A Crisis of Credibility

trustLast week Vanderbilt hosted an education writers seminar. It was a pretty big deal. Such a big a deal that it brought Arne Duncan to town. Arne spent some time making appearances with his good buddy Kevin Huffman touting all the wonderful things that Mr Huffman was responsible for in Tennessee. There were quite a few quotable quotes dropped. My favorite was, “The biggest challenge of our nation isn’t the knowledge side of things but the courage. There is a courage gap.” That’s the one that got me thinking.

The more I thought about it, the more I saw its relevance. You know holding children accountable is very difficult. I’ve got a three year old and a 4 year old in my household, so this is a constant running battle. My wife and I attach a great deal of importance to instilling accountability in them. Its important to us that they understand actions have consequences. Its seldom easy though.

On one hand I want to instill that sense of consequence while on the other I want my children to love and adore me. Holding them accountable means there will be times they won’t be feeling it. I also like a certain amount of peace in my life. Holding children accountable seldom creates a peaceful environment. If its been a long day at work and I’m tired and the football games on…well next time. You see a by product of holding them accountable is a lot of whining. I’m seldom up for a lot of whining. However, the only way they are going to mature is if I screw up my courage and face it head on. The result is worth whatever discomfort the process brings.

The Tennessee Department of Education is like one of my kids. The only way they are going to continue to improve is if we hold them accountable. I know you’ve heard them utter those very words. This fiasco with the TCAP scores is just simply unacceptable behavior. It is behavior that warrants consequences. In order for this to transpire we are all are going to have to show a little courage.

To start with, I know its now summertime. Its been a long school year and every bodies worked real hard. Its time to turn off the brain, slide into the hammock and take it easy for a couple months. We can get back to this testing stuff in the fall. We’ve got all summer to discuss the Huffman follies over BBQ’s. The problem with that line of thinking is that it gives the illusion that not doing their job is really not that important. It also permits the Tennessee Department of Education time to concoct a better story then “post equating.” Just like with my children, reaction needs to be timely.

There will be people that say, “Its election season. Let’s not ruffle too many feathers. Once I get elected then…”. Again that gives the impression that the Ed Department doesn’t have anyone to fear, that they are the ones setting the rules we just have to follow. Luckily we’ve got representatives like Gloria Johnson, Bo Mitchell, and Mike Stewart, who have jointly filed a Freedom of Information Act request demanding answers.  Meanwhile Rep. Billy Spivey and Rep Janice Bowling requested that the Tennessee Comptrollers office launch a formal investigation into the delayed test scores. This is the kind of courage we need.

As far as Commissioner Huffman goes, though he’s been extremely quiet thus far, I expect that as the pressure increases the commissioner will begin doing some whining. He’s on record as saying “open discussion bothers him”.  So I don’t expect that he’ll take kindly to having to explain his actions. My three year old son doesn’t either, but we make him do it. It’s the only way his behavior improves. The flip side of that is, Mr. Huffman’s silence speaks volumes for his commitment to accountability and his recognition of a failure to complete charged obligations. It’s up to us to teach these lessons.

My friend J.C. Bowman of the Professional Educators of Tennessee is calling for an investigation so that we can find out why errors were made and make sure that they are not made again. He’s showing the courage that leads to better practices. He argues that accountability is not always about retribution and he’s correct. So an investigation is in order and it needs to be determined if this was a simple failure to execute or something more.

In the event that it turns out to be something more, than we need to have the courage to attach a substantial punishment. It has to be punishment substantive enough to discourage the action from being repeated.  Sometimes my son hits his sister just because she has something he wants and that’s when we as parents have to make sure that there is some punishment tied to that accountability. Delivering that punishment is never enjoyable and often quite painful, but it is necessity. If called upon we need to have the courage to take those steps.

Lastly, if you’ll remember, in previous posts I’ve mentioned that modeling is probably the most successful method of teaching behavior. I once spent a summer as head Counselor for a summer camp here in Davidson County. My message to my counselors was that they had to always be on their best behavior and never assume that children weren’t watching them. It was the way they acted when they thought no one was watching that their kids would pick up on and emulate. Well right now the children of Tennessee are watching us.

What kind of behavior are we as adults modeling if we fail publicly to meet our obligations and there are no visible consequences. We’ve spent the last couple of years drilling down on rigor and accountability. These tests are important. Children need to take them serious. There are no excuses for not being prepared. These tests will affect your schools, your teachers and your own future. Yet when it comes time to meet their own deadline the Tennessee Department of Education fails and offers nothing but excuses. Furthermore, in delivering these messages and then not delivering on their end, the TDOE has made parents and educators complicit.

How does a teacher respond to a student, who doesn’t have their assignment completed, when they say, “I’d rather my work be right then on time.” How does a parent get a child to study harder when the child voices the opinion that these tests “are just going be doctored.” That’s what the actions of the TNDOE have done. They have opened the door to questioning the validity of the state mandated tests and those who stressed their value.

These tests only have value if people buy into them. We have to believe that these are fair and accurately scored tests. If that buy-in is not there, then there is no validity. If one element of the message is invalidated then the whole message runs the risk of being invalidated.  Its not just TCAP tests and the department of education that are at risk of losing credibility. Its every educator and parent in the state of Tennessee. Every adult who has ever told a child that its important to be accountable for your actions is facing a crisis of credibility. That’s what’s at stake and that’s what we need to have the courage to hold the Tennessee Department of Education accountable for.



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