Because he clearly has more patience than I do, Alexander Russo has been pressing Larry Mishel to give a little more detail on what, exactly, the so-called “Broader Bolder” coalition is really all about.
My take on this hasn’t really changed since their statement was first released a few months ago. The thesis of the BB manifesto is that, to quote one of its possibly fictional supporters, “efforts to advance student’s learning and development need to combine policies intended to improve schools with policies designed to transform the social and economic contexts in which children and youth develop.” The conceit is that there are serious people out there who don’t already believe this. Every school reform advocate I know–and I know my share–absolutely wants better social and economic environments for children, and thinks that doing so would help their education. You’d have to be dead stupid to believe otherwise. It’s true that many of them don’t spend huge amounts of time working on issues like, say, health care, but that’s because there are only so many hours in the day and education reform is a pretty big challenge on its own. Division of intellectual labor doesn’t automatically imply indifference or antagonism toward other issues. From this perspective, the whole BB effort is an argument with a phantom.
Many of the BB signatories are smart, serious people who presumably understand all of this. So that raises the question of what the effort is really about. Is it, for example, an anti-accountability manifesto in poor disguise? That’s arguably a fair assumption, given the stated positions of many BB adherents on the subject. But in his correspondence with Russo, Mishel adamantly denies this, insisting that they’re “only against ‘narrow test-based accountability’ — not any use of tests.”
Okay, fair enough, let’s take that at face value. It still doesn’t really answer much. There are two components of narrow test-based accountability: “narrow” and “test-based.” Would Mishel and his colleagues oppose broad (i.e. not narrow) test-based accountability? What if states and schools were allowed to bring in lots of new assessments–AP tests, SATs, the ACT, along with standardized tests in other subjects (to avoid the dread curriculum narrowing) or non-content-focused tests that look at critical thinking, analytic reasoning, leadership, inter-personal collaboration and other so-called “21st Century skills”? How, exactly, would that work? The critical policy choice is “And / Or” — would schools be held accountable for student results on those tests and tests of reading and math, or would their performance be deemed acceptable if students did well in those areas or on foundational language and computational skills? And of course then there’s the danger of “teaching to test,” reducing instruction to accomodate assement, etc. Tough choices and tradeoffs, all.
Alternatively, maybe the BBers see the “test-based” element as the real problem. Of course, the question then is: if not test-based, what-based? If the answer is something like actual post-secondary educational outcome data, then I’m down with that. If it’s some kind of vague, locally-designed and defined, unverifiable qualitative measure or parental satisfaction survey, then not so much. Remember that the value of standardized testing is not just the common measure but also the fact that self-assessment for accountability purposes is basically a contradiction in terms.
In addition to laying out how schools will be measured, any legitimate position on accountability also necessarily describes what to do with that information. Presumably the BB coalition believes that the current way of doing things is overly punitive, dispiriting, etc. (If not, I’ll post a prominent correction.) If not to sanction, label, etc. how exactly will the information from whatever broader, less-test-based measure they come up with be used to spur school improvement, and why do they think that approach will work?
These aren’t trivial questions. They go to the heart of how one thinks about educational accountability. Without answers, there’s really no way to know what the BB cadre is trying to accomplish, other than suggesting that they’re on one side of an argument that doesn’t really exist.