Accountable or Responsible?

Having just returned from a quick holiday with family where I intentionally avoided my email account and The Radical, I was jazzed to see the conversation brewing in the comment section of my What I REALLY Reject post.  Thoughtful comments have been left by nearly a dozen readers that—as usual—are pushing my thinking about accountability in education. 

One commenter—Matt Johnston, who writes a great blog that I like to read called Going to the Mat—left me a series of pretty challenging questions to think through.  While I haven’t had a chance to tackle all of his thoughts, one has caught my attention for today. 

In response to my suggestion that teachers be held accountable for documenting the impact of their instructional practices, Matt asks:

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?

Matt’s question is timely and legitimate primarily because one of the most frightening realities in education today is that the quality of instruction can vary greatly across classrooms on the same hallway.  Heck, even the very nature of the implemented curriculum can vary greatly from room to room! 

This point stood out to me most a few years back when I was teaching science for the first time.  Having little experience with the curriculum, I was left to guess at what content to stress in class, how long to spend on units, and which objectives would pose my students the greatest challenge.  While I had a curriculum guide and a textbook, my decisions were somewhat random and unstructured.  As colleagues spent months on energy, my students were absorbed in a study of the solar system. 

Someone had it wrong! 

And to think that students at the same grade level working in the same school building were walking around with vastly different bits of knowledge from the same curriculum is nothing short of embarrassing to me.  Worse yet, I’m pretty certain that every teacher on my hallway was rated "Above Average" or "Exemplary" on our year-end evaluations.

How is that possible?

So I definitely agree that any model of accountability designed to hold teachers "accountable" for the "impact of their instructional practices" certainly has to provide structures that ensure the delivery of a standardized curriculum to every student in a school.  Teachers clearly can’t become complete "free agents" when it comes to selecting content.

What’s more—and this may surprise you—I’m not opposed to the use of external measures of performance that are uniformly administered to all students in a school or a district.  In fact, I understand the role that standardized tests can play in giving educators—and community leaders—feedback about the performance of their students.

Where I think we’ve gone wrong is in placing complete emphasis on standardized tests as a method of gauging teacher performance.  By doing so, we (unwittingly?) incentivize instructional practices that are dumbing down delivery in our classrooms.  When all that I am held accountable for are the numbers that come back after testing each June, I can guarantee you that my work is going to focus on producing results on those tests. 

What would happen, instead, if teachers—in conjunction with their administrators and using data sources including community feedback surveys, attendance numbers, classroom administered assessments, peer observations and end of grade test scores—developed an action plan for reflecting on instruction in their classroom over the course of a school year.

And then, what would happen if we used work towards completing that action plan—instead of end of grade test scores—as the primary tool in teacher evaluation and compensation decisions?

Would we find teachers developing more sophisticated understandings of their students and the communities that they served?  Would individual teachers and schools start to develop a catalog of instructional practices that were most effective with different subgroups of students? 

Would we avoid the trap of teaching to the test because we were choosing to place emphasis—both in evaluation and compensation—on instruction?

Let me give you an example:

As a teacher, I have a professional "hunch" that engaging students in Paideia seminars is an effective way to increase student motivation and to engage students in higher-order thinking skills.  My hunch is based on a few books and articles that I’ve read—as well as the reaction that my students have had to a few of the seminars that I’ve been brave enough to conduct in class. 

Under my (admittedly rough) proposal, I would sit down with my administrator at the beginning of the year and explain that investigating the impact that Paideia had on student achievement and motivation was an area of great professional interest for me.  Together, we could design a course of study, so to speak.  That course of study might include observations of other teachers conducting seminars, reading more books and articles on Paideia and attending appropriate professional development sessions.

The plan would also include a schedule for introducing Paideia in my own classroom.  Perhaps the first few months of the year would be spent investigating and observing, the next few months would be spent implementing seminars and the last few months would be spent perfecting the process and documenting results. 

Every plan would have to include a detailed description of the documentation that teachers were going to collect to record the results of their study.  Teachers may choose to use end of grade test scores as a primary measure of the impact that their instructional practice had on student achievement.  They may also decide to conduct surveys with students or to reflect on formative assessments delivered during the course of the year. 

In my Paideia example, I would probably choose to study my students’ abilities to answer the evaluative and interpretation questions that are included on a district formative reading assessment (read: multiple choice test) that we give every three weeks.  If my "hunch" that Paideia will engage students in higher order thinking is correct, it should naturally translate to higher scores on similar questions on these (automatically graded) reading assessments. 

I’d also probably collect student feedback surveys simply because discovering a highly motivating instructional strategy at the middle school level is like striking gold!  More importantly, while I’m highly motivated by Paideia seminars, I’ve never bothered to ask my kids what they think of them.  I might be wasting tons of time by pursuing a strategy that is just plain boring to twelve year olds. 

Throughout the course of the year, the administrator who was evaluating my performance would regularly touch base with me to see what kind of progress I was making towards completing my action plan.  Instead of observing just any lesson, they’d likely want to see me deliver a Paideia seminar.  As we engaged in post observation conversations, they’d likely direct their questioning towards the documentation that I was forming around the success or failure of Paideia as an instructional strategy. 

At the end of each year, each teacher would be responsible for submitting a report on the instructional practice that they’d researched that included a description of the strategy, research that supported the strategy, and documentation of the impact that the strategy had on student achievement.  Teachers would be expected to draw conclusions about the strategy and make recommendations about its use in other classrooms across the building. 

I guess my argument is pretty simple—-even though it took forever to explain!   Our current system of "accountability" is encouraging teachers to focus only on skills that prepare students for end of grade tests…and that’s leading to poor instruction in thousands of classrooms that is tacitly accepted because "the results" look right. 

Let’s redirect the focus of our nation’s "accountability" efforts—and of teacher evaluation and compensation decisions—on encouraging professionally responsible practices such as the deep reflection on instruction and documentation of results that characterizes our most accomplished educators.

By doing so, I’ll bet that teaching and learning improves pretty quickly—-and that standardized test scores will rise too!

Ain’t that the win-win situation we’re all looking for?   

10 thoughts on “Accountable or Responsible?

  1. Matt Johnston

    Quick Comment to Nancy Flanagan.
    I suppose my question to Bill’s earlier post could be misread.
    There is no doubt in my mind that students who are active and engaged are necessary for a successful class. However, the intent of my question was whether or not “impact” would be measure solely or largely on the engagement of the students. You can have engaged students who don’t learn anything or don’t learn enough or what the curriculum requires.
    That is what I meant. I think Bill answered my question quite well.

  2. Matt Johnston

    Bill,
    It is nice to see that my questions started a debate at least in your own head. Thanks for the explanation on what you envision.
    I can certainly see how it might be embarassing for teachers responsible for teaching the same subject but emphasizing different components within that subject. The results across a school can be dramatically different, even potentially opposed to one another. Now imagine, as I am sure you have, that same problem extending not just across the hallway, but across the county and across the state.
    Your general proposal has much merit. It does not abandon standardized testing in favor of something a little more subjective and controlled by teachers only, but it places, I think, standardized test results into a better context for people to understand what a given teacher is doing and how well they are doing it. No matter what other commenters and commentators believe or want, standardized measurements are here to stay and the taxpaying public has a right, indeed throught their elected and appointed representatives a duty, to enforce accountability on those who receive and spend taxpayer dollars.
    However, I do agree with you and others, that emphasis on one measurement or measuring tool only serves to skew both the educational and policymaking process. Having said that, a search, any search, for improvement is a worthwhile endeavor. Which leads me to your proposal, both in this post and in your previous post.
    It seems to me that the model you propose will work best if teams of teachers (as you suggested in your earlier post) are evaluated using the process your describe, rather than a single teacher. The reason is clear from your early example, of how two teachers teaching the same course could emphasize different content. If, as you indicate in your proposal, you and your evaluating administrator come up with an action plan (which I like by the way), as you formulate it, you don’t avoid the recurrence of the problem of different goals, agenda and content unless there is a much more collaborative approach. If, for example, all sixth grade science teachers agreed on an approach and sought to test their approach and document their efforts, you would find, I think, much more success. The collaborative process and the instructional process would be improved. Furthermore, the evaluative process would also be improved because you can measure each instructor subjectively against each other and objectively against the plan proposed at the beginning of the year.
    I look forward to future comments.

  3. Jane

    I am glad to see that you suggest multiple measures such as community surveys. At my school as the NCLB pressure has doubled and redoubled over the past few years our test scores have soared. PE, art, music, social studies (untested) and science in the lower grades have taken a backseat in favor of test prep and more workbooks that are formatted similar to the tests. It is the backlash for one assessment having too much weight.

  4. Rebecca Haden

    “Accountability” is fine, but standardized tests aren’t intended to provide the kind of data we would need to hold teachers accountable. They don’t even have the data we need in order to hold students accountable. And by now, the very word “accountability” in education has become so strongly associated with standardized testing that it will be hard to make the improvements so ably argued for in this post.
    People outside of education hear concerns like these and say that teachers don’t really want to be held accountable, as though test scores were the agreed-upon measure of education and any questioning of that position were a matter of making excuses.
    I’d like to see us get rid of that word.

  5. Mike

    Interesting issues. Recently my colleagues and I were asked to come up with a complete curriculum map for tenth grade English–for the entire year–so that one of the folks at our central office could post it all on the internet with the numbers of the relevant state standards so adults planning on moving to our community could read that data and be suitably impressed. “Oh Bob, look! They emphasize standard 26C/18b1! We must move there immediately!” Yeah. Sure.
    The problem, of course, is that particularly in English, it’s virtually impossible to do all of the same things at the same times. Too many kids, not nearly enough resources. Read the same novel at the same time? Not with only 150 copies. Research paper? Not with only one library and only 50 computers in the computer lab. And of course, even this reality doesn’t speak to the real need of competent teachers to have substantial flexibility to teach different sections of the same grade differently to best meet the needs of the students in each class (not every class is even remotely on the same skill level in every facet of the discipline).
    I don’t suggest that teachers should just teach, in any discipline, whatever they feel like teaching. Certainly competent teachers understand that there is a body of increasingly difficult material that must be taught from year to year. But we must maintain considerable professional discretion in making instructional decisions. After all, do we hire teachers because we consider them to be ignorant, lazy and incompetent? If not, we need to treat them as professionals, provide assistance for those who are not, and remove those who cannot perform as they should.
    Just a couple of quick points that bear on these issues:
    We have to be careful about “research-driven” curriculums. Too much of such research is, at best, questionable, and often represents little more than justification for someone’s latest “this will change the face of education!” fantasy that will be quietly abandoned within five or so years after doing tremendous harm. And the sesearch cited to support such research? More of the same kind of research from other fantasists. After all, if someone in another district in another state can do something right, why can’t I? I realize that I can’t be an expert because I’m not from out of town and I don’t have a PowerPoint presentation, but…
    Until standardized testing can once again take a back seat (as in the back seat of the longest school bus made), most of what we hope to do will have little effect because education will continue to be completely test driven and drill and kill will only expand in length and ferocity.
    While I understand that we’re primarily talking about professional practice, we must never fail to talk about the role of the student and parent in education. Without the wholehearted participation of both, the most brilliant instruction delivered in a style that would make other watching educators weep for joy will avail us nothing. Education is not something we download, but something that must be worked for, earned, and reinforced every day by the person who is seeking to become educated, and through the occasional impact in the lower processor from parents who can see the long term value of education even when their little computers can’t.

  6. Adam

    Bill,
    It sounds like you are advocating for a process that involves Action Research and it does make sense to me. If you can create a culture that understands why the focus should be on student learning then you will be on your way to a new type of system.
    I also agree with Nancy because I know first hand that my own child enjoyed school for the first two years and now he is miserable because he is stuck in a “drill and kill” environment that is only concerned with the bottom 25%.
    This is not going to be an easy question to answer, but at the end of the day we must use mulitiple measures if we are going to truly understand the impact that is being made on students everyday.

  7. Nancy Flanagan

    Great (and thorough) treatment of Matt Johnston’s questions on measuring effective practice. One quick observation, however–Johnston asks:
    Does impact mean the child liked coming to your class and was active in class?
    Cutting to the chase here, I have to say that there are often cases where getting a kid engaged is the central task in being an effective teacher. And–if you’ve ever been the parent of a child who dreaded or loathed school or a particular teacher, you understand the value of the welcoming classroom and the interesting lesson.
    To say that getting kids interested or motivated is ultimately important sounds like I am endorsing a kind of folk wisdom over rigorous and measurable academic goals. But the reality is that teachers go into classrooms every day full of quirky, needy individual kids and all of the challenging curriculum or aggregate achievement data mean zippo when someone is miserable. Kids who like coming to class and are willing to participate constitute step one–and without step one, it’s all smoke, mirrors and…data.

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