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Let's Have an Honest Conversation About Accountability

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Webster's dictionary defines "accountability" as "an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one's actions." In a recent piece in The Huffington Post, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond redefined the word accountability to essentially mean its opposite: avoiding responsibility for academic underperformance.

In doing so, they illustrate perfectly why the education debate in America has become so polarized and so useless. Too often, participants present only information that reinforces their point of view and leave out any facts that would counter it. Worse yet, they make false connections between policies and outcomes.

The Weingarten/Darling-Hammond piece is rife with omissions and unsupported innuendo. Our particular favorite from among their many claims is the assertion that California's record graduation rates and recent gains on national eighth-grade math and reading exams are the result of new funding formulas and testing policies that weren't even put into place until after these gains.

For those not paying close attention, this particular piece is actually part of a much larger effort -- led, largely, by the teachers unions -- to undermine the leadership of John King, New York's commissioner of education. That they did it by holding up California as a paragon of virtue would be laughable if that state's educational system wasn't so miserably underserving so many children -- especially the low-income students and students of color who make up a majority of its students.

Despite the portrait painted in the article, New York and California have much in common. On national examinations, the students in both states are -- at best -- in the lower middle of the pack, with alarming gaps between different groups of students.

What really separates the two is a sense of urgency. California's educational system has for years been gripped by a kind of "pobrecito" phenomenon, where hugging kids is too often considered an acceptable substitute for teaching them. After all, or at least so goes the thinking, many of them are poor or English learners: We shouldn't demand much from them. Not surprisingly, accountability for student learning has never been taken seriously, a problem exacerbated by current governor Jerry Brown, whose disdain for the public reporting of data is legendary. Indeed, the state won't even be reporting results from new Common Core aligned exams for at least two years.

Leaders in New York, on the other hand, are in a hurry. King himself knows from personal experience the power schools have in shaping young lives, and he is using every tool at his disposal to make sure that shaping is positive for the black, brown, and poor children whose very lives depend on it. Reasonable people might quibble with one aspect of his approach or another, but to label it -- as Weingarten and Darling-Hammond did -- simply as "test and punish" is preposterous, especially given the unusual quality of supports New York provides to teachers.

Let's be clear here. Our kids take the journey through school only once; the poorest among them, in particular, need us to get serious about their education while they are on that journey, not years later. Even in states where there are no official "stakes" for students who don't meet the new Common Core standards, there are huge real-life consequences. Those who exit high school with the skills to succeed in college have a real future in our knowledge-based economy; those who do not have strong skills are essentially toast.

The essential difference between New York and California is that educators in the latter state will never feel consequences themselves. In New York, educators and schools who don't grow their students after years of feedback and support will face consequences. Unless California changes course, their counterparts there will be able to continue doing damage for decades to come.

In essence, Weingarten and Darling-Hammond are saying that public education doesn't need accountability that sets meaningful expectations and requires consequences when we fall short. Instead, schools just need more resources, more support, and more time.

We, too, have argued for more resources and support -- and, sometimes, for more time for schools to get this right. But all of us need to remember the students who don't have any time to spare. Delaying and retreating from real accountability will result in only one outcome: denying children the education they need and deserve today.