Accountability must have played well in Peoria, because every Democratic candidate is simultaneously for it while being against NCLB. The question is, How can you hold both positions? Here is how: by not understanding the issue.
Accountability must mean to voters that teachers will be measured by how well they teach their students. Those fearless Democrats, always willing to hop on an uncontroversial point of view, are all quite certain that the voters know what they are talking about. No matter how stupid NCLB is, no matter how mean spirited, no matter how awful for both teachers and students, its very horror rests on the premise that no one seems to be disputing-that the federal government has the right to tell the schools what to teach and to see if they are indeed teaching it.
Needless to say, I have some problems with these assumptions, and so should the Democratic presidential candidates. I can excuse the voters for not understanding these issues, but I will not excuse President Bush and his cohorts, who I sincerely doubt give a hoot about education, nor will I excuse the Democratic challengers who should know better. Let's take the problems one by one.
All schools should teach the same subjects. Why is this wrong? Because kids in New York come from, and will live in, a different world than their compatriots in New Mexico. In New Mexico, I was asked if we could teach casino management and land use. Yes, we can, but not if there is federal accountability about algebra and twenty other subjects that make it impossible to fit these subjects in.
Some subjects are more important than other subjects. Yes, we have electives. But they don't matter, because accountability means making sure that we teach what does matter first. What matters? The stuff that we are holding people accountable for. Since this seems to be math and science, this means that we will get to the stuff that excites kids and that will keep them in school and, horrors, might teach them some job skills only after we are done with the important stuff.
All important subjects can be easily tested. Yes, there are right answers in math. But are there right answers in whether we should have invaded Iraq? No? Does that mean we can't teach how governments actually work and how to get reasoned arguments to be heard? Is there a right speech candidates should make? Should we not ask students to give speeches because we can't easily assess them? Do we only teach subjects for which there are clear right answers? We do now, which is one reason why school is a deadly experience and will remain so as long as accountability is the key word in government.
Seeing who did better than whom in school is an intrinsic part of the educational process. Admit it. It really is all about competition, isn't it? You went to Ivy League schools and did well. Well, hooray for you. I taught at Ivy League schools and was profoundly unimpressed with the test-taking, grade-grubbing students I found there. The goal of education is not to say who won, and it is not to tell Harvard whom to admit. The goal is to provide real-world skills, some of which may not be so easy to assess until the graduate actually shows up in the real world.
All children have the same educational needs. There is a 50 percent dropout rate in many high schools, because we have forgotten that not everyone is going to Harvard. Some children simply need to learn about ethics and business and child raising and how the legal system works, how to take care of their health, and how to understand when politicians are saying things that make no sense.
Why aren't those subjects considered critical? How about the student who has a passion for the environment, or doing social good, or being a good parent, or, perish the thought, running for office? Couldn't we teach those subjects simply because students have said they want to learn them? Does every school have to be the same?
I have an idea. Why not just keep the federal government out of the education business and simply leave schools alone?
Roger Schank is professor emeritus in computer science, education and psychology at Northwestern University and a contributing editor for The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate, www.districtadministration.com/pulse.