10/15/2010 07:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Waiting for 'Accountability-Man'

School accountability runs in only one direction. When we weren't looking, those at the top were apparently given "get out of accountability free" cards. Perhaps we should be happy for them and their good fortune. It must be nice to have the little people around to take the blame -- the students and teachers and parents who just can't seem to do anything right.

We all know the rules by now, passed down from Bush to Obama without skipping a beat: demand that students, teachers, and principals be held accountable, primarily through the students' scores on standardized tests. Teachers, principals, and schools face sanctions if scores aren't high enough. Students, depending on the state where they live, shall be denied diplomas, held back in grade, or perhaps merely scolded.

But that's it; the buck stops somewhere around the teachers' lounge. It never quite finds its way to the people who really make the decisions.

Sure, it's the elected officials who control who gets what and who make the rules, but those officials are entitled to vigorously point downward, offering up shortcomings of teachers, students, parents and principals in hopes that voters won't noticed their own serious failings. And now we have the leaders of 16 of the nation's major city school districts joining in the fun of one-directional accountability. If you haven't seen it yet, go read "How to fix our schools: A manifesto by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and other education leaders," just published in the Washington Post.

I've already screamed and hollered about the manifesto, as a guest blogger on the Post's own "Answer Sheet." Here's part of what I wrote:

As a researcher and a parent, I yearn for an end to the over-the-top propaganda, the slick think tank reports, the educational "leaders" more interested in blaming than in solving, the wasteful sinking of taxpayer money (and educators' time) into reforms that have been shown not to work, and the stirring films that suggest that the heartbreaking denial of educational opportunities to innocent children can be miraculously solved by the latest fad.
Move money from neighborhood schools to charter schools!
Make children take more tests!
Move money from classrooms to online learning!
Blame teachers and their unions - make them easier to fire!
Tie teacher jobs and salaries to student test scores!

None - literally NONE - of these gimmicks is evidence-based. Charters? Overall, they're no better than other schools. Tests? Twenty years of testing has bought us minimal improvement in scores but made learning less engaging. Online learning? Sometimes it's a good supplement for classrooms, but the research doesn't support it as a widespread substitute - unless you're an investor in one of the companies that stand to make a fortune courtesy of taxpayers. Easier routes to firing teachers? Why do states, districts and schools (including charter schools) with few if any union protections have the same patterns of student learning? Test-based merit pay, etc? Rarely has a policy been so vigorously pursued that so clearly lacks research support.

But I didn't realize myself how truly unaccountable these manifesto-signers are. It's true that I criticized the Manifesto's authors for a "patently incorrect factual assertion" when they stated:

So, where do we start? With the basics. As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents' income -- it is the quality of their teacher.

It's true also that I pointed to research showing the opposite - that while teachers are a very important in-school factor, out-of-school factors related to parental educational level and family income are more strongly associated with student success. I wrote, "If the President did in fact say this, he is wrong."

Well, it turns out that the superintendent-signers played fast-and-loose with the president as well as with research. One of the Post's readers, "efavorite," pointed out that the manifesto changed the meaning of the president's words. In fact, President Obama appears to understand the research quite well, being careful to distinguish between in- and out-of-school factors.

"We know that from the moment students enter a school, the most important factor in their success is not the color of their skin or the income of their parents -- it is the teacher standing at the front of the classroom."

"The whole premise of Race to the Top is that teachers are the single most important factor in a child's education from the moment they step into the classroom."

The Washington Post's commenter concludes that "the authors of this 'Manifesto,' who present themselves as educators, should be seriously rebuked for misrepresenting the President's words in this way and confusing his meaning. How dare they. It's dishonest, it's unacceptable academic research methodology and it's disrespectful to the President."

Yes, it's disrespectful to the president. But don't expect these education "leaders" to be held accountable. No doubt, they'll find a way to blame students and teachers for that one, too.