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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Accountable or Responsible: An Old Frame for a New Future

By Eric Glover — December 18, 2012 5 min read
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Today’s guest post is written by Eric Glover, professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of The Myth of Accountability: What Don’t We Know?

Schooling in America has long been governed by conflicting demands that generate a paradoxical relationship. One the one hand are demands to meet some set of universal achievement expectations. That view conflicts with the idea of individual child development. Beginning with the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1985, the advocates for universal achievement expectations based on curriculum standards and standardized testing began to get the upper hand over those who championed meeting individual students needs based upon their unique characteristics.

So, just where are we today in this ongoing idea war? It begins with the notion of school accountability, which provides the justification for standardized testing. Accountability is a management idea that came about as a product of the machine age. During this period we replaced much of our belief in myth and magic as guides for human behavior with a more scientific view. The clock came to symbolize our understanding of a world where each living and non-living part fit into a giant mechanism. The central idea is that reality is the product of multiple cause-effect relationships all fitting together into a giant assembly.

Much of the development of the modern world can be attributed to this ‘reality as machine’ metaphor. This organizing framework spawned 2 additional ideas that allowed for the development of the mass production behind the grand success of the American economy. These additional ideas were the standardization of parts and the factory assembly line. Accountability was developed as the management tool enabling the operation of the factory. We think of the factory assembly line as a machine made of humans. Accountability provides the external incentive required so that the worker continually repeats a specific set of actions.

How does accountability practice fit into schooling?
Certainly schools have been organized along factory lines although operating a bit slower than most factories. It took Henry Ford only a few hours to put together each Model T. It takes a dozen years to produce a child with a high school diploma. We have all experienced buildings containing wings of identical classrooms filled with identical student desks aligned in rows. In these 19th and 20th century school structures, principals are viewed as factory line supervisors, teachers as assembly line workers, and students are the raw materials to be sorted according to their fitness for instruction in a universal curriculum.

However, to understand the limits of the contributions accountability can make for schooling we need to examine the original human organization. The family has been around much longer than the factory. Families evolved as parents accepted responsibility for protecting and developing children into adults. This sense of familial responsibility eventually led to the creation of the village, the tribe, and the nation. Schooling originated as an extension of parenting beyond the immediate family. Indeed, the U. S. Supreme Court recognizes this extension of family responsibility whenever they apply the term “in loco parentis

So schools attend to a paradoxical purpose. We ask educators to preserve the best qualities of the society they serve and hold them accountable for doing so. After all, much in our society needs to be retained. However, society must also be able to adapt to the changing environment in which it exists. So, schools must also generate the impetus for improving society. Here we find the limits of accountability practices.

Accountability can serve the first part of schooling purpose, but not the second. A system of accountability can address maintenance of elements of the society it serves. It can extend knowledge from one generation to the next. However, on the factory assembly line or in any organization based on hierarchical control, the worker is accountable for maintaining an existing state of affairs: a continuous level of status quo production. But, the factory worker cannot reconfigure the assembly line. She or he cannot serve as an agent who influences change.

The problem with school accountability is that teachers are defined as workers. But, teachers must be more than accountable workers. Teachers must, like parents, also be responsible agents. For teachers to function successfully, they must have authority that extends beyond areas of accountability. Good teachers have the knowledge, skill, and wisdom to develop unique human beings. They know the present state will change and that they are responsible for enabling their students to be able to successfully adapt and contribute to what might come

So, what does a good teacher look like and do?
Does the teacher focus on overcoming each student’s weaknesses and limitations to achieve a high score on every curriculum area tested? This is how accountability defines good teaching: change can only come from outside of the classroom or school. Or does the teacher look for the strengths within each student, recognizing that doing so will motivate the learner to go beyond what may be on a test. Such teachers recognize that this is the path that enables the student to be able to create and invent, thereby generating success for both the student and ultimately for society.

And what should we as a nation do to develop our schools? We recognize that the machine age has been an important in developing the American nation. But do we believe that the mechanical, factory model is best for organizing humans? Or, do we choose to continue to exhibit some trust in educators as extensions of the family? Do we recognize that they are assigned the task of building for an unknown future and that like parents; they will not always get it right. We must carefully think through and balance these conflicting themes.

• Do we want to settle for accountable teachers?
• Or, do we want to enable responsible schooling?

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.