Education Opinion

Accountability vs. Excellence

By Peter Greene — September 17, 2014 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Accountability is the enemy of excellence.

All resources directed toward proving that you’re doing a good job are resources that are taken away from actually doing a good job. Think of it as a sort of bureaucratic Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle-- you cannot require regular accountability reports on a project without altering the project.

This is not actually news. If they weren’t copyrighted, I would include a brace of Dilbert cartoons about cubical dwellers who cannot get their jobs done because they’re too busy going to meetings about why they are behind schedule.

If I have $1000 to spend building a gazebo in your back yard, I can give you a thousand-dollar gazebo. But if you require weekly reports with charts and graphs and printed out photos of the progress, the project will take a week or two longer, and you’ll only get a $900 gazebo because I’ll spend $100 on charts and graphs and printing.

This is all because proving you’re doing a good job and actually doing a good job are two entirely different activities.

I’m in the middle of directing a community theater production of Chicago. The Board of Directors of that community theater group could demand regular reports on how rehearsals are going and how production preparations are proceeding, but they don’t, because they know that doing all that reporting would get in the way of my doing the job. So if they really want to know how things are coming, they stop down at the theater and watch rehearsal, and my producers stick close to me to address any issues and help with any stumbling blocks. But the proof will be in a few weeks when we put on the show on stage (spoiler alert: it will be awesome).

In other words, the best way to find out what kind of job I’m doing is to watch me do the job. Not to require that I do some other job and then pretend that how well I do that other job tells you how well I’m doing the actual job.

“But if I don’t have accountability measures filed regularly, how will I know if you’re doing a good job or not?”

1) The accountability measures won’t tell you whether I’m doing a good job anyway. You might as well read the letters in a mystical bowl of Alpha-Bits and leave me alone.

2) Transparency. Come watch me work, as much and as often and for as long as you’d like. Ask my students and their parents what I’m up to (but come talk to them face to face-- don’t give them a form to fill out, because they have things to do, too).

“But won’t these accountability measures provide you with valuable feedback that will help you improve?”

1) Short answer: No.

2) Long answer: The feedback will be primarily on how to do better on the accountability measures, not on how to do the actual job. I’ll let you in on a not-really-a-secret-- the teachers who are good at their jobs already collect data, reflect on performance, and evaluate and adjust on a daily, even hourly, basis. Your standardized testy baloney has nothing to add to that. And the teachers who aren’t achieving that level of swellness? Standardized testy baloney won’t help them either. They need coaching, mentoring, and personal assistance. Not the threat of being beaten with the accountability stick.

“But don’t you need accountability measures to let you know how well you’re doing?”

1) Only if I’m a dope. Okay, that’s harsh, but look. Everyone has days of doubt and days of despair in a classroom. But if I’m walking out of a classroom, day in, day out, thinking, “Well, I don’t know if I accomplished anything or not today,” then I need to be counseled out of the profession.

The days or weeks or, in some cases, months of school time that we devote to trying to prove we’re doing a good job are days and weeks and months that we aren’t spending doing the actual job we were trained for and hired to do. Preparing students to take a standardized test is not preparing them for productive and happy lives as adults. It’s not even preparing them for college and career.

If you want us to do our jobs, stop making us prove we’re doing our jobs.

The opinions expressed in View From the Cheap Seats are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.