What I REALLY Reject Is. . .

In response to my recent thoughts on why hard targets are appropriate for schools but not for businesses that pollute, Bob—a regular reader—left the following comments:

It’s interesting that so many vocal teachers seem to reject external validity assessments of only some classroom instructional procedures and reject procedures that appear to result in learning that exceeds Federal requests.

Without being blunt (would saying ‘no offense’ here make this better?), I’m guessing that Bob—and dozens of others working beyond classrooms—hasn’t spent all that much time really listening to teacher viewpoints on accountability.   

You see, the most accomplished—and frequently the most vocal—educators generally don’t reject the notion of being held accountable for our work.  We recognize that any society that is investing millions in a public organization like a school system has the right to hold that organization accountable for results

What we reject (assuming that I’m one of the vocal teachers Bob’s referring to) are external accountability models that lack sophistication and—by doing so—-prevent meaningful instruction from happening in today’s classrooms.  This isn’t an issue of rejecting accountability.  It’s an issue of rejecting an accountability model that has changed the nature of teaching and learning in America for the worse

I’m going to preach from the soapbox for a minute here:  I’ve spent the past six months drilling and killing my students in preparation for multiple choice reading exams that we take every three weeks.  Each day, we work on sample problems.  I show students the rationale behind correct and incorrect answer choices.  We copy down testing vocabulary and practice using that vocabulary in other situations in class.  Every lesson that I write includes questions that mirror those found on the upcoming "formative assessment" that I’m required to give.

Is that what you really want to hold me accountable for? 

Are we convinced as a nation that students well prepared for multiple choice reading assessments are well prepared for life?  Is that what we imagined for our children when we boldly declared that no child would be left behind?

I didn’t think so—-but until I’m "held accountable" for something other than multiple choice reading tests, my instruction won’t change. 


Because in the end, my administrators call me on the carpet when our test scores are down.  The work that I’ve done to introduce my students to critical thinking skills through Padiea seminars matters not if my growth rates don’t measure up.  The digital opportunities that I’ve given my students to create and collaborate electronically are essentially useless.  The work I invest developing relationships with students is irrelevant in the end—–All that anyone asks about my year’s worth of work is, "How’d the kids do on the test."

If anything, I rail (and I sure feel like I’m railing here!) against accountability simply because I’ve worked with real kids in real classrooms every day for fifteen years.  That first-hand experience has taught me time and again that our measure of "success" today is insufficient at best.

You want to hold me accountable for something that might actually improve education in America? 

Consider these options:

1.  Hold me accountable for documenting the impact of the instructional practices that I’ve chosen to use in my classroom—-rather than defining the instructional practices that you expect me to use.  Why?  Because by doing so, you’ll promote reflection in educators….and reflection is good.  Teachers engaged in constant study about teaching and learning quickly begin to identify strategies that work—and to eliminate strategies that don’t. 

Not only will you end up with more effective practices—you’ll end up with more effective practitioners who are inspired by the mental synergy of a creative endeavor.  In the test-prep, worksheet driven reality that schooling has become, teaching often bores me.

2.  Hold me—and the group of teachers that I work with—accountable for the results of a team of students.  By doing so, perhaps we can truly put some meat into the tired cliche that schools are TEAMS where "Together, Everyone Achieves More."  A group of collaborating professionals is powerful stuff.  Why don’t we work harder to incentivize those behaviors?

3.  Hold me accountable for spreading what I know beyond my classroom.  Perhaps the greatest shame in education today is that there are successful teachers (and thereby students) in every building who teach down the hall from teachers (and thereby students) who are failing.  Year after year, ineffective teaching is allowed to continue.

Hard liners might argue that we should simply can the ineffective teachers, right?  Sure—then we can replace them with still more poorly prepared teachers who will need to be canned a few years down the line.  Instead, let’s expect accomplished teachers to share what they know and amplify their excellence.

Can you tell I’m a bit jazzed by this topic?

I’m tired of being told that educators reject accountability.  That hasn’t been the message that I’ve heard from the majority of my peers.  When you take the time to listen, what you really find is that we reject a model of accountability that is failing teachers and failing students all in one. 

The problem is that no one ever takes the time to listen.

10 thoughts on “What I REALLY Reject Is. . .

  1. Mr. Kuperhuase

    It is impossible for a public school to be accountable. In fact, it is an irreconcilable dichotomy. Public schools cannot be accountable because of their very nature. Public schools should be accountable to the public we say but who is the public? You? Me? If I say that accountability means firing teachers within the first 3 months of school if they don’t perform, why shouldn’t that prevail? Who decides what the standards of accountability should be? The answer, unfortunately, is those who create public schools are also those who choose the standards of accountability. If we abolished the public school system and left education to the private sector entirely, the standards of accountability would then be decided by parents not by schools. Therefore, there will never be any real accountability in schools as long as they remain public, government run institutions. To read more, go to http://www.thelearningbox.info.

  2. Mike

    We test as frequently in my school and school district. Last year, I was part of a team that graded student portfolios of our state mandated curriculum. These students are exempted from our state mandated tests, but their teachers have to put together a portfolio for each kid that shows that they were taught, and then completed work in each part of the state standards. One observation was that the middle school US History standards are so similar to the high school standards, that I would bet middle school kids who actually took the middle school test, then took the high school version right afterward would pass either neither or both. This tells me that the high school state accreditation test is useless. But, the portfolios gave me an idea. I don’t mind the standards so much,it’s the testing that bothers me. So why not have teachers create portfolios of what they taught, and how they taught it for each standard they are mandated to test. Then, teachers from other school can grade the portfolio. I think accountability should be strictly based on what the teacher is teaching, not what the students have learned. I know kids who bomb the state mandated test the first time because they know they can take it over and over. I’d rather make sure the teachers teach what they are supposed to teach, and let the students worry if they are passing the state test.

  3. Mike

    The direction the thread has taken, particularly in Matt Johnson’s worthy response, brings to mind a factor seldom discussed: Is state and federal level micromanagement of education mandatory for “accoundability?” Too many debates on these issues seem to take for granted that such micromanagement is not only necessary, but preferable. I disagreed.
    Every school district in the nation elects citizens to hire upper management, who then hire principals and teachers to do their respective jobs. All of these managers and teachers meet rigorous standards for entry level education and continuing education that far exceed the requirements of many professions whose practitioners make considerably more than teachers. In this democratic process. accountability exists at every step, from the principal supervising the teacher to the administrator supervising the principal to the school board supervising the administrator to the citizens who can “throws the bums out” at the next election.
    Let’s concede that some districts hire unqualfied teachers or retain bad teachers. Let’s concede that some communities elect corrupt or stupid school boards that allow corruption, racial politics, political correctness or any combination of ills to take precedence over educating children. The cure to all of this is local citizens doing their civic duty, not state and federal intrusion. Democracy works and politicians fear a properly aroused electorate.
    Who are these state and federal educrats? How is it that they and they alone possess the superhuman ability to construct tests of sufficient validity to ensure “accountability? Do we really need state and federal tests and mandates that cost untold millions so that Joe Average Citizen can read a data sheet that purports to indicate how his child’s school did relative to a school in another community or state?
    You see, the professionals capable of informing any parent, on a daily basis, of their child’s strengths and weakness are their teachers. They have had the same classes, read the same books, know the same methods that educrats know in constructing tests, but they have what educrats do not: real, day to day experience and genuine human concern for each student under their care, students who are not one size fits all. They know that each of their classes, despite being comprised of students of the same age, will often have very different needs, and they routinely compensate for those needs and do their best to meet them, something no mandatory test can hope to accomplish. They are indeed accountable, and any parent who cares more for reading state or federal data than for speaking with their child’s teachers and ensuring that their child does their work each and every day is terribily deluded, for data, generated through drill and kill testing is a poor substitute for individual learning, growth and progress.
    We hire teachers to be professionals, and even though we ignore them and pretend that they know little, most of them merely smile, close their doors when the bell rings, and teach as hard and as well as they can. That is the level, the daily relationship, that makes a difference in education, not testing, not state or federal mandates or benchmarks, nothing else.
    Accountability? Indeed. See that your local school board understands that their postion of authority and respect is contingent on it, and that it has nothing to do with high stakes testing or mandates imposed from afar, but everything to do with them making sure that the lowliest teacher has everything they need to teach as well as possible. That’s their job. The citizen’s job is to ensure that the school board understands it.

  4. Matt Johnston

    This option intrigues me:
    “1. Hold me accountable for documenting the impact of the instructional practices that I’ve chosen to use in my classroom—-rather than defining the instructional practices that you expect me to use. Why? Because by doing so, you’ll promote reflection in educators….and reflection is good. Teachers engaged in constant study about teaching and learning quickly begin to identify strategies that work—and to eliminate strategies that don’t.
    Not only will you end up with more effective practices—you’ll end up with more effective practitioners who are inspired by the mental synergy of a creative endeavor. In the test-prep, worksheet driven reality that schooling has become, teaching often bores me.”
    Let us assume that society thinks this is a good idea, and to be honest, I think that it is. I would like to know more, for example, can you give me even rough answers to the following qustions, which I admit that the current system of “accountability” sometimes fails to do:
    1. Define “impact” in the following statement “impact of the instructional practices that I’ve chosen to use in my classroom.” This is a critical definition in your plan, one subject to so many alternatives, like did the student learn the necessary curricula as defined? (If, so, how do we know?) Does impact mean the child liked coming to your class and was active in class? Are we to rely only on the assessments you give as certification that the student learned something in your class?
    2. How will your process accomodate for the differences between students and groups of students, such as racial groups and ability groups? How would this system reward the teachers who make marginally larger progress with some of the worst students who might remain below “grade level” but are closer than before versus teachers who make modest progress with some of the best students who are already at or above grade level?
    3. How can I compare you and your colleagues at your school with a school across town, across the state or across the country? I think the purpose behind any system of “accountability” has to be, in some respect, objectivity and be understandable by a lay person.
    4. How are we, as a taxpaying public, going to be able to verify the quality of your own self-assessment? In other words, given that some states are accused today of gaming the current system, how are we to ensure that teachers don’t “game” your system? If a student in your class is adjudged by you to be prepared to move to the next grade level, how then do we reconcile a statement by that student’s next teacher that they were not adequately prepared?
    5. Given the not insubstantial paperwork/documentation requirements demanded of teachers now, how will your system either subtract from that requirement or add to that requirement? If adding to the requirement, how will you justify that increase to teachers and to taxpayers who would have to foot the bill?
    6. Given your desire to increase the collaborative efforts of teachers you note in options 2 and 3, how does this happen under your system, what is the incentive to share? I can see the incentive in option 2 and 3 a little better, but not so much in option one.
    These are just some of my questions and I hope that you can elaborate a little more on you proposal. As I said, I am intrigued by the idea.

  5. Bob

    Thanks, Bill, for a great summary of your thinking and instructional approach to classroom accountability. While I wasn’t thinking of you when I wrote the sentence you quoted, I, and likely many others, appreciate your description. Please consider elaborating in a more formal summary what you do in class to handle local accountability assessments, so school administrators, analysts, and policy makers can cite it. Your positive style can carry your points into more decision making rooms.

  6. Mike

    Get rid of tenure? Give principals and superintendents the ability to fire teachers? Establish accountability? Good grief! In which alternate reality do such people live?
    Certainly in my state (Texas) and in every state of which I’m aware, there is no such thing as tenure, teachers are fired each and every day, and those facts alone should indicate to the reasonably intelligent observer that “accountability” does indeed exist. My “tenure,” hard won after three years of probation (as a career police officer, trusted to make life and death decisions, my probation was only a year) consists of only the most meager due process rights to minimal review if I am unjustly punished or fired. I, and no teacher I know, believes for a minute that they are invulnerable or unaccountable, nor do they act as though they are.
    I suspect that part of the problem here is that for too many critics of education, “accountability” can be meaningful only if measured through mandatory tests imposed by those outside of education. This tends to be so because such folks have a very odd view of teachers as crazed, semi-literate incompetents, evil, deviously intelligent indoctrinators, or both simultaneously. And many of these folks have something of a conflict of interest, as their goal is not the improvement of public education, but its degredation, even its destruction in favor of various voucher (or whatever they’re calling it this week) schemes and/or the privitization of education.
    Every school district in America has in place the democratically mandated mechanisms to practice complete accountability. But some are run by corrupt school boards! Some won’t fire incompetent teachers! Some citizens won’t inform themselves enough to make intelligent choices! Indeed. Democracy is messy, but as Winston Churchill said, it’s the worst form of government, other than all of the other forms that have been tried. And no educational problem is sufficient to require federal meddling.
    I will, within a few weeks, spend nearly two months drilling my students for our mandatory testing. Because I know the necessary tricks–and I do mean tricks–most of my students will pass. And then I will inform them to never write that way (I teach English) again, for they will fail my class, and the class of any competent English teacher, if they do. Some of my students who can barely construct a simple sentence will pass the test. Others with genius level IQ’s and abilities will fail. And this tells us what, exactly? Only that I can teach my kids the tricks necessary to pass the current test.
    Accountability indeed.

  7. John Holland

    Most accomplished teachers embrace accountability.
    Here is the worst part of the accountability scheme from my stand point (and the stand point of a testing official I know>) The only important number is percent passing. Couldn’t we have some weighted composites? How about balancing increases yearly or following students through grades and comparing their increases. Most (percent passing) students are passing state assessments in our state. But, does that tell us anything?

  8. Jane

    How about this for an accountability scheme? Let parents take the average amount that the state/county spends per pupil and direct that money to whatever school (public or private) that THEY feel fits THEIR child’s needs best.
    Get ride of tenure and give principal and superintendents the ability to fire teachers.
    If a school is doing a good job educating students, it will have little difficulty attracting students and funding.
    If it isn’t, well then the funds could be better spent elsewhere.

  9. Marsha Cruce

    Congratulations on winning the edublog award. It is well deserved! Thank you for articulating and sharing your thoughts. I enjoy reading your work.
    Marsha in Putnam County, Flordia

  10. Melanie Holtsman

    Can I say AMEN?!? This school year I have embraced the world of Web 2.0. We have blogging, digital storytelling and computers being USED all over the building….BUT I think the powers that be are not moving forward like they should with accountability. If we’re going to teach 21st century learners we need to be accountable for the instruction and success of that delivery method.
    I don’t pretend to know what 21st century assessment looks like, but I’d just like to think the powers that be are looking toward the future preparing to assess what we are and should be teaching. Accountability I say…bring it on!

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