Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Accountability? But it's too hard!

Ah, accountability. That catch-phrase hurled at and by teachers everywhere, that multi-tasking noun, that excellent idea so often used to insult and patronize. While "accountability" is slowly being displaced by "transparency," it still makes the rounds as one of the most misunderstood words in education.

It's a cliche worthy of a commencement speaker to define your terminology in a dramatic way, but here it is: Accountability means that you're responsible to somebody or for something, and that your actions are capable of being explained (my paraphrase of Encarta Dictionary).

At the most basic level, this isn't a problem for teachers. We hold our students accountable to the point of being ridiculous: "Why didn't you do your homework?" "Why were you late for school?" "How bad do you really have to go to the bathroom?"

The average teacher would want accountability to sound more reasonable: "What are you going to learn?" "How are you going to learn it?" "How will you know when you have learned it?" This type of classroom accountability should encourage students to learn and inquire and grow.

If you mention accountability for teachers and schools, well, you're asking for a fight. The images that come to my mind are angry union members yelling across tables, people with clipboards and high heels and silk blouses standing in my classroom as far away from the students as possible, and students' sickened expressions as they enter the classroom on testing days.

Accountability in education is too much like the first example. Instead of "Why didn't you do your homework?" it's "Why didn't your English Learners make more progress?" Teachers and schools are judged solely on a set of numbers, and attempts to evaluate in more logical ways become just as foolish.

One of the recent "innovations" was the introduction of the Classroom Walk-Through, or CWT because jargon makes us feel important. The idea is that district personnel, school administration, and other teachers will step into your classroom for 4 minutes, fill out a checklist, and move on to the next room. This should be done often, providing hundreds of classroom "snapshots" throughout the year in order to create a composite picture of what a school is really doing.

As much as I love snapshot collages, I can't pretend that they accurately represent what my students are learning. John Spencer on Television and Teaching recently compared such snapshots to a nature show in which the photographer stands back from a ritual, taking pictures and making judgements, but never gaining a true understanding of the culture by actually participating and getting to know the people. The CWT (love the lingo) may be better than a one-shot evaluation, but it still allows a wall of separation between reality and the clipboard.

So, what about teacher accountability? Don't all business sectors use some sort of performance pay? Not really, according to Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute. In an excerpt from his book Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right, Rothstein explains that "private sector pay is almost never based primarily on quantitative performance measures." Based on his conclusions, our foolish method of grading schools based on Math and Reading scores is detrimental to real education, because everyone always focuses primarily on the areas of their profession that are evaluated. We all know what happens when we focus on Math and Reading: we say goodbye to Science, Social Studies, Music, Art, Electives, Sports, and anything else that enables a well-rounded education.

When we look at common teaching practices, this focus shouldn't be a surprise. When I start a project with my students, I give them background information, instructions, examples...and a rubric that shows exactly what will be graded and how many points are available in each category. My students know to use that rubric as a checklist and to focus on those categories.

True evaluation requires a change in mindset. Accountability means that we are responsible for our work, but for whom are we working? To whom are we responsible? Who are the stakeholders in our school? We have many:
  • The Federal, State, and Local governments direct money toward our programs. They're controlling partners...who really have all of the control.
  • The community pays taxes that provide that money. They should have more control, because they elect many of the government officials. They also have an inherent interest because the community's future depends on raising up their children to be future leaders.
  • The parents of our students, regardless of their taxpayer status, because, well, they're the parents of our students.
  • Our students. These kids are required by law to sit their behinds in our classrooms for almost 6 hours a day, and then go home and do homework. They don't get paid, and they often don't have a voice in the decision-making.

In order to truly evaluate a school, we have to base our assessments on the goals of every stakeholder group, which means that our rubrics must include students' goals as well as federal mandates. Reasonable accountability requires resources: time, money, and an incredible amount of effort that I've already outlined in another post. Such resources are in short supply, but any type of evaluation that doesn't focus on the goals of all stakeholders is as ridiculous as a teacher focusing on bathroom usage instead of academic progress.

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