The school my second-grade daughter goes to is right around the corner from our house. It is red brick, with big picture windows, and a bell on top. Every day I pick her up at 3 o'clock and see the flood of children run out onto the playground - a real playground, with grass and trees and crossing guards who know my child by name. I've planned for these days for years: Like almost everyone we know, we bought our house because it was in this school district.
But my husband and I, like many of our friends, are spending this spring looking at private schools. We're not looking because the academic scores in our neighborhood school have dropped, or because there are guns in the cafeteria - we're looking because we fear for our children's spirits. The doctrine of accountability, which everyone from President Clinton to Elizabeth Dole seems to be preaching, with its emphasis on testing and scores and layers of evaluation, is tearing at the heart of American education.
Accountability, in the broad sense, means that the quality of teachers and schools is measured by students' performance on standardized achievement tests. Schools with good scores are rewarded; schools with bad scores are punished, and in some states, closed down completely.
Teachers and principals are held accountable for these test scores - so there's a lot of motivation for kids to do well on standardized tests. Maybe too much motivation: In Texas, a rising star in educational accountability, administrators from the Austin City School District were indicted earlier this month on charges of tampering with their students' test scores.
The driving force behind the accountability stampede seems to be mainly legislators. Last year in South Carolina, the General Assembly passed the Education Accountability Act, mandating a new statewide test for grades 3 to 8.
When the state's lead newspaper invited the legislators to take the test, not a single member was willing to take the risk. But these are the leaders who determine what will be taught in my daughter's classroom and how it will be taught.
In the current political environment, where control is shifting from the classroom to the statehouse, or even the White House, the piece that we are leaving behind is education. Somehow we're forgetting that this is all about teaching children to use their minds, to reason, to discover. There's just no time for that anymore - we're too busy testing.
I was gifted with a child who loves to learn, and if she can hold on to that, she can learn anything. I know absolutely that a huge component of teaching is intangible and cannot be measured, no matter how much you pay a consultant. This is the piece that keeps the love of learning alive in my child. And this is what we are giving up when we reduce the complexity of teaching to a spreadsheet. My daughter has had some caring, dedicated teachers in public school - she has a wonderful one right now. But the accountability ethic is working against teachers too - it's telling them that the only part of their work that matters is a test score.
My husband and I don't want to send our daughter to a private school. It goes against most of what we both believe in. I come from an American-dream family. My parents were farmers with little formal education, no money, and 11 children. Now they're in their 80s, with sons and daughters who are executives and teachers, and grandchildren who are at Columbia and the University of California. The pathway between my parents' and their grandchildren's lives is American public schools - tended along the way by teachers with some vision, some compassion, and a lot of common sense.
Now we're looking to find out if there is any place left where teachers are given the time and respect to teach as they were before testing became an end in itself.
It's not that I think all testing is unwarranted. We need measures of how well our children and schools are doing. And it's not that all American schools are in great shape. They're not.
But I don't buy the idea that better scores on standardized tests are going to solve all the problems. I wish it were that simple, but it's not.
In some school districts this spring students will spend one hour of classtime a day for three weeks straight doing nothing but prepare for the national standardized Metropolitan Achievement Test. That's an hour each day kids are missing out on a core class, like history or science or math. And that's just for that test.
Richard Stiggins, president of the Assessment Training Institute, explains the proliferation of tests: "We started in the '60s with districtwide testing; in the '70s and '80s we added the national; and in the '80s and '90s the international. Just layers and layers of tests being added to what teachers have to do, each supposedly doing what the previous couldn't. The costs are astronomical."
Bill Clinton and Elizabeth Dole tell me that the way forward is through greater accountability, but they don't tell me what that is going to cost me or my child or what I am paying for. My guess is that I'm paying for more tests - and more evaluation. I sometimes work in the public sector - I know that an evaluation team costs a lot more than a good teacher.
Accountability isn't good enough. I want an education for my daughter, and I don't trust the policymakers to deliver it.
*Marie Shervais is a technical writer living in Columbia, S.C.