of “failure” on its head. But he is right, and his conviction is inspiring.  (See the VIDEO of his speech below.) His points reveal in a timely way an inconvenient truth in education and politics right now. NCLB, Race to the Top, and other policies that use high stakes tests to assign value to students, teachers and administrators do one thing really well: they create an even stronger disincentive for teaching in high needs schools than do the difficult working conditions that have always existed in underresourced schools–the imminent threat of being labelled unacceptable or ineffective by one narrow standradized test given on one day in a year, the results of which correspond more closely nation-wide to socio-economic status than any other factor. They create the same disincentive to learn for such students.

These are tests that ELL’s in NY State, who have been in the country for only one year, must take and pass, or be labelled failures, along with their teachers and schools. If your job was on the line, would you choose to work with ELL’s? (See the end of this recent post for my own story on this.) If you were an ELL, how would you feel about studying for and taking that test?  Would you want to work with students who come to middle school unable to read–if you knew that even if they improved by 3 “grade levels” (which are arbitrary designations as it is), their progress would likely not even show up on a seventh grade test, because they moved from a “kindergarten” to a “2nd grade” reading level, and this progress would be labelled unacceptable? If you were that child, would you want to come to school to prepare for that test?

The heroes, Kuhn says, are the teachers who continually choose to teach these students, despite the threats and labels (and do not take the low road of cheating). The failures, he argues, are politicians who allow the poverty to continue.

Kuhn is right when he says that we are replacing real educational opportunity with the idea of “accountability.”  It’s not that teachers do not want to be held accountable for the job of teaching.  It’s that this particular system of top-down acountability serves to systematically label the poorest children and those who teach them failures rather than building them up in response to their actual needs.  These policies also take the attention away from the politicians whose job it is to address poverty and equality, placing the onus entirely on teachers, who make an easy target.  Furthermore, through increasing teacher turnover in high poverty communities by favoring untrained itinerant teachers over experienced career teachers, these policies contribute to the instability in poor communities.  I have seen this with my own eyes so many times here in NYC.

Watch Kuhn’s speech at the Save Our School March and see what you think.