The wrongheaded quest for cheap and easy. . .

If you haven’t had the chance to check out the comment section of my recent post on Barack Obama’s thoughts regarding education and technology, then you’re missing out on a pretty interesting conversation about accountability in education between two regular radical readers—Mike and K. Borden.

K.’s pushing the idea that educators should take ownership over their profession and design alternative methods for evaluating performance that can be used to supplement standardized tests.  She (he?) wrote:

We agree that the standardized tests alone (without other measures) are inadequate to fully measure teacher or student performance.

The rub is, what other measures? This is where I as a parent look to you the teaching community to offer answers. I want to learn and hopefully be able to advocate with you for acceptable, reliable accountability. I want to know that you as a community of teachers recognize some in your profession are failing and some are blazing trails we all may be wise to follow.

I’ll jump in this conversation, K, and I’ll lay out a vision for holding teachers accountable that might blow your mind—-but before I do, I want to give you three non-negotiables that are required from the general public before holding teachers “accountable for results” is even possible:

1.  You’ve got to delineate and prioritize your expected outcomes:  This is probably the source of greatest frustration—and resistance—for teachers involved in conversations about accountability because it is impossible to deny that communities are asking schools to tackle more tasks than it is possible to achieve.

Once a community can clearly define exactly what it is that they most want their children to learn in schools, we can start to have meaningful conversations about how to measure mastery of those skills and delineate between successful and unsuccessful educators.

2.  You’ve got to make a commitment to providing necessary resources to meet expected outcomes:  One of my favorite quotes about accountability comes from Richard Elmore, who is responsible for the term reciprocal accountability.  Elmore writes:

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).

I’m not certain that most communities can honestly say that they are providing enough capacity to meet the litany of expectations that they have set for schools.  New demands and expectations are placed on schools—and teachers, in particular—-without any additional time or training to meet those expectations.

Here’s a simple example from my classroom:  In our data driven world, I’m expected to collect and manipulate numbers about student performance in order to make informed decisions.  This is a completely reasonable expectation—and one that can help to document the “bang for the buck” that taxpayers get from my services.

But my school and system struggle to find the funds to provide me with the kinds of ongoing, job embedded professional development that it takes to develop the skills necessary to manage data effectively.  What’s more, they struggle to find the funds to provide me with the tools that data managers in other industries take for granted.

So I collect “data” on post-it notes, move those results to my paper and pencil grade book and then try to identify trends in my 85-student class load with a yellow highlighter.  The entire process is frustratingly inefficient—taking away time that I should be spending on planning and providing students with meaningful feedback—-and would simply not be tolerated in the business world.

“For every increment of performance I demand from you, I have an equal responsibility to provide you with the capacity to meet that expectation,” is a powerful idea that communities need to embrace before most teachers will embrace accountability.

3.  You’ve got to differentiate compensation for teachers in high needs schools no matter what:  The biggest failure that our society currently makes is rewarding teachers equally regardless of the kinds of schools they choose to work in.  As a result, students in high needs communities are consistently exposed to higher numbers of inexperienced or ineffective teachers—-and we do nothing to make work in high needs buildings more attractive.

That should be a source of great shame for everyone—from policy makers to taxpayers.  We’re knowingly putting students who need the most help in buildings where that help is unlikely to ever arrive.

Crazy.

Once communities narrow and prioritize their expectations for schools and commit themselves to providing the capacity to meet new expectations, I’d propose that all teachers be held accountable for working through yearly cycles of action research conducted at the classroom level, documenting the impact of their instructional decisions on the learning gains of their students.

Here’s how it could look:  At the beginning of each school year, teachers—with the guidance of school leaders—should set specific areas of instructional focus for the upcoming year based on learning data available at the school level.

Over the course of the school year, teachers should be expected to research instructional practices that have been effective at addressing identified weaknesses, implement those strategies in their classrooms, and document the results of their instruction.  Next, they should be expected to revise their instructional practices and work through a second cycle of implementation and documentation.

At the end of each year, teachers should be expected to present their findings to a school/community based committee.  While the findings may not always show that a teacher has identified instructional practices that are worth continued exploration—remember that failures are an accepted result of attempts at innovation in other professions—-he/she must be able to show that they’ve made responsible decisions based on an awareness of the impact that their actions were having on the students of their classrooms.

And here’s the good part, K:  After collectively reviewing the work of an individual teacher, the school/community based committee of parents, policymakers and education professionals can make recommendations about a teacher’s continued employment and compensation.

Yup—I said it:  Let’s get rid of tenure and put teachers on terminating contracts that are open to review by members of the communities that they serve every few years.

That’s gotta make teachers cringe, huh?!

But when I think about my own efforts at reflection, I’m pretty confident that I could convince a review committee that I was worth keeping on board.  While my instructional practices don’t always hit pay dirt, I’m at least constantly looking for ways to improve—-and I think that kind of persistence is valued and respected by most families in the neighborhood that I serve.

I’m also certain that tenure is a permanent scar on our profession.  No one takes us seriously because EVERYONE has a story about some miserable old bat that had been teaching for too long yet was making serious cabbage.  Worse yet, the kind of job security teachers have is non-existent in other professions.

Mike’s going to hate this, but what makes us any different from any other “profession” where people have to prove their worth to keep their gig?

For you, K., this system gives community members control over teacher quality—and an inside look into the kind of work that the teachers in your schools are doing.  Transparency would be absolute—and the standards of judgment would be completely in the hands of the people footing the bill.

Here’s why my ideas will never fly, though:  This whole process is going to cost a helluva lot more than running a bunch of bubble sheets through a scantron machine.  School boards and state elected officials—the folks that would be responsible for driving this kind of change—are constantly counting every nickel and dime in an effort to keep tax bills down.

It’s about re-election, right?

It’s also going to take a whole ton of time!  I seriously doubt that most schools could find enough interested community members to be involved in the evaluation and review process.  While people like to complain about not having input in public schools, who’s got the time to sit in on dozens of teacher review meetings each year?

So trying to sell a program of evaluation that carries inherent rewards for the community—-the ability to have direct input in the kind of teachers who remain employed in their schools—and for teachers—the ability to be evaluated based on their own professional actions and decisions—will probably never happen because it ain’t cheap and easy!

Does anyone see anything in my pipe-dreams that is worth embracing, though?

Are there starting points that we might be able to agree on?