educational accountability: cost or benefit?

In Nebraska, since 2000, every school district has been required to devise its own educational standards and tests in all core disciplines other than writing (for which there is a statewide exam). Even though many Nebraska districts enroll fewer than a thousand students, the teachers, administrators, and parents in each community must choose appropriate educational objectives for each grade and subject, design valid multiple-choice exams or other tests, and analyze the resulting data. (My source, an article in EdWeek, is behind that magazine’s firewall.)

Meanwhile, in Washington DC, where my wife teaches and my daughter studies in the public schools, the district has borrowed all of its standards verbatim from Massachusetts. We also buy our high-stakes tests and some of our textbooks from big companies that construct them to match the Massachusetts standards.

You might think that all the work that goes into writing standards and tests and analyzing the data is a cost. It’s the price we have to pay for keeping schools and students on task. If that price can be minimized by borrowing materials from another jurisdiction, that’s a smart move. After all, kids should learn the same basic skills and facts everywhere. And designing good materials and tests is a high-skill job that most people cannot perform as well as the experts.

But there is another way to think about such matters. We might see the creation of standards and tests as an opportunity to make judgments about what is most important. By deciding what to teach, we reproduce, transmit, and adjust our culture. Each community’s culture is somewhat different. For example, Washington is entirely urban, it has great historical resources, and it is the only majority-Black jurisdiction permitted to set education standards (the rest are states). Although the Massachusetts standards that we have borrowed in DC are well regarded, we may have made a mistake when we decided not to govern ourselves by writing our own. After all, Elkhorn, NE (pop. 7,635) seems to have done a pretty good job with theirs.