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Accountability? Start at the Top

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"Two vast and trunkless legs of stone. . ."

For nearly two decades, I taught high school English in rural upstate South Carolina. During about the last half of that part of my career, I also served as the soccer coach -- a role that added valuable nuance and perspective to my role as a teacher and mentor to young people.

Soccer is a spring sport in South Carolina since high schools tend to use the football fields for soccer. Each spring, one of my greatest headaches as a soccer coach was navigating spring break, which invariably fell near the end of the regular season and disrupted our practice schedule as we headed to the playoffs. Parents and players alike tended to push against my belief that we needed to practice at least some of the week (I wanted all of the week, by the way).

One year, after a particularly difficult wrestling match over when and if we'd practice during spring break, I was driving my wife to the Nissan dealership on the Tuesday of spring break and my cell phone rang. The voice on the other end was the captain of the soccer team, to whom I said something like, "Hey, Jason, what's up?"

Within a few seconds, I realized that my entire soccer team was waiting for me at the field for the practice I had fought for and then completely forgotten to attend.

The next morning at the next scheduled practice time, I was there early and I set out to run 10 laps around the soccer field -- double the required five laps for players who missed practices. As my players arrived, one by one, they joined me on the laps.

I never said a word about my laps, although I apologized for missing the practice the day before, but my players knew what I was doing -- and most, I think, realized that I had chosen to run more laps than I required for them.

This story is not self-aggrandizement. I have failed far too often in my life as a teacher, coach, parent, and husband -- and this space doesn't afford me the space needed to catalog those failures.

This story is to state that, despite my many failures, I believed in and practiced one Golden Rule of teaching, coaching, and mentoring young people: Hold yourself to higher standards than you ask of those over whom you are granted authority.

Accountability for the New Reformers

Each time I read the newest claims coming from the new reformers -- Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and Geoffrey Canada -- I think about my days in the classroom and on the field.

These new reformers reached their positions of authority in education reform, first, without any real expertise (similar, I must admit, to how I became a varsity soccer coach without ever having played the game). Next, one of the central refrains of their message has been teacher accountability.

I have recently raised concerns about the tragic flaw of hubris, which led me to muse about another classic text:


by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Like Ozymadias, the new education reformers are oblivious to their own failures, yet they continue to tout their accomplishments -- that are little more than "the decay of that colossal wreck." So how have the new reformers fared when placed against their claims?

What about Duncan's Chicago miracle? Evidence suggests that we have no miracle, but mirage, and Andrew J. Coulson makes this cogent suggestion for Duncan: "Secretary Duncan has said that state and district officials should not make inflated claims about student achievement based on misleading state test scores, and has used the NAEP to fact check their claims. He's right about that."

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An Associate Professor of Education at Furman University since 2002, Dr. P. L. Thomas taught high school English for 18 years at Woodruff High along with teaching as an adjunct at a number of Upstate colleges. He holds an undergraduate degree in (more...)
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