The Scesis Increases

“Ello, I wish to register a complaint.”  So starts Monty Python’s famous Dead Parrot skit.  For fans of the Flying Circus, it’s a quintessential piece of British humor.  For those with an eye for analogy, it’s also a burning effigy of the current state of affairs for education accountability in America.

Often cited as the classic example of Scesis Onomaton, the best parts of the skit center around Mr. Praline’s attempts to convince the shopkeeper that he sold him a dead parrot; stating multiple times, and in multiple ways, that the bird is definitely…an “EX-PARROT”. Despite some really funny evidence to the contrary, the shopkeeper repeatedly refuses to admit that there’s anything wrong with the parrot.

For the better part of a decade, educators in public schools have been engaged in a scesis of our own; stating multiple times, and in multiple ways, that the populist movement to implement a high-stakes, test-based accountability model was a dead parrot.  And like Mr. Praline’s shopkeeper, policy makers have ignored a growing body of evidence that shows the current accountability model is driving the best and brightest away from of our industryhas narrowed the curriculumlowered student aspiration, and does nothing to improve student performance.   There’s nothing funny about that.

And now comes a report from Marc Tucker and the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), entitled Fixing Our National Accountability System.  Tucker, an internationally recognized expert on education reform, becomes the latest voice to increase the scesis.  Tucker’s report notes that “The test-based accountability system now universally mandated in the United States…has had ten years to prove itself.  The result is very low teacher morale, plummeting applications to schools of education, the need to recruit too many of our teacher from the lowest levels of high school graduates, a testing regime that has narrowed the curriculum for millions of students to a handful of subjects and a very low level of aspiration.  There is no evidence that it is contributing anything to improved student performance, much less the improved student performance of the very low-income and minority students for which it was in the first instance created.”

Not to diminish the work of a great researcher like Mr. Tucker, but ‘Ello…school districts have been dealing with these issues for some time.  Teachers are leaving the industry in droves.  The reasons?  There are many, but stress levels for one.  And two, they now describe what used to be some of the most rewarding work on the planet as akin to punching rivets on an assembly line.

Not only are they leaving, they’re not coming in the first place.  Tucker states that “Test-based accountability and teacher evaluation systems do not simply fail to improve student performance.  Their pernicious effect is to create an environment that could not be better calculated to drive the best practitioners out of teaching and to prevent the most promising young people from entering it.”   As the British like to say, Mr. Tucker is spot on.  The number and quality of candidates our school district is seeing for most positions has decreased significantly over time, and as Tucker noted, fewer high school students see teaching as a career choice.  Why?  They just spent the better part of their adolescence with teachers, watching them work.  Our students have a firsthand view of what teaching has become under the currently accountability system, and they don’t want any part of it.

Add to that a student population that sees little value in the vast majority of accountability tests and therefore no interest in preparing for them, very little time for teachers to collaborate and perfect their craft, insufficient interest from teachers in leadership positions, and high turnover rates for principals and superintendents, and you get a system that’s become far more proficient at leaching the motivation, creativity and resilience from our students and educators than it ever was at improving student performance.

Famed management guru Peter Drucker is attributed with the quote “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.   As Tucker has pointed out, the negative culture created by our current accountability system is eating every strategy we throw at improving student performance for breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, and luncheon.  We can nail this dead parrot of an accountability system to the perch a thousand times, but until we focus on changing the culture that currently exists in public education in the United States, student performance isn’t going to “voom” if we put four million volts (or four billion dollars) through it.

The Dead Parrot skit, and coincidently this post, both start with the statement, “Ello, I wish to register a complaint.”  I think everyone who has a child in a public school has a complaint to register about the national accountability system, and to date, no one has more clearly articulated that complaint than Mark Tucker…and no one has provided a better starting point for a solution.   I hope you will add your voice to increasing the scesis on changing accountability in public schools.


P.S – If you don’t agree with the connected series of statements I’ve issued  in this post intended to establish my proposition, you may wish to visit the clinic.  If you’d prefer to simply contradict me, that’s fine.

P.S.S – My apologies for mixing my Monty Python and Tolkien metaphors.  Their both British.  That’s close enough…right?

 Tucker, M. S. (2014) Fixing Our National Accountability System.  The National Center on Education and the Economy.




About Jay Harnack

Superintendent of Sublette County School District #1
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3 Responses to The Scesis Increases

  1. David J. Bell says:

    What do you suggest? Excellent diagnosis Doctor, what’s the cure?

    Sent from my iPhone


    • Jay Harnack says:

      I think the system described by Tucker in his report is a great starting point. Tucker reviewed what the highest performing countries do, and how that could be adapted for the U.S. Tops on that list include fewer (less frequent) and higher quality tests, career ladders for teachers, more collaborative time for teachers, and a peer-to-peer accountability system. In my personal opinion, we would also need to address issues related to tenure.

  2. Sharron Ziegler says:

    Lead the charge with some friends you can muster up to the same opinion……tell them to quit fighting common core and fight high stakes standardized testing instead. Go for it. Do your research. Jay says to tell you to visit with the Supt. and use the approach, that “We know you are hammered trying to get all of the instruction in around all of the testing and that some things just get lost and teachers are exhausted. How can we help?” “Put us in touch with who can help.” Check to see how many tests are administered that are not required by state law……then go to your legislators……only legislators can change the law. Everyone else (principals, school boards, Supts, state school board, state department of Ed) is bound to the law and trying to meet the requirements…..only the legislators can change the law to reduce the requirements. Help them see the folly of their thinking and remember that they are not educators, but they are making educational decisions…….get the support of Sups and School Board members in the problem. He says read up on Finland’s educational system that has only strategically placed high stakes tests. For us, PAWS (like FCAT) gives a score, but not what and where the problem is and it gives the score far too late to help a child…..MAP testing gives teachers, (immediately, not next year) exactly where the problem is – which standard was not understood and by whom – so it can be remedied ASAP. Don’t know if Florida uses MAP.

    There are organizations that use the research to fight HStesting…… Maybe you could find one online and get some info/data from them.

    Hope this helps.

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