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Obama’s “A” word: Throwing teachers under the bus?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The “A” word is becoming the key buzzword in education reform. President Obama’s sweeping education reform plans are anchored on accountability. But does accountability mean some deserving and undeserving teachers will be thrown under the bus?

Recently Obama weighed in on the plans to fire the entire 93-member staff at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island.

Obama’s response to the firing matches his reform plans. He delivered his standard accountability rhetoric during an appearance before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce when he declared

"So if a school is struggling, we have to work with the principal and the teachers to find a solution. We’ve got to give them a chance to make meaningful improvements. But if a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show signs of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability.”

Central Falls High is a low-performing high school according to No Child Left Behind accountability measures. Central Falls High has a graduation rate of 48 percent. Only 7 percent of its students are at grade-level proficiency in math.

Race to the Top encourages accountability

Central Falls High’s fate coincides with Rhode Island’s push to garner millions of dollars of stimulus funds for education reform.

Accountability is already taking shape in Philadelphia. Many Philadelphia struggling public schools face uncertain futures. Some have already been identified as possible Renaissance Schools, which requires teachers to be force-transferred with fewer than 50 percent rehired. Schools may also be turned over to private or charter management organizations.

Some teacher colleagues, many who were Obama supporters, are wondering if his education agenda is placing an unbalanced expectation of students’ success on teachers. If students are not learning, even for myriad reasons outside of the teacher’s control, shake things up! Make teachers accountable or fire them!

The “A” word has met with polar responses

CNN Today columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr. said, "The firings worked. Score one for accountability and common sense." But in the Providence Journal, Monica Teixeira de Sousa called the firing "an attack on Rhode Island’s residents themselves," and added that "It’s politically expedient and far less expensive to blame schools, blame teachers, and propose privately run charter schools as solutions."

“Failing” schools and teachers beware

Despite the Obama administrations’ plan to replace the No Child Left Beyond “pass-fail system”, the goal to prepare all students to be college- or job-ready may even be more elusive.

Sam Dillon of the New York Times described how the Obama administration’s blueprint would measure individual students’ academic growth and not judge schools on test scores alone, but include other indicators like pupil attendance, graduation rates, and learning climates. Successful schools would get a pass on interventions and be free to operate as they please. Failing schools could end up like Central Falls High or the Renaissance Schools in Philadelphia.

Teachers’ unions across the nation are reacting with caution. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that “the president’s education proposal places 100 percent accountability on teachers and gives them zero percent authority."

Accountability and outside factors

Diane Ravitch, noted education scholar and former assistant secretary of education, is protesting the latest education reform efforts. On her blog in the Huffington Post, she countered the accountability argument by saying

“It would be good if our nation’s education leaders recognized that teachers are not solely responsible for student test scores. Other influences matter, including the students’ effort, the family’s encouragement, the effects of popular culture, and the influence of poverty. A blogger called "Mrs. Mimi" wrote the other day that we fire teachers because "we can’t fire poverty." Since we can’t fire poverty, we can’t fire students, and we can’t fire families, all that is left is to fire teachers."

I know it’s too early to judge Obama’s education reform plans. But I caution, before we throw more teachers under the bus, we should make sure we develop comprehensive programs that balance the accountability equation. I always say to my teacher colleagues, if students and family can just meet us half way, a lot of teaching and learning could take place in classrooms.

When students and families don’t meet teachers part of the way (even 40 percent) that is simply the pedagogy of poverty. After all teaching and learning is not a one-way street.

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