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Contextual Accountability


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I believe fervently that Michelle Rhee and an army of like-minded bad-schools philosophizers will one day look around and see piles where their painstakingly-built sandcastles of reform once stood, and they will know the tragic fame of Ozymandias. Billion-dollar data-sorting systems will be mothballed. Value-added algorithms will be tossed in a bin marked History’s Big Dumb Ideas. The mantra “no excuses” will retain all the significance of “Where’s the beef?” And teachers will still be teaching, succeeding, and failing all over the country, much as they would have been if Michelle Rhee had gone into the foreign service and Bill Gates had invested his considerable wealth and commendable humanitarian ambition in improving law enforcement practices or poultry production.

"Teaching is so complex. People who talk about it but don’t do it every single day—at least from my view—fall into a trap of self-congratulatory oversimplification. On a stage or on Meet the Press, a series of bumper sticker phrases may pass muster. Platitudes assembled just so construct a virtual reality that is convincing to well-meaning onlookers and passionate neophytes. But reform isn’t talk; in actual schoolhouses, those of us doing the work are busy educating rich kids, middle class kids, poor kids, special education kids, gifted kids, and every other kind of kid imaginable; and teachers who take their calling seriously—the majority, I like to think—have never NOT been reforming our practices. (Yes, it’s popular to say schools haven’t changed since our agrarian days because we still have summer break. But to believe in overwhelming educational stasis one has to ignore commonplace modernities like video production classes, students designing their own websites, homework turned in electronically, virtual field trips, all manners of creative scheduling, online courses, dual credit academic and vocational courses, podcasts, and dozens of other things no one ever heard of in the 1950s.)

The conventional pabulum leaves much to be desired for those of us with dry erase marks on our knuckles. Real educators have to discover (through trial and error) the right answers to specific, small-picture questions about curriculum, classroom management, facilities management, extracurricular activities, dress codes, instructional technology, content delivery, test prep, and so many other things. And in traditional schools, we can’t count on the magic “parental academic contract” fairy to wave her magic wand and disappear the students who “aren’t the right fit” (hat tip to Dr. Steve Perry for that euphemism).

Teaching isn’t as easy as it sounds. And neither is reform."

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