Getting Fried on Accountability!

So it’s been a bit of an interesting day around here.  Brett, who writes for both the DeHavilland blog and Kitchen Table Math, decided to make a whole bunch of assumptions about my teaching practice based on one paragraph from my recent summer reading list post.

Check out some of his comments:

His blog focuses on incorporating new technology (wikis, Twitter, etc.) into instruction, and he argues forcefully for the use of these tools. But you have to ask the question – to what end? Why would you advocate so strongly for the use of technology – or the use of any other instructional tool – when you admit up front that you have no idea whatsoever whether it helps students learn?

And of course, it’s one thing to admit that you don’t know how to assess student learning; it’s another to make clear that it’s not a priority. “I’ll finish the book by the time I retire” – which will do all your students a load of good in the meantime.

And this from the 2005-06 Teacher of the Year in his (rather large) district!

So clearly, at least for this teacher, the answer to my question is clear: he doesn’t assess student learning because it’s not about the students, it’s about him. He’s incorporating technology because he likes it; there’s no other explanation. If he cared whether students were learning, he’d make an effort to learn how to assess that learning, and tailor his instruction based on their progress. Clearly that’s not going to happen – not, at least, until he retires.

What’s ironic about his comments is that I’ve worked pretty actively to make my struggles with assessment public precisely because I think it is important for educators to wrestle with the fact that accepting responsibility for student learning is something we must do.

And I’m pretty sure that I’ve also worked harder than most at improving my own assessment skills.  Consider these thoughts, drawn from this post that Brett seemed to overlook as he was lighting his Bill Ferriter Barbecue:

“Over the course of 11 years, I’d developed a pretty comfortable pattern of instruction based on a strong understanding of what I’d done in previous years and a remarkably weak understanding of the standards set by the state.”

“And I’m supposedly an ‘accomplished teacher?!'”

“We had to develop common assessments that would be delivered in each of our classrooms. That simple requirement forced us to have conversations that we’d never been forced to have before.”

“Together we began by wrestling with what content was essential to teach—standardizing the implemented curriculum across our hallway (often for the first time) and pushing our team to really think about what it is that students were supposed to be learning. For our group, that led us to look carefully at the state standards for our subjects in ways we’d never done before!”

“It was almost amazing (Read: Embarrassing) to find out that the lessons and units we’d been teaching for so long didn’t directly fit the standards expected by our state.”

“And even though I felt strongly that those teachers [who gave out easy A’s] were failing students as much as they were fooling them, I never started a conversation about what mastery looked like with anyone. That’s kind of a taboo subject in schools steeped in isolation. Teachers rarely question the professional judgment of other teachers—-and take great offense when it happens to them! As a result, the best interest of kids is often overlooked.

Does that sound like someone who is making no effort to assess student learning or tailor instruction based on student progress, Brett?  Or does it sound like someone who is engaged in a process of reflection and growth in an area of professional weakness?

Look—-let’s be honest about something here:  Managing data and assessing learning is something that many teachers (including me)—especially in hard-to-measure-with-multiple-choice-tests like Language Arts and Social Studies—are poorly prepared for, regardless of how common sense those skills seem to outside critics.

In the years before NCLB—-when the vast majority of educators were trained—evaluation of students was uneven at best, largely (and wrongly) left to teachers—and to the principals who spent twenty minutes observing them two times a year every year.

And that is a failure of our profession. Period. No argument there. In fact, it is a failure that I’ve written about dozens of times in an attempt to drive change from within the profession.

They tend to attack me, too!

But the sad fact is that while we’ve done a lot of talking about requiring teachers to “use data to drive instruction,” we’ve taken little action to provide the kinds of meaningful, ongoing opportunities for professional growth in this area that are necessary to ensure that every teacher can effectively assess student performance.

Who is responsible for that?

Here’s what Richard Elmore thinks:

“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).

At the moment, schools and school systems are not designed to provide support or capacity in response to demands for accountability.”

I’m open for criticism any day.  Heck, I’m an Irish-Catholic.  We perfected self-loathing, didn’t we?

And I’m also open to the idea that schools need to change.  We’ve been stagnant for so long that we’ve embarrassed ourselves and lost professional credibility.  That is damage that we’ve simply got to work to repair over time.

But I’ve also grown tired of being held accountable for outcomes by a society that isn’t willing to hold itself accountable for supporting the kinds of efforts necessary to improve our communities and schools.

I guess I’m just ready for some capacity building.


5 comments

  1. Mike

    Bill:
    Wow! My last post lost about 50% of what I wrote, the first 50%. I’ll try to summarize it here in the hope that what I post will have a bit of coherence.
    We need to be careful about what we say about teacher accountability. We can say that we are accountable for student learning, but there are many implications of that statement that we may not wish to accept. It implies that teachers are solely accountable for learning, and that it will be measured by standardized testing. Yet, we have no power, no opportunity, to make that kind of promise.
    I fully accept my obligation to provide the best possible educational opportunity for my students. But that is as far as I can go. Until I can directly download data into their brains such that they can retain and spit it back on demand, how can I accept responsibility for more? Can you? Can anyone? I am responsible for providing the best educational opportunity possible given my employment circumstances. That I can defend and that I can promise, and on that I will stake my career.
    Learning is a life long process, a process that takes work, real work over time. If the individual does not do the work, if they fail to see the necessity of and wisdom in the process, I am powerless to make them learn. The individual student, and their parents, have the absolute obligation to take advantage of the opportunity that I and other teachers provide. I have no power over that part of the equation.
    And the rest was posted…

  2. Mike

    Yes, we can force students to attend school, but they and they alone (with the encouragement and support of their parents) must do the hard, continual work of learning. Without a doubt, good teachers can help students see learning as interesting, even fun, but it is still and always, work. Until the day that I can download data directly into student’s brains in such a way that they can retain that data and spit it back on a standardized test, how can we pretend that I can be held accountable for their lack of learning? This presupposes, of course, that I am providing a professional, competent opportunity to learn the subject matter. If I am not, that’s a legitimate matter of concern for my principal who has more than sufficient authority to deal with it.
    Those students who accept their responsibility for learning, who do the work, who ask questions, who see what’s implied by the lessons and inquire more deeply are always a joy and one of the reasons why teaching is rewarding. But what of the child who simply lacks the genetic, intellectual endowment to learn at the same rate and to the same level of achievement as his classmates? What of the child who is more interested in where his next joint is coming from than in any lesson? What of the child who is always present, is clearly intelligent and capable, but simply chooses to do little or nothing despite your efforts and the efforts of their parents?
    Choose your words carefully Bill. They have meaning, and they can put our necks on chopping blocks of our own construction.

  3. Bill Ferriter

    LSquared wrote:
    I admire the problem, and I appreciate your thoughtful post.
    Thanks for stopping by L. The conversation over at KTM has certainly been interesting to me!
    While having spent 15 years in a classroom makes it difficult to agree with Steve or Brett, each makes points that are legitimate and that need to be a part of the discourse around education and school policy.
    They’re pushing—sometimes in the wrong direction and sometimes with an unbending stance—-but pushing is what education needs sometimes.
    I know that I’ve learned from listening to their ideas—and from having the opportunity to articulate my own throughout the course of the conversation.
    Hope you’ll visit again…
    Rock on,
    Bill

  4. Lsquared

    I’m here reading more about what you have to say after reading the thread at KTM. I’m interested in what you have to say because assessment is a very tricky thing to do. It’s hard to craft assessments that measure what you want to measure (and somehow non-final-grade-assessments are never the most urgent thing on a teacher’s list.
    I admire the problem, and I appreciate your thoughtful post.

  5. Adam

    Bill,
    You self-reflect more than any other educator that I know. I think the point you were making is that you still grapple with assessing students like they are widgets and you prefer to assess them with authentic measures. Continue to reflect in your blogs and remember that 100 students received an education, with you, this year that 99% of the population never had the luxury to experience.