Taking charge of our profession

Anthony Cody, a colleague of mine in the Teacher Leaders Network, recently gave me reason to cheer with this take on assessment and accountability:

We need to make clear that we are not avoiding accountability. We WANT to know what difference we make! We are in the profession to make a difference! We want our students to know how they can improve—where they are strong, and where they need to apply themselves to fill gaps in their skills or knowledge.

We want to be in a position to reflect on how well we taught something so we can improve our instruction, and share that knowledge with our peers. We want our students to be in a position to reflect as well, and we can help them do that with feedback resulting from the assessments we have embedded in our instruction. We are modeling learning and growing for our students, and we do that by creating a process that gives us feedback on our own instruction.

To me this is genuine accountability. When we oppose the NCLB/standardized testing regime, we need to be clear that it is not because we want to escape accountability. It is because we hold ourselves to a much higher standard of accountability. We are accountable to our students and our parents to give them our best, and continually improve by reflecting on our work. (Posted in the TLN discussion group, 3/25/07)

Few other professions have their internal workings so externally dictated. Classroom teachers have very little (in some places, no) input into the policy decisions that govern what we do. To sit at the policymaking table, we must show that we are the education experts by making the complex work of quality teaching more understandable and visible to those outside the classroom.

Paradoxically, the current emphasis on testing and accountability provides fertile opportunities for such visibility. Outside assessments alone are neither rigorous nor comprehensive enough to fully measure the work of teachers or the accomplishments of students. Standardized test scores are useful for raising meaningful questions about curriculum and pedagogy. However, reliance on statistics alone to gauge student learning or teacher efficacy represents the unethical and irresponsible use of such data. The creators of the tests themselves tell us this. Large-scale standardized assessment must be balanced with assessments conducted within the classroom. Without these internal assessments, the outside ones are incomplete and quite possibly, inaccurate. Those internal assessments can only be provided by competent, well-trained professional classroom teachers.

Classroom teachers must seize greater responsibility for our business, and our business is student learning. Teachers have to help parents, politicians, and, in many cases administrators understand that we and our students are in position to best assess classroom learning because much essential learning can only be evaluated through performance assessment.

This more assertive approach to assessment leads to true accountability. We are, after all, public servants: paid with public funds to provide the most critical service in a democratic society to everyone’s children, all the children, not just the ones who come from stable homes, talk like we do, or do what we expect.

The best way to silence critics of public education is to take responsibility with our students for what they do or do not learn under our care. No excuses. No citing demographics. No finger-pointing at parents or last year’s teacher. Research findings on this are quite clear: What teachers do or don’t do, and how we do it are the greatest determinants of student achievement. Period. Quality teaching is more influential on student performance than background, readiness for school, socioeconomic factors, or environment. An effective teacher focuses on what my students can and will do, not on what they didn’t bring with them.

If we want to be treated as professionals, then we must do what professions do—and that includes holding each other to commonly agreed upon standards of practice and ethics. Teachers are accountable to the various other stakeholders in public education, but most of all, we should be accountable to one another for upholding the highest professional standard.

Ultimately the communities in which our schools are rooted determine and enjoy our success or failures. As one writer said, “we inhabit the consequences of our work.” The degree to which we are held accountable for our professional work is the degree to which we should control the conditions of that work. Such empowerment helps transfer respect for individual teachers to support for the entire educational enterprise.