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NCLB-Style Accountability---Coming to a College Campus Near You!

For generations, college professors have enjoyed and defended the concept of academic freedom. Skipping the more profound philosophical definitions of academic freedom, it broadly means at the classroom level professors get to teach pretty much what they want how they want.

As a long-time high school teacher, I was used to having my lesson plans pre-approved, [hopefully] getting at least an annual classroom observation visit from the principal, and being held accountable by colleagues, parents, and supervisors for my students’ academic performance. Since I made the move to full-time teaching at the community college, I’ve had little or none of those things. I still plan my lessons in advance, but no one checks them. No supervisor has ever observed me teach, and there is only anecdotal reference to the quality of my students’ work once they leave my course. Adjunct (part-time) instructors, many of whom also teach at secondary schools full-time, get even less feedback or supervision. These conditions are common across higher education institutions in this country.

Then, just before we went on our Spring Break, the faculty members at our small community college learned that our division chairs will be conducting evaluation visits to our classrooms before the end of the semester. We also learned that the college would begin using a nationally-normed standardized achievement test later this semester to collect data on student academic performance. As a watcher of national education trends, I am dismayed, but not surprised by these developments. However, the news prompted more than one of my colleagues to exclaim in disgust, “This is becoming just like high school!” [Cue the NCLB theme music]

For over 10 years now, U.S. colleges and universities have been under increasing pressure for more accountability. Some institutions of higher learning banded together in a pre-emptive move called the Voluntary System of Accountability. Increasingly, Regional Accreditation Agencies are requiring colleges to show evidence of student learning outcomes as part of their re-accreditation process.  While much of this is common knowledge and practice to elementary and secondary teachers, the language of accountability is relatively foreign to many colleagues in the post-secondary world. There has been a flurry of activity at accreditation and other higher ed conferences to offer sessions on How to Assess Student Learning; How to Write Student Learning Outcomes; How to Develop and Use Rubrics; or Using Student Outcomes to Evaluate Teaching. 

Sound familiar?

On one hand, much of what is being done to teachers in the PK-12 system is ineffective, even harmful (consider the regressive example of North Carolina). There is a growing national outcry against the excesses of standardized testing in our public schools. Also, across the U.S., teachers are facing a plethora of evaluation systems, some poorly designed and ineptly implemented. Given this state of flux, why move some of these same controversial and broken attempts at quality control to the college-level?

On the other hand, I am a proponent of blurring the lines between levels in education. It would make so much more sense to treat our educational system as one continuum of learning without the artificiality of grade levels. Human learning does not advance by grade levels; those logistical labels were invented to make the separating of children into classrooms easier. 

Education should be a continuous, expanding spiral differentiated by individual students’ needs and paces of learning. Similarly, the teaching profession itself should be viewed as a continuum. From the pre-school teacher to the graduate professor, we are all part of the same profession, and should respect each other as co-laborers advancing the field. 

Why is it acceptable, even admirable for a teacher at the college level to have extensive content knowledge, but no understanding of how to teach that knowledge to students? Why do some of the worst examples of instruction occur in college classrooms, including those charged with preparing future educators? Shouldn’t all teachers at every level of education hold ourselves to the same high standards of quality performance and ethical practice?

That last question is the real key. We teachers should be establishing, expanding, promoting, and evaluating the acceptable standards of performance in our profession. If the public, including political leaders, had more confidence in our ability and commitment to this most basic function of any profession, teachers would, in turn, be re-entrusted with the responsibility for assessing student performance (as in Finland).

Until we assert and assume charge of our own profession, teachers at all levels will continue to have inappropriate and ineffective accountability methods imposed upon us.

1 Comment

Justin Minkel commented on March 12, 2014 at 12:13pm:

Amen, amen! Accountability + Autonomy

Renee, I love this piece. You nailed my own thinking on this topic with precision and eloquence.

When I taught a course on differentiated instruction to Masters-level students when on sabbatical one year, I kept asking the professor who normally taught it, "So what do I have to teach? What do I need to make sure they know how to do?"

The answer was, "It's entirely up to you."

On one hand, the freedom was liberating. They respected me completely, trusted my autonomy.

On the flip side, the nations with the best education systems have a balance/fusion of autonomy and accountability.

Many of my friends in Fayetteville are professors at the University of Arkansas. They describe a climate in which teaching is sometimes completely professor-centered, not student-centered--more about what ideas the professor expounds than any attempt (let alone proof) to ensure students actually learned how to do or think something.

It's not uncommon to see professors, who may be brilliant in their fields, giving True-False quizzes and assigning grades based on absolutely no criteria other than their "feel" for whether an essay deserves an A or a C. Even the idea of rubrics is foreign to many professors.

I hold teachers responsible in part for the national catastrophe that was NCLB. We had a problem in our profession, a lack of accountability, and we didn't step forward to solve it. Someone else did, to disastrous effect.

Your background in the public schools is part of what makes you an exemplary professor, I'd imagine. I hope you and your colleagues can make sure that you solve the lack of accountability at the college/university level through efforts like those you mentioned, getting the balance of autonomy and accountability right for yourselves before someone gets it wrong for you.

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