Thinking Carefully about Equity and Accountability

By Scheurich, James Joseph; Skrla, Linda et al. | Phi Delta Kappan, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Thinking Carefully about Equity and Accountability


Scheurich, James Joseph, Skrla, Linda, Johnson, Joseph F., Phi Delta Kappan


Yes, state accountability systems have many problems. Yes, there is evidence that they both increase and decrease equity. Yes, we need to listen to those who support these systems and those who criticize them. But, as these authors see it, the primary question with regard to accountability systems must always be: In this historical moment, can we use them to truly choose educational equity?

RECENT discourse on state accountability systems appears unfortunately to have devolved into a strict dichotomy in which accountability is either "all good" or "all bad." Of particular concern in these polarized debates are questions of equity, notably in what ways accountability systems affect the education of low-income children of all races, but especially children of color. For example, the Texas accountability system, which has recently been the most widely discussed system, is purported to be either a "miracle" or an "illusion" with regard to its effects on low-income children.1 What is more, each side has actual data to support its conclusions.

On one hand, there is a range of data from which it is possible to conclude that some state accountability systems have improved student achievement in general and the achievement of low-income children in particular. For example, over the past five years, we and some of our colleagues have studied schools and districts that are successfully serving primarily low-income children of color all over the state of Texas.2 Virtually all of these schools and districts have used the accountability system in positive ways. In addition, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores for Texas and North Carolina appear to verify significant improvements in the achievement of low-income children and children of color.3

On the other hand, there is a range of data from which it is possible to conclude that some of these state systems have actually hurt the education of children of color. For example, Linda McNeil, drawing on her own case studies, has concluded that the Texas accountability system is de-skilling teachers and narrowing the curriculum, particularly in schools serving low-income children.4 In addition, Walter Haney has argued that the Texas accountability system is increasing dropout rates among children of color. Thus it is clear that each side in this debate on the equity effects of accountability systems can legitimately quote real and accurate data to support its conclusions.

We believe it is also clear that focusing on the equity effects of these systems is crucial. The apparent inability of our public education system to be as successful academically with children of color, particularly with those from low-income families, as it is with middle-class white children is a direct threat to our claims to be a truly democratic country. Certainly it is possible to argue that a goal of equal success for all has always existed in the public education system. But the data are clear. We have posted a miserable academic record with the great majority of low-income children and children of color specifically.

In fact, many educators, not wanting to conclude that it is we who may have failed, have simply settled for not being successful with these children. Many of us have become hopeless, have given up, and have learned to accept inequitable achievement as a fact of life in thousands of classrooms from prekindergarten to the university. We come to our classrooms, we teach, and we get paid. But somewhere along the line we have lost a strong belief that we could successfully teach those whom Lisa Delpit refers to as "other people's children."5 And this solidified belief that low-income children and children of color are not likely to do well academically - what Richard Valencia has called "deficit thinking" or what Angela Valenzuela has called "subtractive schooling" - became the dominant norm for us educators.6 For example, a white female central office administrator said to us:

I was in a school that probably, the last year I was there, had a 24% passing rate on TAAS [Texas Assessment of Academic Skills]. …

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