Shared accountability

Accountability, by definition, includes power.

One can only fairly be accountable for those things over which s/he has a comparable degree of control. Contrary to media myth, for American public school teachers, the aspects of our work over which we have any control has increasingly shrunk over the past 30 years. That decline parallels the perceived drop in student academic performance both across the country and between the U.S. and other countries.

As a veteran highly accomplished, highly effective teacher, I see at least two major problems with the current education accountability models. First, those systems, based largely on results of standardized testing, are neither rigorous nor comprehensive enough to hold teachers truly accountable for student learning or for the full range of professional duties required of a highly effective teacher. When I was still full time high school English teacher, the state test only covered about 1/3 of what I was responsible for teaching under the state curriculum. [Later, the curriculum was modified in an attempt to better fit the costly assessment]. Meanwhile, as fellow TLN blogger, Dan Brown, reminds us the tests only cover the work of about 30% of America’s teaching force. The situation is akin to attempting to determine someone’s blood pressure with a ruler. Nothing wrong with the instrument, but it’s not designed for that task. Sure, some creative thinker might be able to rig up something that looks as if it might work (e.g., value-added measures), but the better plan is to use the right tools for the job. And even the Administration admits those tools do not yet exist.

Second, to share accountability, our evaluations must also include the work of those who are responsible for providing the working conditions and resources teachers need in order to teach effectively. In 1996, The Commission on Teaching and America’s Future declared: “School reform cannot succeed unless it focuses on creating the conditions in which teachers can teach, and teach well” (10). Fifteen years later, a group of my TLN colleagues in a report on Teacher Working Conditions conclude:

The next question is whether the systems in place in our schools and districts support our efforts to be fully effective teaching professionals. In many cases, the answer is unfortunately “no.” Despite access to Title I dollars, we tend to have fewer material resources available to us in our schools, including less well-kept and modern facilities. Most important, we frequently lack the human resources we need to reach a “tipping point” for success with our students.(7)…The national conversation about educational accountability must and will continue—but it should broaden to include accountability for administrators and education officials at every level (24).

This is not an attempt to throw off that part of the accountability that belongs to teachers, but thousands of teachers have helped their students make incredible gains in learning, despite consistent inequity in how educational resources are allocated in this country. The poorest children in the nation shouldn’t have to pin their hopes for the future on the poorest schools in the nation.

In a recent series of blogs, another TLN friend, Bill Ferriter, helped by constructive pushback from some thoughtful school principals, helps us figure out that it is a waste of good energy to engage in a “them-vs-us” arguments between teachers and local administrators, and I agree. The current deplorable state of working conditions for teachers and learning conditions for students, particularly in high-needs schools are the harvest of a long series of bad decisions on many levels, including the persistent refusal of the federal government to fully fund IDEA so that special needs students can get all the services and supports which they have been promised in order to be successful. However, that does not stop the Feds from penalizing schools when those students are not successful on those same inadequate state tests I mentioned earlier, and courts have ruled that NCLB overrules IDEA when it comes to how those students are tested. It’s a cruel circle of errors that ends up hurting our most vulnerable students.

Thankfully, we have many examples of local schools that have successfully worked to bring most of the educational stakeholders together in mutually respectful ways. The results have been schools that truly serve all children well, without costly, ineffective so-called turnaround strategies such as mass firings. Sadly, it seems turning these local examples into representatives of a cohesive, coordinated national education policy is, as my Mississippi friends say, “too much like right.”

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