Thursday, December 18, 2008

Accountability Means Asking Hard Questions

When we talk about public education, what are we talking about?

I believe we're talking about a democratic institution that responds to the needs of our country by inculcating young people with the principles of citizenship, providing them with an education that stimulates their appetite for lifelong learning and prepares them to make a productive contribution to their communities and society at large.

Those in themselves are lofty goals. We appear to become manic about encrusting these objectives with standardized tests which require near rote memorization and political demands on administrators which distract, divert and deny good teachers the opportunity to do their best work.

With the growing demands for accountability and conflicting ideas about what constitutes accountability (test scores, graduation rates, report cards, etc.), we tend to miss accountability on the part of those who are elected to make sure that standards of accountability are adhered to - whatever those standards may be. I'm talking about school board trustees and district administrators.

Dallas' school district fiasco in which 700 teachers were hired without adequate budgetary oversight to make sure there was money to hire them (resulting in a $64 million deficit and the firing of hundreds of teachers), demands accountability.

Correcting the crisis, is fundamental: fix the problem of course, but also find out both how it happened and who was responsible. This may or may not mean that heads will roll, but to keep it from happening again, don't you have to know what caused it? Seems simple to me.

Not only has no one been fired anyone except the district's chief budget officer, trustees have decided that they need to extend their term of office - an indication that they think that they've done a good job. In doing so they've been dismissive of the idea that this might not be legal.

But wait, that's not all! It has declared that there is no interest in finding out how it happened!

"I have very little interest trying to figure out who to blame for this; I'm trying to look out the front windshield, make sure it doesn't happen again and get back to the business of educating kids.

"I don't want to interrogate the people in the budget office and the HR office and see what they did wrong. I don't care", says the districts chairman.

Most of these board members will be returned to office and nearly 200,000 students will get a message, explicitly or implicitly, by the culture that is created by such thinking: accountability really doesn't matter. If you mess up, change the rules of the game and keep on playing.

The only real question is whether or not come election time - whenever it is - will Dallas citizens ask why these trustees should be re-elected and demand an answer worthy of DISD employees, the students, their families and the rest of Dallas.

Failure to ask these tough questions and the refusal to answer them, by those who seek and receive our votes imperil not only the future of our children, but the fundamental purpose of public education, and democratic institutions in general.

No comments: