Peter Greene here takes apart the fundamental ideas behind the reformers’ devotion to accountability and shows why it is not working and will never work.

He analyzes an article in the Washington Post by Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli, former and current CEO of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, to explain the issue. Finn and Petrilli have written a somewhat triumphant analysis of the “success” of reform in the past decade. They are huge fans of Arne Duncan and Race to the Top. They think that Common Core was a great step forward. They admire the federally-funded tests for the Common Core, PARCC and SBAC. They are delighted that states have raised the passing marks on their tests so it is much harder for students to pass them. (Most states reported that a majority of students “failed” the first and even the second administration of the new tests. At this rate, most students will never get a high school diploma.)

They are delighted with the more rigorous standards and tests: We’ve been known for ages as education gadflies, and we still find plenty to fault when it comes to policy and practice in the United States. But let us be clear: Despite what you might hear from opt-outers and other critics, U.S. standards, tests and accountability systems are all dramatically stronger, fairer and more honest than they were a decade ago. You might even call it progress.

Needless to say, Peter Greene, a veteran teacher in Pennsylvania, does not see the situation in the same way. He finds one sentence by Finn and Petrilli that encapsulates the flawed premises of “reform”:

At the core of the good idea was the common-sense insight that if we want better and more equitable results from our education system, we should set clear expectations for student learning, measure whether our kids are meeting them and hold schools accountable for their outcomes, mainly gauged in terms of academic achievement.

Greene says that Common Core was the result of trying to “make expectations clear.” He writes:

“the way to make expectations clear is to make them specific, and before you know it, you have one-size-fits-all standards, and one-size-fits-all standards suck in the same way that making all US school students wear a one-size-fits-all uniform and eat one-size-fits-all food.

It is like saying that we can fix the divorce problem in this country by setting clear expectations for getting married and holding everyone to those expectations. Fordham sages tried to get around this with their “tight-loose” formulation, but they failed. Meanwhile, the standards themselves are amateur-hour constructions that take a definite side in arguments that experts don’t find at all as neatly settled as the standards assume (e.g. is reading a complex relationship between reader and text, or a set of skills and behaviors– the Core insists on the latter, but actual educators favor the former).

Can we really measure what our children are learning? Greene thinks not.

It really is as simple as that– we do not have a large-scale, standardized instrument that can measure all learning for all students in a standardized, one-size-measures-all manner. Instead of asking, “What’s the best way to measure critical thinking” test manufacturers have asked “What’s something we could do on a standardized mass-administered test that would pass for a critical thinking measure?”

Why not hold schools accountable for outcomes?

Greene writes:

“Outcomes” just means “test scores,” and that, again, is such a truncated, inadequate vision of the mission of US public schools. Ask a taxpayer, “What are you paying schools and teachers to do?” I doubt that you will hear the answer, “Why, just to have students get good test scores. That’s it. That’s what I’m paying them to do.”

And then Peter sums up and explains why “reformers” think that their approach is just “common sense”:

The notion that all of these things– the clear and specific standards being measured by a test leading to “accountability” measures taken against the schools that come up short– are common sense? Well, we have to call them “common sense” because we can’t call them “evidence based” or “scientifically proven” or even “sure seemed to work well over in Location X” because none of those things are true. They haven’t worked anywhere else, and now that we’ve been trying it for over a decade, we can see pretty clearly that they don’t work here, either.

The best we get from reformsters is a circular argument– “this tool is a valid measure and means of improvement, because when I measure the progress of this tool by using this tool, I see success.”

There are other unfounded assumptions underlying the reformster approach that depend on these other bad assumptions. For instance, the whole idea that the power of the free market can be unloosed to improve education rests on the idea that we can measure definitively which are the best schools producing the best students who are taught by the best teachers. But we can no more do that than we can list the hundred best marriages in America, or the hundred best friends.

They remain convinced that we must have one-size-fits-all standards so that we can measure all students against them so that we can compare all students and schools so that we can…. what? We still don’t have a real answer. It’s common sense. It’s something you just have to do, because not doing it clashes with reformsters beliefs about how the world is supposed to work. They literally do not understand how education works, and when they approach the world of education, they feel like OCD sufferers in a museum where all the paintings are hung crooked. They want to “fix” it, and they want to ask the people who work there, “How can you possibly function like this?” They can’t see that the paintings aren’t crooked at all.

The whole reformster approach is based on measuring a cloud with a meter stick, measuring the weather with a decibel meter, measuring love with a spoon.

Reformsters want to drive the school bus by setting a brick on the gas pedal and strapping the steering wheel into place, and every time the bus hits a tree, they say, “Oh, well, we just need a next-generation brick, and to fine-tune where we strap the steering wheel into place.” They will tweak and improve and re-tweak, and they will keep failing because their approach is fundamentally wrong.