Getting fried on accountability!

So it’s been a bit of an interesting day around here.  Brett, who writes for both the DeHavilland blog and Kitchen Table Math, decided to make a whole bunch of assumptions about my teaching practice based on one paragraph from my recent summer reading list post.

Check out some of his comments:

His blog focuses on incorporating new technology (wikis, Twitter, etc.) into instruction, and he argues forcefully for the use of these tools. But you have to ask the question – to what end? Why would you advocate so strongly for the use of technology – or the use of any other instructional tool – when you admit up front that you have no idea whatsoever whether it helps students learn?

And of course, it’s one thing to admit that you don’t know how to assess student learning; it’s another to make clear that it’s not a priority. “I’ll finish the book by the time I retire” – which will do all your students a load of good in the meantime.

And this from the 2005-06 Teacher of the Year in his (rather large) district!

So clearly, at least for this teacher, the answer to my question is clear: he doesn’t assess student learning because it’s not about the students, it’s about him. He’s incorporating technology because he likes it; there’s no other explanation. If he cared whether students were learning, he’d make an effort to learn how to assess that learning, and tailor his instruction based on their progress. Clearly that’s not going to happen – not, at least, until he retires.

What’s ironic about his comments is that I’ve worked pretty actively to make my struggles with assessment public precisely because I think it is important for educators to wrestle with the fact that accepting responsibility for student learning is something we must do.

And I’m pretty sure that I’ve also worked harder than most at improving my own assessment skills.  Consider these thoughts, drawn from this post that Brett seemed to overlook as he was lighting his Bill Ferriter Barbecue:

“Over the course of 11 years, I’d developed a pretty comfortable pattern of instruction based on a strong understanding of what I’d done in previous years and a remarkably weak understanding of the standards set by the state.”

“And I’m supposedly an ‘accomplished teacher?!'”

“We had to develop common assessments that would be delivered in each of our classrooms. That simple requirement forced us to have conversations that we’d never been forced to have before.”

“Together we began by wrestling with what content was essential to teach—standardizing the implemented curriculum across our hallway (often for the first time) and pushing our team to really think about what it is that students were supposed to be learning. For our group, that led us to look carefully at the state standards for our subjects in ways we’d never done before!”

“It was almost amazing (Read: Embarrassing) to find out that the lessons and units we’d been teaching for so long didn’t directly fit the standards expected by our state.”

“And even though I felt strongly that those teachers [who gave out easy A’s] were failing students as much as they were fooling them, I never started a conversation about what mastery looked like with anyone. That’s kind of a taboo subject in schools steeped in isolation. Teachers rarely question the professional judgment of other teachers—-and take great offense when it happens to them! As a result, the best interest of kids is often overlooked.

Does that sound like someone who is making no effort to assess student learning or tailor instruction based on student progress, Brett?  Or does it sound like someone who is engaged in a process of reflection and growth in an area of professional weakness?

Look—-let’s be honest about something here:  Managing data and assessing learning is something that many teachers (including me)—especially in hard-to-measure-with-multiple-choice-tests like Language Arts and Social Studies—are poorly prepared for, regardless of how common sense those skills seem to outside critics.

In the years before NCLB—-when the vast majority of educators were trained—evaluation of students was uneven at best, largely (and wrongly) left to teachers—and to the principals who spent twenty minutes observing them two times a year every year.

And that is a failure of our profession. Period. No argument there. In fact, it is a failure that I’ve written about dozens of times in an attempt to drive change from within the profession.

They tend to attack me, too!

But the sad fact is that while we’ve done a lot of talking about requiring teachers to “use data to drive instruction,” we’ve taken little action to provide the kinds of meaningful, ongoing opportunities for professional growth in this area that are necessary to ensure that every teacher can effectively assess student performance.

Who is responsible for that?

Here’s what Richard Elmore thinks:

“Accountability must be a reciprocal process. For every increment of performance I demand from you, I have an equal responsibility to provide you with the capacity to meet that expectation.

Likewise, for every investment you make in my skill and knowledge, I have a reciprocal responsibility to demonstrate some new increment in performance. This is the principle of “reciprocity of accountability for capacity.” It is the glue that, in the final analysis, will hold accountability systems together (Elmore, 2000).

At the moment, schools and school systems are not designed to provide support or capacity in response to demands for accountability.”

I’m open for criticism any day.  Heck, I’m an Irish-Catholic.  We perfected self-loathing, didn’t we?

And I’m also open to the idea that schools need to change.  We’ve been stagnant for so long that we’ve embarrassed ourselves and lost professional credibility.  That is damage that we’ve simply got to work to repair over time.

But I’ve also grown tired of being held accountable for outcomes by a society that isn’t willing to hold itself accountable for supporting the kinds of efforts necessary to improve our communities and schools.

I guess I’m just ready for some capacity building.