Since becoming HMCI in January, Amanda Spielman has had a lot to say about the regrettable effects of the accountability system of which she is now a key part (and in which Ark Schools, the ‘no excuses’ academy chain which she helped to create, has gone from strength to strength). In a series of speeches, she has bewailed most of the main trends in state education over the last thirty years: the narrowing of the curriculum, the teaching to the test, the training of pupils ‘to jump through a series of accountability hoops’. In March, she told ASCL that ‘there is more to a good education than league tables’. The messaging continues in her October commentary: ‘where school leaders and teachers have an overt focus on performance tables, this can lead to mistaking “badges and stickers” for learning and substance’. Schools, alas, are focusing on ‘maximising test scores at the expense of children’s learning’.
As might be expected from a key player in the Ark Schools set-up, Spielman’s message is both finely-honed PR and totally unoriginal. The script that she is following comes from the USA – again, no great surprise, given that Ark’s ‘school improvement model’ is copied wholesale from US charter school chains. The script was written at least two years ago, during the final stage of the Obama administration. In fact, the key source is still on the US Department of Education website: it is Obama’s Testing Action Plan, pitched to the American public in the autumn of 2015. Most of Spielman’s talking points can be found here:
In too many schools, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students […] creating undue stress for educators and students
States, districts, and educators should eliminate ‘drill and kill’ test prep that is a poor use of students’ and educators’ classroom time.
Students do best on high-quality assessments that actually measure critical thinking and complex skills
And so on. The legislation which followed Obama’s Action Plan – the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in December 2015 – actually did very little to change the test-driven accountability system created by George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, thirteen years earlier. States are still mandated to ‘annually measure the achievement of not less than 95 per cent of all students’ using standardised tests. As the teacher and blogger Emily Talmage argued at the time, the Testing Action Plan was essentially a Trojan horse. The plan actually points very clearly to the next stage of privatisation. It suggests that all schools should be ‘developing innovative new assessment instruments, such as […] technology-based academic assessments’. They should be ‘using technology to administer and score assessments’. More of the same can be found in the 600 or so pages of the Every Student Succeeds Act itself. Schools should ‘improve the use of technology in order to improve the academic achievement […] of all students’, etc. Commentators like Talmage and Alison McDowell argue convincingly that ESSA should be seen as a parting gift from Obama to his ‘friends’ in Silicon Valley, disguised as a progressive move to roll back the test-driven accountability regime imposed on US public schools by his predecessor.
Here in the UK, education technology – in other words, online instruction – is being aggressively promoted by the DfE and the big academy chains, especially Spielman’s friends at Ark (see here and here). The problem is that our national accountability system, created almost thirty years ago, is now an obstacle to further ‘innovation’ in this direction. The demand that all students should study the same national curriculum, and sit the same standardised tests at the same points in their school careers, underpinned the marketisation and partial privatisation of state-funded education. But, as developments in the USA show us, the old form of accountabilityhas become a barrier to the next step: the full-scale privatisation of public education systems, with schools run and serviced by profit-making businesses. Online instruction will be central to this next stage, because it allows the massive reductions in wage costs and overheads which will make running a school – or chains of schools – a viable business proposition. It also opens vast new markets for publishers, tech firms, and other companies, as Rupert Murdoch recognised back in 2010.
If Spielman is now wringing her hands about teaching to the test and a ‘hollowed-out’ curriculum, it is because the national curriculum – or the system of national standardised tests to which it has largely been reduced – is old news. The future is online (and proprietary) learning platforms. Each privately-run chain of schools will have its own, and each platform will incorporate a digital curriculum, delivered mainly via short videos, with built-in or ‘embedded’ tests. The fact is that online instruction, currently marketed as ‘personalised learning’, actually involves more testing, rather than less. When student-teacher ratios are at 50:1 or higher, it is the computer, rather than the teacher, which assesses the student’s ‘progress’. This is done mainly through multiple-choice tests, which computers can ‘administer and score’. The student reads a piece of text or watches a video, and takes a multiple-choice test. Then she either moves on to the next video and a fresh test, or has to re-take the initial test. This is what ‘personalised learning’ means: continuous testing ‘integrated’ in online ‘instructional content’. Or, to put it another way, a continuous stream of data to be processed by management information systems, and used both for marketing purposes (‘99.9% of our student score 99.9% in every test!’) and for ‘robust’ performance management of staff.
So the time has come for a strategic dismantling of the national accountability system. In the US, this process began with Obama, and is continuing with Trump. It’s interesting to compare Spielman’s recent pronouncements with Betsy DeVos’s responses to Senator Tim Kaine during her confirmation hearing.
Kaine: And, if confirmed, will you insist upon […] equal accountability in any K-12 school or educational program that receives federal funding whether public, public charter or private?
DeVos: I support accountability.
Kaine: Equal accountability for all schools that receive federal funding?
DeVos: I support accountability.
Kaine: OK, is that a yes or a no?
DeVos: That's an 'I support accountability.'
Kaine: Do you not want to answer my question?
DeVos: I support accountability.
What does Spielman’s talk about ‘badges and stickers’ really mean? It means that, for the big academy chains, the era of accountability is coming to an end. And rolling back the old accountability system – in the name of a ‘deep and rich curriculum’, or ‘learning in depth’, or ‘critical thinking’, or whatever sales pitch they come up with next – will open the way to the automation of teaching, and the ‘staffing and school design efficiencies’ which Ark Schools is so keen to achieve (see here).