Accountability in Public Education – What is it really?

First Day

Many parents have children who pass through their public school systems, graduate, go on to post–secondary education and never miss a beat. My two children did with the exception of the few minor disruptions you expect from zesty teenagers. For these students the system works well. It works for a majority of students, some high achievers, others who leave with a diploma at worst.

There are other students however who have anything but a smooth passage through the education system. These students more often than not come from less than enviable backgrounds. They are more often the more economically disadvantaged members of our society. They may or may not have strong, functional families and they may emanate from a segment of society that has not been well disposed to formal education because it has never done anything for them. They may not see the benefits of succeeding at school or may feel unable to do much about it anyway.

Most public schools are delighted to bask in the reflected glory of top students who win major scholarships to prestigious universities. That’s what graduation is largely all about. It sends the message ‘”See. We are doing a great job. Here’s the proof. So if your kid is not cutting it, maybe you ought to look at reasons as to why s/he and your family aren’t as successful as these students.”

We all appreciate that to raise top quality students, you need dedicated teachers who are doing an exemplary job. And they do. And they should be proud of their joint accomplishment with those students, but what of the rest?

Across America, we have a student dropping out of high school every 26 seconds. We have students graduating who literally cannot read their diplomas. We have a conveyer belt operation that runs children through the education process and affects their skill levels almost not at all. Who is taking responsibility for these students?

Schools launch eloquent arguments to deflect the fact that they did in fact fail with these students. They spread the blame around to parents, psychological issues, overcrowding, lack of staff, and a gazillion other reasons as to why this failure does not rest with them. The fact of the matter is that they could be doing a whole lot better if they were dedicated to these kids.

There are real life examples of solutions to this dilemma. Many years ago, I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Carmen Marcy. The Cook County School District had taken all of its hard core behavior problem cases from 16 different secondary schools in south Chicago and placed them in one single secondary school. They gave Dr. Marcy the school to administer.

Being a veteran of the special education wars, Carmen Marcy knew that these juveniles were miles behind in their skills, were more interested in gangs and street action than in the classics. She attacked the problem from several directions. She instituted a curriculum based on proven research studies. By doing so she taught these students to read, write, do math, and to feel confident that they too could be academic stars. She networked with the families. She connected with the social agencies that touched these kids lives. She brought the entire village together to help her and her staff to raise these children

In a matter of two years, she had these kids learning basic literacy skills, and better social skills. She reduced the recidivism rate to the juvenile courts by 75%. The following year, the school was closed.

Who has the educational accountability for students like this? How many were saved? How many more could have been? What is the cost individually and societally for such a decision? Who should have been held accountable?

Carmen Marcy’s situation is a dramatic example of schools’ failure to be accountable for all of their students, not just the ones who shine and make them look good.

Many parents are frustrated in their attempts to secure help for their child when they are told that there is a problem. Many of their students wind up in special needs classes. Current research indicates the in more than 80% of special needs classrooms, the students show no academic change over the course of a year. Who do we hold accountable for that?

Maybe we could just resurrect Carmen Marcy’s program, teach it to the teachers and classroom aides and get on with the job of making these children successful.  As another veteran of 40 years in the trenches, I would happily accept the challenge of some school district to demonstrate to them how Carmen Marcy achieved what she did. All of her programs are in the public domain.  Teachers can be trained in these programs in a matter of days. I have worked in numerous settings where these programs have been implemented. I have yet to see them fail.

So if we truly care about kids, we need to learn about these programs and we need to teach our school districts the history of these methods and insist that they take the responsibility to use them or to find another method that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can provide the same results. Schools must be held accountable for all of their students.

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