California’s governor refuses to add more speedometers to a broken education vehicle

In an eloquent veto message of a school accountability reform bill last weekend, California Governor Jerry Brown articulated an alternative to the narrow standardization of schooling and the promotion of misleading quantitative test score measures that have characterized American education in the last generation.

Most observers recognize that as government increasingly held schools and teachers accountable primarily for the math and reading test scores of their students, schools inevitably narrowed their curricula to minimize attention to other important educational outcomes, substituted test preparation and test taking skills for real learning, and even engaged in cheating to meet politically determined targets.

Some policymakers have recently attempted to address these problems by advocating accountability for “multiple measures.” Their reasoning has been that the corruption of education that results from a near-exclusive focus on basic skills in math and reading can be ameliorated if other indices can be added to accountability systems to supplement the math and reading test scores. This was the goal of the California bill, sponsored by liberal Democrats, and sent to Brown for signature.

But because other important outcomes of education – like character, inquisitiveness, citizenship, civic awareness, historical reasoning, scientific curiosity, good health habits – cannot be standardized like math and reading scores, proponents of “multiple measures,” like the California senators who crafted the bill, are left with adding indices like attendance rates, parent satisfaction, graduation rates, the number of students taking advanced placement courses, and the like. But this does little to divert schools’ obsession with math and reading test scores, since they remain the only academic outcomes that count.

As Brown observed, “adding more speedometers to a broken car won’t turn it into a high-performance machine.”

In his veto message, Brown recalled an aphorism of Albert Einstein: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.” The bill, Brown said, “nowhere mentions good character or love of learning. It does allude to student excitement and creativity, but does not take these qualities seriously because they can’t be placed in a data stream.”

Brown invited the legislature to work with him to devise a truly workable accountability system for education, one that relies on qualitative evaluations by “panels [that] visit schools, observe teachers, interview students, and examine student work.”

The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education campaign has advocated such a system, and described it in more detail in a statement issued by nationally prominent educators and policy experts. The system is also described in Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right. If the panels that Brown advocates are constituted with appropriate experts in curriculum and instruction, and include members of the public as observers, they have the potential to finally provide citizens with the ability to distinguish effective from ineffective schools in their state and communities.

It is encouraging that California State Senator Darrell Steinberg responded to Brown’s veto message with a willingness to work with him to design such an accountability system. Should they succeed, it could signal that some in the nation may finally be ready to turn away from a well-intentioned but destructive reduction of schooling to the standardized tests that can, at best, measure only a small aspect of education.