Transparency is the New Accountability

by Robert Pondiscio
November 17th, 2008

A meme on the march:

“Republicans that want to kill No Child Left Behind in its entirety should also propose to eliminate its $25 billion or so dollars for k-12 education. If that sounds like a poison pill, here’s an idea: push for transparency, via national standards and tests, instead of “accountability” via the heavy hand of Washington.”  — Mike Petrilli, Fordham Foundation.

“A Republican education agenda should have three key elements: decentralization, transparency and parental empowerment.”  — Lance T. Izumi, Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy

“The federal role should be to provide accurate information about student performance. It should be left to states and districts to devise sanctions and reforms.”  — Diane Ravitch

Getting Value-Added Right

by Robert Pondiscio
November 17th, 2008

Moving to the growth or “value-added” model of assessment, seems to be the favorite education reform of the incoming Obama administration, notes the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews, who seems to favor the idea.  ”The growth model appeals to parents because it focuses on each child,” he writes.  “It gives researchers a clearer picture of what affects student achievement and what does not…The next step would be to use the same data to see which teachers add the most value to their students each year,” he writes before noting the objections to value-added among teachers and unions.

Go ahead. Blame the teacher unions. They make no apology for their opposition to this approach. But they have good arguments. Congress will have to revise the No Child Left Behind law to install the growth model, and most support for the idea there extends only to rating schools, not teachers. Assessing instructors by how much their students improve seems reasonable to people like me who have never taken a psychometrics course, but nobody has sufficiently tested the statistical devices for doing that, and they might prove to be expensive.

I’ve never taken a psychometrics course either, but at the elementary school level, it’s the rare teacher who would be comfortable having his or her fortunes tied to value-added measures for the simple and obvious reason that there are too many variables impacting student achievement that an individual teacher cannot control, or even influence.  Try this analogy: 

Let’s say you’re a waiter working the lunch shift at a restaurant with lots of repeat business.  The owner  wants to make sure that sales per diner and customer satisfaction are going up.  That’s perfectly reasonable.  But instead of looking at the average sales and customer satisfaction, the owner wants to hold you accountable for every single diner you serve.  They all need to go up.  If even a single diner leaves unhappy and spends less, you’ve failed.  Your job is to make sure that every customer is happier today than they were with yesterday’s lunch and spends more, even if they ate at a different restaurant.  Since yesterday, the customer may have had a tough day at work, argued with his spouse, or got in an accident in the cab on the way over.  He may not even be very hungry today.  It doesn’t matter.  If you’re really good at what you do, you should be able to overcome every obstacle since studies show the most important variable in customer satisfaction is the waiter.  You have no control over the menu, the meal, the seating, the decor, or the customer’s interactions with the hostess, the bartender, the busboy and every other staff member.  By the way, if you work at Denny’s your customers are expected to be just as happy as they are at Le Cirque. 

After the appetizers are cleared – not even at the end of the meal – the customer satisfaction survey is dropped on the table.  Meawhile, at a different waiter’s table, another customer is having a terrible time.  The waiter is rude, the food is cold, and the busboy spilled water on him.  He’s filling out a survey too.  Half of his evaluation will be charged to you, since you served him lunch yesterday. 


None of this should be taken as an attack on the idea of accountability, or even value-added.  I’m a firm believer that as teachers, we need to hold ourselves to very high standards and be accountable to the taxpayers who pay our salaries.  Accountability matters a great deal.  But poorly designed and executed accountability measures will set back the cause of accountability, perhaps irrevocably.  We’ve got to get this right, not engage in another round of ready-fire-aim.