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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Does Increased Accountability Work?

By Peter DeWitt — October 19, 2014 4 min read
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Are our education policies designed for the convenience of adults or for the education of our children? Daniel Pink & Amy Azzam

In The Principal (2014), Michael Fullan wrote that accountability was the wrong driver for policymakers and politicians to use when it comes to improving public education. Michael has written about drivers before, which are the practices “that “drive” a school or larger system to new levels of success.”

Fullan goes on to write that,

Accountability assumes that the most important thing to do is to make sure that a person down below acts in line with directions or criteria passed down by someone higher up. As a rigid priority and attitude, accountability belongs at the top of the wrong-driver chart because it permeates the others below it."

The other “Wrong Drivers” Fullan refers to are Individualistic Solutions, Technology and Fragmented Strategies. For more information about Michael’s right and wrong drivers click here.

It seems that the politicians, policymakers and some of the general public need ways to trust that school staff are doing their job. Trust is something that seems to come in short supply in our country these days, and over the past few years we have all seen increased accountability measures which were supposed to lead to results, but only led to arguments and less trust between all parties. Policymakers and politicians assure the public that those measures will hold schools accountable and improve “achievement.”

Here’s the thing...they don’t.

In Imagining Successful Schools, Joe Nocera (N.Y. Times) asks, “What should teacher accountability look like?” Nocera goes on to write,

We know what the current system of accountability looks like, and it's not pretty. Ever since the passage of No Child Left Behind 12 years ago, teachers have been judged, far too simplistically, based on standardized tests given to their students -- tests, as Marc S. Tucker points out in a new report, Fixing Our National Accountability System, that are used to decide which teachers should get to keep their jobs and which should be fired. This system has infuriated and shamed teachers, and is a lot of the reason that teacher turnover is so high, causing even many of the best teachers to abandon the ranks."

Over the past few weeks, Tucker’s report has undergone criticism. For a response to Tucket by Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody, please read here.

Nocera’s article is a bit of a departure for the NY Times. Over the years, the NY Times Editorial Board has stated the opposite opinion when it comes to standardized tests, which were a major factor in accountability measures. A little over a year ago they wrote an OpEd that focused on those standardized tests and the scores that came with them. The OpEd said,

Teachers in New York are just becoming familiar with instructional methods necessary for teaching more complex skills. Given that reality and a challenging exam, the scores were expected to decline. Still, the test results show how far the state has to go to prepare children for jobs in the new global economy."

We should never assume, like the NY Times Editorial Board does in that OpEd, that a single measure can lead us to believe that teachers are not familiar with the instructional methods needed to prepare students. Too many variables come into play where testing is concerned. That type of thinking leads to failed policies and accountability that does not work.

In a guest post for Anthony Cody’s Living in Dialogue, Yong Zhao wrote,

As I have written in my latest book Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System, China technically has two high stakes tests for students (for entrance to high school at grade 9 and one for college entrance at grade 12) but these two tests turn all educational practices of students, parents, teachers, and schools into test-preparation, resulting in the widely observed damages because as Anthony Cody wrote: "these tests have such huge stakes attached to them, the entire system revolves around them, and students' lives and family incomes are spent on constant test preparation, in and out of school."

Does Accountability Lead to Motivation to Learn?

In Motivated to Learn (Educational Leadership. September 2014) Amy Azzam interviewed Daniel Pink. Pink said,

Students don't have a lot of autonomy in school--but neither do their teachers. Many trends in federal policy, especially over the last decade, have focused on constraining teacher autonomy. Now when I say that autonomy leads to engagement, it doesn't mean that you have to turn the autonomy dial up to 10 in every circumstance. If you really want to get people engaged, you have to find ways to increase autonomy the right amount at the right moment."

We seem to be stuck in this level of thinking that suggests we don’t believe teachers and school leaders deserve any level of autonomy, which is why we see increased levels of accountability. Unfortunately what happens is that through those measures, teachers are more likely to decrease the level of autonomy that they offer to students, which leads to higher levels of compliance.

There has always been too much compliance in the school system. In most cases, students learn what their teachers tell them is most important. When that happens, to use the words of John Hattie, students end up going to school to watch teachers work. We need less compliance and more levels of dialogue and engagement. Accountability does not usually help achieve that goal, or if it does it is most likely not always authentic.

Pink and Azzam go on to write,

At some level, compliance is a lot easier for the people at the very top of an education system. It's a lot more convenient if you have compliant teachers and compliant students. And management is all about getting compliance. Even if you sand off the rough edges and oil the gears, the technology of management is still designed to produce compliance."

As much as some believe students are leaving the school system unprepared for college and the workforce, I find it just as frightening that students are leaving the system feeling as though they never found their niche. They were never allowed to follow their own passions because they were stuck in a system of compliance. In On the Same Track, award winning principal and author Carol Burris wrote, “Tom Loveless, one of tracking’s most ardent supporters, reported that ability grouping is on the rise in elementary schools, and he speculates that test-based accountability is partially responsible for the upswing.”

Burris goes on to write “The more that test scores reflecting student “growth” are emphasized in teacher evaluation, the more likely it is that teachers will isolate groups of students and drill them in an attempt to raise their scores.”

Pink and Azzam wrote,

We need something different--something beyond management, whatever the next iteration is. We need leaders, both in organizations and in schools, who create an atmosphere in which people have a sufficient degree of freedom; can move toward mastery on something that matters; and know why they're doing something, not just how to do it."

Turn to Twitter and other social media venues and you will find teachers, leaders and students who are engaging in these practices. Depending on the state they live in, they are trying to find creativity within the box they were given. Others who are fortunate enough to work in states with decreased accountability are finding creativity with their students.

There are hundreds of thousands of teachers and leaders who are sharing their resources through social media and creating professional and personal learning networks. Unfortunately, we do not often read about those educators because their stories are not as intriguing as failing teachers and the demise of the public school system.

In the End

Pink and Azzam wrote,

And this leads to another challenge, an uncomfortable question for legislators, governors, and presidents: Are our education policies designed for the convenience of adults or for the education of our children? Take high-stakes testing--it's easy, it's cheap, and you get a number, which makes it really convenient for adults, whether they're taxpayers or policymakers. But is heavy reliance on punitive standardized tests the best way to educate our children? Probably not. Doing what we truly need to do for our kids is going to end up being pretty inconvenient for a lot of adults. But to my mind, it's the only way to go."

Sadly, many educators and experts in the field have been saying that for a very long time, and it seems as though their words and opinions have been ignored. We should look to our best teachers and leaders, and there are many of them, and see what they are doing. Then perhaps, we can stop using important resources for testing (money, time, etc) and put them toward providing our teachers and students with the resources they need. Maybe then we will be on the right track.

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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.