Why Standards and Accountability—Done Right—Are Good for Schools, Teachers, and Kids
By John Cole
Back in the 1980s, when Texas education reform got underway, I was often asked: "Why is the teachers union supporting the new school reform law?" The 1984 law required a lot of new accountability for teachers and students, including district report cards that contained information on student test scores and a high school exit exam. I'd be asked, "Isn't it a lot easier for you all when people aren't breathing down your neck about test scores?"
A lot of teachers were also dubious of the law. They worried that it would force them into a teaching straitjacket and that it might mean that a lot of decent kids would fail classes and might not even get a high school diploma. But I have always argued that standards and accountability, combined with the support that teachers and kids would need to reach the standards, are good for public schools, teachers, and kids—especially poor kids.
Why do I think this? Let me start with two anecdotes. First: I am an avid Dallas Cowboys fan. Back in 1993, my favorite running back, Emmitt Smith, was requesting something like $13 million for a four-year contract with the Cowboys. I immediately wrote to the Cowboys and offered to serve as their running back for much less—perhaps one- tenth of that amount, even a hundredth of that amount. Amazingly, the Cowboys never responded to my generous offer. I asked myself, "Why—why do they want to pay this guy $13 million when they could get me for just $100,000?" The answer, I think, has to do with keeping score. If you don't keep score, the quality of your players really doesn't matter. In Texas football, we keep score. The Cowboys keep score. And they care about scoring well. That's obviously why they're willing to pay Emmitt Smith all that money even though they could have me practically for free.
Here's the second anecdote: To pay for college, I sold insurance for a while. In my office there were about four guys and a manager. Three of us were young kids like myself and one was this older gent who had been selling insurance forever. This guy never came to the office. He missed every staff meeting. His accounts often didn't balance, which would have been bad news for the rest of us, but not for him. If his account was $10 over, he took $10 out. If it was $10 short, he pitched $10 in. The manager treated him like he was some sort of deity. The rest of us were treated more or less in accordance with our just desserts. Why was this? Because in the insurance business there's a way of keeping score. That manager's salary was determined by the amount of insurance sold out of our office. That older gent sold more than the rest of us put together—probably twice as much. So, the manager didn't care about whether he came to staff meetings or even behaved rudely (which he often did). What the manager knew was that this was the guy who produced good paychecks. Whatever would keep that guy selling was important to the manager, the rest was trivial.
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I am a product of several decades of Texas education. I actually went through the schools here and then began teaching. And I can tell you, during all that time, no one was keeping score—or, to be more precise, no one was keeping score about matters like student achievement. And, when a school system doesn't keep score on student learning, there's not a lot of pressure for learning to improve. That means there's not a lot of pressure to pay the kinds of salaries that would attract qualified teachers. It means there's not a lot of pressure to make sure poor schools have books that aren't torn and old as dirt. It means martinet principals can focus on trivial matters like locker records instead of results.
Let's start with my initial years as a teacher in Corpus Christi. Schools in Corpus Christi weren't desegregated until 1976. So when I started teaching in the late 1960s, we had three sets of schools—one for whites, one for blacks, and one for Hispanics. I taught in the Hispanic junior high school. We were blessed, I suppose, in that we got the textbooks right after the white junior high school was finished with them—when we finished with them, we sent them over to the black junior high school.
The school had a lot of dedicated teachers, but as an institution, the public school system didn't really care too much about what went on in the school that I taught in—or in the other schools that Hispanic and African-American kids attended. For example, there were no standards for coursework. We had valedictorians from some of these schools who couldn't get into college because they hadn't taken the right courses. There were many places where kids took the same remedial math course four years in a row under a different name. They never got to algebra, never got beyond arithmetic. When I started teaching, I was told that four percent of the kids at my junior high went on to graduate from the Hispanic high school in Corpus Christi; the other 96 percent dropped out along the way. As far as I could tell, not one person cared if I ever taught a lick.
Here's how my school worked: One of the teachers was absolutely beloved by the principal. He was a coach who was assigned to teach English. He got every 16mm film that he could order and he showed one every day until the last couple of weeks of school when the film library was closed. Then, to wrap up the school year, he bought a bunch of coloring books. The grades in his class were based primarily upon attendance and comportment.
But this teacher never got into trouble for his behavior. (In fact, later on he became an administrator!) Again, I asked myself why? But the answer was easy. What, after all, was important to this principal? Certainly not learning. Above all else, what was important to him was that nobody showed up at his office door. He didn't want to see angry parents or kids complaining.
In this principal's mind, I was a terrible teacher. I complained that we had no program for the kids who didn't speak English. I complained that we were short of textbooks and that the ones I had were missing pages. I complained that we needed to get some eyeglasses for the kids whose parents were too poor to buy them. I was a source of problems and disruption; I caused grief for that principal.
The coach-turned-teacher, on the other hand, was a model that everyone was supposed to look to and admire. Why was that? Well, nobody kept score of the students' learning. The school system did keep score of some other things, though. If a teacher's textbook records showed up in disarray, that was a problem. If a teacher's locker records were in disarray, that was big trouble. But during the entire time that I taught, I never once had anybody ask me about the students' learning.
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In the late 1980s, several years after I became president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, I served for two years on an official state committee charged with recommending what indicators of performance should be included on school report cards. Our hope was that they would include information on test scores, dropout rates, and other factors. Part of my job was to hold public hearings in different parts of the state. The only people who came were school board members and superintendents, by and large. And at each hearing it was the same. I could have written the script. I would go through my presentation and have my charts. And they'd have one question: "Are we going to publish this information?" Well, yes. I'd tell them that the idea was to make this report card available to parents and the public. After a moment of general consternation, there would be an observation: "Wait a minute, if we do this, nobody is going to want his kid to go to this school over here." And then somebody else would say, "Oh, and what about that school over there? Everybody will want to be in that school."
"Wait a minute," I'd say. "Are you telling me there's a school in your district right now that doesn't teach kids, you know of it, and you're not telling anybody—you're just letting it sit there?" These school board members and superintendents knew good and well where education was happening and where it wasn't, but clearly they didn't want the public to know. Pressure would build to improve those schools. They'd actually have to find resources for those schools, offer salaries that would attract qualified teachers, and get them textbooks that weren't ripped up and old. They'd have to make sure kids were learning something before they were promoted or given a high school diploma. It was a lot easier for them to just pretend there was no problem. It was a conspiracy of silence. And, there was no way to blow the whistle on it because there was no objective way to compare student achievement across schools and districts.
Standards and Accountability Blow the Whistle
In Texas, we started keeping score when the school reform law passed in 1984—long before George Bush was governor, I should point out. And, because we started keeping score, that marked the beginning of the end of the conspiracy of silence. Yearly testing in reading, writing, and math in grades 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 began right away; and the 11th-grade test became a requirement for graduation in 1987. Not surprisingly, many districts resisted the idea of a state exam; they each wanted to decide on their own test, their own passing score. Districts had long played a game in which they would give their own test, and if scores were good, they'd use them to say how great their schools were; they ignored the scores if they were low. We ended that game once there was a single state test. *
Keeping score has made a world of difference—it has ended that conspiracy of silence, or at least made it a much harder game to play. There is absolutely no question that we've ratcheted up the quality of education in Texas dramatically. The test we gave 6th-graders this year was harder than the one we gave 11th-graders back in 1987. And despite dire predictions to the contrary, while we've raised the difficulty of our standards and curriculum pretty steadily since then, the drop-out rate has remained pretty constant (pretty constantly awful, I should say). But we have roughly the same percentage of kids in school, and they're passing tougher tests at higher rates. We haven't shut down the achievement gap between white and other children, but it's diminished.
Now, is that all we did—put tests and accountability into place? Absolutely not. Tests don't teach and tests don't produce miracles. We put the test in place, we put the standards in place, but we also put tons of new money in place. The standards and accountability have to be there, otherwise the districts get money, and who knows where it goes? It often winds up paying for wonderful lessons on self-esteem (or worse), but not the things that effect academic achievement.
But you can't expect to raise standards and get better teaching unless you commit the resources to pay for the good salaries that will lure qualified teachers into the classroom; to pay for the professional development that teachers need to teach better; to get extra help to the kids who really need it and the schools that really need it. When we passed the 1984 reform, we added 13 percent to our state aid per pupil. And that wasn't the end of it. We kept pumping in new money so that between 1984 and 2000, state aid per pupil increased by 24 percent (in constant dollars). And we didn't just add new money—we redirected the state's resources so that low-wealth school districts and school districts with high concentrations of disadvantaged children received the bulk of it. It was a revolution. We also created a minimum standard for teachers; it was suddenly much harder for administrators to hire unqualified people and call them teachers. Starting in 1986, all teachers had to take a basic reading and writing test; if they couldn't pass it, they lost their teaching certificate. But we also increased salaries, spectacularly so in the poorest districts, so that when new teachers were hired, we were able to attract teachers who met the higher standard.
In 1999 Texas enacted legislation, which the Texas Federation of Teachers initiated, that made passing the third-grade reading test a requirement for promotion to fourth grade. The requirement kicked in as of 2003 because that's when the 1999–2000 crop of kindergartners reached third grade. But that legislation didn't just create a barrier to promotion for those kids, it provided resources to pull together the key ingredients for success, including professional development for their teachers, diagnostic assessments, and immediate interventions. Beginning in 1999 with kindergarten teachers, and adding a grade each year, Texas provided paid professional development opportunities to virtually all the state's K–3 teachers. By 2001, nearly 60,000 teachers had already received the training. The student failure rate on this third-grade reading test prior to 2003 (the year it became a requirement for promotion) was about 20 percent. With professional development, early assessment, interventions, and accountability, we cut that failure down to about four percent in 2003. †
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Tests don't teach; accountability on its own doesn't make teachers teach better. Shutting down schools when you have no better strategy for making them work the second time around does no one any good. But accountability makes people keep score. It helps stop the conspiracy of silence. And that helps get the resources flowing to schools—and it helps to make sure the resources are used well. It helps people see that giving out high school diplomas doesn't mean you've educated the kids. And, as with running backs, it helps people see that just calling someone a teacher doesn't make it so.
Clearly there's still much to do to increase achievement in Texas. From the 1980s to today, one of the main questions has been how to increase the level of difficulty on the student tests and provide the support that teachers need to make sure that students can pass. We still do not have the grade level or graduation tests where we want them to be. Salaries are higher, but still not where they should be. And, after years of support, this year the Texas legislature seems bent on grossly underfunding education. But we've come a long way in the last 21 years, and it would not have occurred without standards, professional development, additional resources, and the accountability that comes from the test.
John Cole is president of the Texas Federation of Teachers and a vice president of the AFT. Previously, he was a teacher in Corpus Christi, Texas, and the founding member and president of the Corpus Christi Federation of Teachers.
*Based on my experiences in Texas, I believe that No Child Left Behind (the federal legislation mandating school improvement) gave away the farm by allowing all states to have their own standards and tests. Without a common standard and a common test, there's a strong incentive for individual states to lower their passing bars thus making it look like their students are highly proficient. (back to article)
†This year we ratcheted up the standards again, so the passing rate on the first administration was 89 percent. I expect the final passing rate will be higher, but not as high as it has been for the past two years. In the past, whenever we ratcheted up standards, more money flowed to school districts to help them meet those standards. But this year the governor and legislature have cut money from education. So far, they have eliminated our master reading and math teachers, as well as our remedial programs. (back to article)