Education Opinion

The Letter From: On Teacher Accountability

By Marc Dean Millot — April 17, 2008 10 min read
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The school improvement industry was built on the principle of accountability for student learning. School and district accountability for the Adequate Yearly Progress of students and sub-groups towards 100% proficiency in key subjects by 2013 does in fact drive demand for industry products, services and programs. In principle, providers are accountable for the efficacy of their offerings as demonstrated by Scientifically Based Research or suggested by Research Based evidence.

Since NCLB passed, government efforts to develop the technical means of assuring provider accountability have languished. In contrast, school and district accountability have received the highest priority. Significant investments are being made in the information systems required to monitor individual students.
It is no great surprise that as these reporting systems are put in place, the information they produce is being used not only to review the past and manage for the future, but to hold individuals accountable for outcomes. At a minimum, school boards expect Superintendents to keep their schools and districts out of improvement status. Superintendents expect principals to meet AYP, or if their schools are in improvement, to make substantial progress towards meeting it. Increasingly, the job security of individual superintendents and principals depends on AYP. The new student information systems make this accountability possible.

All the strategy, planning, preparation and resource allocation superintendents and principals might undertake is for naught if what is supposed happen in teachers’ classrooms - doesn’t. They are the crucial link in student learning, what the military calls the “pointy tip of the spear.” So it is inevitable that administrators will pass the pressures they feel down to the teaching corps. Principals expect teachers to assure that an increasing number of their students will score proficient on state accountability tests, particularly students in those sub-groups where the school is not making AYP.

The information systems now being purchased by school districts to demonstrate compliance with NCLB, generally also provide teachers with some capacity to monitor student progress over the course of the school year. Compatible diagnostic systems, not necessarily purchased with the main system, can sharpen teachers understanding of individual student needs.

This is great. But it is also inevitable that administrators and principals will use this data to assess educators’ performance in ways that impact each teacher’s job security. The psychological rationalization is obvious – managers are being held accountable for outcomes, so why not teachers? You can imagine a principal thinking to herself, “it may not be fair to anyone, but it’s less fair if it’s not for everyone. My job security is based on AYP - period. I am not given slack for the fact that I don’t have all the resources this school needs, that half my teachers shouldn’t be here, that kids come to school without breakfast – or shoes, that gangs and drugs are right outside the door – heck, inside the door. If I shelter teachers from these facts, if I don’t focus them on AYP, they are less likely to meet it.”

The management argument is no less apparent: To date, assessing teacher performance has been subjective. Prior to NCLB, schools were graded not for individual students but for average student outcomes, so there was no direct quantitative link between a teacher and their students. Now there is, and the information systems provide the data regularly. Every manager facing large numbers of personnel reviews knows that each consumes a great deal of time and inevitably involves problematic decisions. Information systems offer a number generated by a disinterested third party (the computer program), which in turn can save manager’s time and reduce their angst over individualized personnel decisions - even if the new process results in the same number of problematic decisions.

I don’t favor these reasons, I’m simply pointing out that they will be used and not widely opposed by politicians, taxpayers and the general public. This has been the result of introducing information systems to every other part of the economy – why should we expect that their use will progress any differently in the education enterprise? Are school boards softer on bottom-line outcomes than corporate boards? Are voters and taxpayers less interested than stockholders? Are superintendents more sympathetic to the human dimension than CEOs? Are principals under less pressure than plant managers? I don’t think so.

Once managers get their hands on data correlating productivity with individual workers, once receipt of that data becomes part of managers’ weekly or monthly routines, they will use it to manage individual workers and they will never let go of it. Whether that data is the best possible decision support is irrelevant. Something beats nothing, and even simplistic quantitative measures that capture much of the problem are preferred to vague subjective rating systems that require a lot of time and unreliable judgment.

We see this playing out today in the debate, discussion, and disorder in school districts over moves towards very modest proposals to tie performance to teacher pay; modest at least in the total proportion of compensation at issue. I’ve pointed out before that that the worst case scenario for teachers is offered by DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who seems inclined to move teachers in the direction of at-will employment and employ student information on behalf of a personal view of adequate teacher performance based on those simple numbers.

At this point in the discussion, the writer either attacks the system as unfair, or supports it as essential to raising student achievement. My conclusion is neither or both. “Neither” in the sense that whether it’s fair or essential – it’s happening. It’s like the tide, and this tide’s coming in. “Both” in the sense that a system based solely on teacher accountability is neither fair nor terribly useful – no one can deny the importance of many other factors and inputs; and in the sense that information gathering and analysis is essential if we expect to raise the performance of anything close to every child to basic proficiency in math and reading.

There’s nothing inherently good or evil in these information systems or the data they create. They don’t fire teachers, or principals or superintendents – people do. The disruptions they create stem from the basic question of all management – who will decide?

At current course and speed it’s clear that administrators will decide. It’s no great surprise that student information systems controlled by school district managers tend in a direction that holds teachers both solely accountable and accountable solely for student performance. By failing to relate the baseline impact of factors affecting each student or the value-added of other inputs to student performance, the system creates unrealistic expectation of teachers and teaching. By suggesting a level of teacher performance based entirely on student outcomes, the information systems ignore any other value teachers might add to school operations or students’ lives.

My view is that this won’t get the nation to where it needs to be on student achievement. Teachers are a necessary part of student success, but not a sufficient condition for achieving NCLB’s goals. A system of school improvement based primarily on teacher accountability might conceivably eliminate the one-quarter, one-third, one-half of the teaching force that is not competent. Trying to follow through on that idea is equally likely to result in labor unrest that brings school systems to halt. Most likely is another phase of the ongoing paralysis fed by still more information reinforcing the perception of public education as an utterly intractable problem.

As an advocate for market-based solutions to public school reform, I don’t think this trend strengthens the new school improvement industry in the long run. It drives the revenues of student information service firms today, but it does not help the new providers of innovative programs and services used by classroom teachers. Even the best teachers need appropriate professional development, appropriate diagnostic tools, appropriate means of reaching each student, appropriate materials, and appropriate supports outside the classroom.

The very methodologies employed to relate teachers to student outcomes can and are being used to assess the value-added of these offerings - but not by districts in their student information systems. This does not reflect great management practice. We need a framework to assess the relative importance of all the factors and inputs we know are relevant to student outcomes. Student information systems give us that framework. We also know that our understanding of how to measure inputs and how what’s measured actually influences learning is imperfect – it’s no more perfect for the teacher input than the program input or the input of management decisions on, say, teacher training time.

With the right data, information systems can do more to help colleagues identify solutions rather than offering managers an easy way to assign blame. Consider one example from my own experience. Success for All has been introduced to thousands of schools. From that record we know that if the program is implemented with fidelity, reading performance will improve. If a school adopts the program but scores do not improve three explanations dominate the probabilities: teachers are not implementing the program properly because they resist the approach, teachers are not being given appropriate training by Success for All staff, or teachers are not being given adequate training because the district is not providing sufficient funding or is interfering with the training schedule. The right data can point us towards the answer and a solution to the problem; correlating teachers with student scores simply locates a scapegoat. The first approach uses data for the purpose of adaptive management, the second approach amounts to little more than the French Foreign Legion motto “march or die.”

Elsewhere in edbizbuzz I’ve suggested that making teaching a legally-recognized profession like law or medicine, and particularly adopting an analogous duty of care would push teacher accountability in a more reasonable direction. Like doctors and lawyers teachers would not be accountable for outcomes per se, but for doing all the things teachers should do in the circumstances they confront. The application of that standard to the circumstances faced by a particular teacher would be the responsibility of some disciplinary committee of teachers convened for that purpose. It might be that the teacher failed to do what fellow professionals found professional standards demand, and that that transgression led the student to fail. It might find that the district failed to provide adequate resources, or the right program for the student, or placed to many conflicting demands on the teacher – exculpating the teacher or at least mitigating their responsibility. It might conclude that the teacher did everything professional standards demand in the circumstances.

Whether the approach is a more comprehensive analysis of the data or an adversarial disciplinary proceeding, both systems are a bit more complicated than a computer supplying a number that automatically leads to a bonus under a union contract, or a superintendent deciding a teacher should be fired. The questions are 1) whether treating employees fairly has a long-run impact on overall performance and 2) whether better decisions are made over time if all the relevant data is at hand and made available for discussion. I say “yes” to both. I venture that no one will say “no”; those headed down the current path just don’t want to have the discussion.

Teachers should be accountable for their role in student performance, but not beyond the point of what’s reasonable. Including all the factors that bear on student outcomes begins to move school improvement in a constructive direction. It happens to be a direction that will improve labor relations, and one that advantages the school improvement providers with programs of demonstrated efficacy.

Marc Dean Millot
is the editor of School Improvement Industry Week and K-12 Leads and Youth Service Markets Report. His firm provides independent information and advisory services to business, government and research organizations in public education.

The opinions expressed in edbizbuzz 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.


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