The emotional violence of the accountability regime: part one

You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?-  Talking Heads

When I came to education later in life, I had two pictures of the work in mind. One was of conversations with students about literature—poetry, novels, stories, essays and treatises. Works I selected. Works they selected. Our own writing. I had some sense of the web of interactions and interpretations that would connect and challenge us. The other thought was that these conversations would grow for each of us and us together a possibility for community, for action, for democracy.

As a high school English teacher I had five rules in my classroom: speak up, listen, speak true to yourself, no on goes it alone, and imagine the life of others. It was my sense that we were creating and discovering new ways of being with each other and with the texts we encountered and created. As a teacher educator who was given the job of teaching English methods, I tell students: if you came here to learn a method, a thing to do, you came to the wrong place; but we can talk about how to be with students, texts, ourselves in ways that grow our sense and experience of possibilities. The principal of the last high school where I taught was provoked and confused by my focus on student voice and meaning making. “When,” she asked, “are you going to tell them the what the book means?”

I recall one of my first faculty meetings when the superintendent projected a graph of student test scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (the high stakes test for Massachusetts, taken in the 10th grade) with the measures of improvement we would need to make annual yearly progress toward 100% passing in 2014. I asked a question about how the test had been validated and was met with a shrug, and a mantra that would come to be all too familiar, ‘This is what we have to do.”

The gulf between what the tests purported to measure and what I valued in my classroom was always very clear to me. In some ways, this divide left me bemused. The language of data, annual yearly progress, and item analysis to determine areas of weakness to then change my teaching was on its face absurd. One needed only to spend a few minutes in a classroom to understand that. What did it matter if students knew to correctly answer a question that required the definition of a metaphor if they didn’t sit in metaphors as ways to speak from their experience and hear those of others? My bemusement eventually yielded to fear. All around me, no matter what was said in the lunchroom, in the back row of the faculty meeting, or over drinks on Friday about the clear meaninglessness of the tests, shoulders were shrugged and the mantra spoken, “This is what we have to do.”

I feel foolish as I write this, but I thought teacher education would be different. I thought the protections of the academy and the legacy of public universities as places of discord and disruption would allow for an articulate resistance to the accountability regimes that were suffocating the life out of k12 schools. And for a time this seemed possible, until the words “NCATE” started to appear on department agendas. The accreditation process for the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education was deep in the discourse of data, outcomes and rubrics.

Once again, it just seemed too absurd to give it any air. We would design measurement instruments that would allow us to assess, to the point of a number, the effectiveness of our students on their students’ learning, their degree of readiness vis-à-vis content knowledge, their acquisition of the ‘skills, knowledge and dispositions’ for teaching. What ever we created would match with some pretense of precision a set of specific standards, and scoring would be designed to be input on a web-based data management system so that aggregate data would then guide our analysis of our work. It is funny when it is not so scary.

Like playing ‘pretend,’ hours were spent designing assessments, refining word choices, determining scoring rubrics as if-as if– we could measure the things that we said we were measuring, never mind asking if the things we were measuring were the things that mattered. Never mind asking why we would want to reduce our work to a number.  Funny (as in absurd), when it wasn’t so scary (as in dominating and silencing.) The word reductionist lost its abstract connotations and became a visceral reality. Ideas, affect, complexity, relationships, unknowns, contestation: all reduced not to an essence, but to nothingness, to shadows of words, steam dissipating, hot air. Disappeared.


  1. Stephanie Rondeau says:

    This week I sat in my classroom sobbing over the way another staff memeber has been treating our kids, over the way our administration doesn’t listen to anything to we tell them, over the my inability to get through to every kid in classroom. I contemplated the absurdity of “student teaching” as a 12-year veteran. I wanted to give up because I felt like nothing was going to change. My colleague said to me, “Ron, you are the change.” I am sure I feel like many others who believe we will ride out this round of nonsense and continue teaching. Because we are teachers.

  2. And as things fell apart
    Nobody paid much attention
    you got it, you got it

  3. Great stuff. I did it in reverse. Doing my teacher education curriculum planning as a staff member at a university, and then went to teach in high school. I left them both for the same reasons. The training that changed teacher protocols and the NCLB disaster that became the scaffolding for how we got here.

  4. “The gulf between what the tests purported to measure and what I valued in my classroom was always very clear to me. In some ways, this divide left me bemused. The language of data, annual yearly progress, and item analysis to determine areas of weakness to then change my teaching was on its face absurd. One needed only to spend a few minutes in a classroom to understand that.”

    It is both humbling and invigorating to come across the the exact words to what was just a nebulous feeling for me. Thank you.

    The tide will turn. It must.

    • Barbara Madeloni says:

      The tide will turn because we will turn it—already can feel the shift from the west coast.

      • Ann Berlak says:

        If by the West Coast you mean Seattle, I feel it too. But in general, I ‘m depending upon the East. Or Chicago. No turning tide along the West Coast that I can see.

        • Barbara Madeloni says:

          My east coast centric world view is showing. I did mean Seattle and points northwest. “From little things, big things grow.”

  5. patricia rydeen says:

    I am reading “Catcher in the Rye” to my high school students with severe disablities this year because it might be my last opportunity to let them in on real literature. My principal challenged my selection, asking, “How do you know they are following it?” “Why did you chose it?” As if it were possible to determine they were somehow getting more out of “Dick and Jane.” I said, in a staff meeting, “Because it is fricking fabulous.” I sort of wish I had used the real f word.

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