My boy Bob—who reads the Radical regularly and pushes me with provocative comments—has me thinking about teacher accountability this week.  In response to a recent post about the characteristics of inspirational teachers, he wrote:

I, too, hold similar thoughts, but find mixed results to the following Q: How do you see these ideas translating into student learning rates, the teacher’s central duty?

And then in response to my thoughts on preservice educators, he wrote:

As for teacher prep, make it clear that individuals learn, not aggregates. Require student teachers to demonstrate that they can increase measured individual student learning rates before signing off on teaching certificates. Yes? 🙂

Now, few would mistake me as an apologist for teachers who push back at efforts to hold educators accountable for results.  In fact, I tend to rub colleagues the wrong way more often than not simply because I’ve grown tired of our resistance to accountability.  It’s almost embarrassing to me to hear teachers complain about not earning “professional respect,” yet refuse to take responsibility for producing gains in student learning.

But Bob’s comments leave me worried because they illustrate one of the most harmful over-simplifications in education.  The idea that teachers should be held accountable for increasing “measured individual student learning rates” seems obvious, right?

But it ain’t ever that easy.  Here’s why:

1.  The term “student learning rates” is poorly defined:  Ask ten parents what kinds of outcomes they most value from schools and you’re likely to get ten different answers.

Some will care most about academic achievement measured by standardized tests.  Others will care more about seeing their students learn life skills like how to collaborate.  Society expects schools to prepare students to participate in our democracy.  Public health organizations want us to address challenges ranging from childhood obesity to teenage pregnancy.

In the end, we need a clear definition of the “student learning rates” that people expect us to increase before we can make any guarantees to anyone—-and because of the range of interests that people have in public schools, I’m afraid we’ll never get clarity on the outcomes that should be valued the most.

2.  Defined curricula border on the ridiculous:  Most would agree that teachers should be held accountable for student mastery of their state-defined curriculum, right?  How can we have confusion about what to hold teachers accountable for when there are sets of standards that students are supposed to master in every grade level and content area?

The answer is simple:  State-defined curricula contain far more content than it’s actually possible to teach.  Researcher Bob Marzano—in his 2003 book What Works in Schools—determined that the average curriculum for a K-12 student contained nearly 200 standards, which would take nearly 15,000 hours over the course of a child’s school career to adequately address.

The problem:  During the typical 180-day school year, there is an average of about 1,008 hours available for instruction—of which, 69% is actually used for instruction (fire drills and discipline takes time too, you know)—-leaving about 9,000 hours of time for student learning between kindergarten and college.  Is it really fair to hold teachers accountable for student mastery of a curriculum that simply won’t fit into the teaching hours that we have available to us?

3.  Testing results in a narrowing of the curriculum and score inflation:  For many, “increasing measured student learning rates” translates to higher scores on standardized tests because standardized test results carry great currency in conversations about education right now.

They just seem so trustworthy and scientific!

The hitch is this:  Standardized tests only measure student mastery of a small range of skills within a curriculum.  With a little bit of mathematical magic, extrapolations are made and conclusions are drawn about a student’s mastery of the entire curriculum based on his or her answers on end of grade exams.

In theory, this should work just fine.  Demonstrated mastery of the subset of skills tested on standardized exams should allow for reliable conclusions about student understanding of the entire curriculum.

In reality, though, it doesn’t.  As Daniel Koretz of Harvard University recently showed in his new book Measuring Up, teachers, schools and districts—-withering under the pressure to produce results on exams—-focus their instruction solely on the skills that they expect to see on standardized tests.

This narrowing of the curriculum produces score inflation.  While results suggest that students have mastered the content for their grade level or content area, they have really only mastered the small set of skills that end-of-grade exams actually test.  Parents and policymakers end up with a false sense of what their kids actually know.

I’m ready for accountability to be introduced to education, primarily because I want the opportunity to be rewarded differently based on my abilities as an educator.  The single-salary schedule has frustrated me since day one because it ensures that my compensation will remain the same regardless of how hard I work to improve my practice.

But real barriers must be addressed before teachers can be fairly held accountable for “student learning.”  We deserve clear definitions of the kinds of learning that communities value the most.  We also deserve to have a manageable curriculum that can be adequately taught in the time that we have available.  Finally, we deserve more complex measures of “achievement” than we currently have.

Does this make sense to anyone besides me?

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