Everyone's accountable at school except students

March 01, 1998|By Phil Greenfield

They are the "missing link" of educational reform in Maryland.

They are eighth-graders and I've read recently that some of our Anne Arundel County Board of Education members are having a devil of a time explaining why middle school scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program aren't keeping pace with third- and fifth-graders who do substantially better on those "criterion-referenced" exams our experts have cooked up.

Allow me to unravel the mystery.

I submit that these "unsatisfactory" middle school results are being handed to us on a platter by a faulty assumption that sits at the core of Maryland's reform package. Test scores are likely to go even lower when high-schoolers begin taking "exit assessments" in a few years.

Misguided notion

The problem stems from the fundamentally misguided notion of accountability inherent in the three assertions that sum up current policies.

School systems are accountable for the performance of their students.

Individual school administrations are accountable for the performance of their students.

Teachers are accountable for the performance of their students.

And what, pray tell, are the little darlings themselves held accountable for?

Silence. Deafening, sickening, utterly dysfunctional silence.

Americans have voted by the millions to remove "blame society first" apologists from positions of political power but, rest assured, in education, they still rule. Clinging to their tired, discredited ideology of institutional guilt, they have paralyzed teachers and school administrators at just about every turn by absolving young people of the need to take responsibility for their academic and social lives.

Social promotions

Observe the disgraceful phenomenon of social promotion.

When you and I were kids, we were held accountable for mastering certain skills before we were allowed to move on. Today, parents must beg and plead for their children to be held back for a few extra months to become fully competent at their studies. Even then, the authorities say no for fear of bruising Susie's or Johnny's self-esteem.

Thus does feeling good about yourself become an entitlement owed by society, not a state of mind to be earned through toil, sweat and honest mastery. And thus are schools across the state forced to house far too many youngsters who have never been held accountable for knowing anything and have become virtually unteachable as a result.

Blaming the school when a student is absent is an idea stupid enough to beggar rational thought, but that's exactly what MSPAP does.

The program's soon-to-be-jettisoned "functional tests" currently required for high school graduation have provided only the faintest smoke screen of genuine accountability. Their intellectual content is negligible, and they can be failed repeatedly in years seven through 12 (first half) with no penalty attached: no mandatory summer school, no extra remedial classes, no nothing.

I fear that the upcoming high school exit exams are going to be too little, too late. We've sent the wrong message for too long.

Heck, the tests don't even count for real until 2002, which gives the state another half-decade to persuade the student body, however unwittingly, that the new exams are just as irrelevant to them as the old ones.

The saddest thing is that the doctrine of misplaced accountability extends far into the behavioral realm. Look no further than the shameful fate of Alice Morgan Brown, who should have been given a monogrammed armored personnel carrier and a key to the city when she tried to crack the whip at Baltimore's Northern High School a couple of months ago.

Alas, all she got was hand-wringing from her sniveling superiors, who pulled the rug out from under her attempts to establish some measure of student accountability in her beleaguered school.

'You must have order'

"To teach anything, you must have order," Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson told the Washington Post's Thomas Boswell in the aftermath of the Latrell Sprewell affair.

"To have order you must have discipline. That means rules that are enforced. But we have torn away any form of accountability for our children. People say the teachers are not dedicated. That's not true. They're afraid. Their hands are tied."

Coach Thompson is absolutely right, and I hope the voters of rTC Maryland ignore the urgings of The Sun editorialists, who have long been in the tank for MSPAP and proceed to make education a major issue in the gubernatorial campaign.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who, irony of ironies, was a college teacher before going into stadium construction full time, has plighted his troth with the present program and is stuck with it. But candidates Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a Republican, and Democrats Eileen M. Rehrmann and Raymond F. Schoenke Jr. are not.

Secretive white elephant

May they ask many hard, pointed questions about the direction public education has taken in Maryland. May they also listen once in a while to academically oriented teachers who universally loathe this secretive, expensive, jargon-ridden, white-elephant reform program that has tied their hands to such an unprecedented degree while asking so little of their students.

In the meantime, let's not be too hard on those recalcitrant eighth-graders. Unlike the elementary kids, they couldn't be bluffed. They knew they weren't going to be held accountable for the tests, so they blew them off.

Sounds to me like a first-class application of "critical thinking" skills. Maybe MSPAP is working.

Phil Greenfield has taught at Annapolis High School since 1979 and is an arts reviewer for The Sun. In the 1996-1997 school year, he was a Fulbright exchange teacher in Cambridgeshire, England.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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