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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

The Pros and Cons of Accountability?

By Peter DeWitt — July 08, 2012 4 min read
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Lately, I have been struggling with the changes in education because so many of them are being done for the wrong reasons. However, some of those changes could have a positive impact on how administrators and teachers work together if they are done correctly. Blanket rules and high stakes testing are not healthy, but multiple observations and professional conversations can be. Can there really be pros and cons to accountability?

Teachers and administrators need to be evaluated, and those that I work with and connect with on Twitter want to be evaluated. However, the tools that are being used to evaluate are not the best ones. State testing should never be a part of a teacher or administrator’s evaluation. We know that large educational publishers like Pearson Education are making millions off of states because they not only offer the tests, they offer the textbooks that will “ensure” that students will do well on tests...if teachers are really doing their jobs (they say...).

All of this spending on testing is happening at the same time that schools are getting their budgets cut which means a loss of programs and a loss of staff. We should stop spending so much on testing and provide some of that funding back to schools that need it. Programs and staff are what really have a positive impact on students, not more testing.

I know many colleagues think those of us speaking up against state testing be used in evaluation (New York Principal Letter) are fighting a losing battle where that is concerned. The only thing I can say to that opinion is that at least we are speaking up and we need to continue to do so. We are not complaining behind closed doors and making it happen when the public is watching. We are speaking up on both sides of the wall.

Over the years that I have been a principal our district has done Danielson Goal Setting. During those goal setting meetings I have had some of the best educational conversations with my staff. I have watched them grow from never using technology to swiftly engaging students through the use of Smartboards or netbooks. Every day they walk into the building they hold themselves accountable to their students. I have watched them come in to school day after day during the summer, returning phone calls to parents who have questions about their child’s report cards. To suggest that they are not accountable for what they do is really offensive.

Every day that I walk into the building as a principal, I am accountable for every student, teacher and staff member, and the administrators I work with feel the exact same way. We spend our days talking with parents who love what we do and some who do not like anything we do, all the time knowing that it is our job to listen to both. We see people who write negative comments about us in local newspapers and a few that take it a step further than that, and we still treat their children with the same respect that we treat every other child. We know all about accountability and fairness.

Blanket Rules
A long time ago, I learned from reading What Great Principals Do Differently by Todd Whitaker that blanket rules can be harmful. For example, we should never send out negative e-mails to our whole staff for an issue that is happening because of a few. We should always go to those individuals directly and have a one-on-one conversation with them to address the problem. We are now in a position where we are being treated with a broad brush because of a few administrators and teachers who did not do their job. I think we can find better ways to meet accountability standards.

All schools should have to have evaluation procedures in place and should have to prove that they are doing them. I believe using state assessments and a point scale are harmful ways to keep track of the process. It will be interesting to see what appears on the point scales. Regardless of what we have to use, most of the principals and teachers I know will go above and beyond to meet those expectations.

However, for full disclosure, I do feel like a hypocrite. As much as I don’t like blanket rules that we all have to abide by because of a few bad teachers and administrators, I do understand that blanket rules have to happen. I only have to look at the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) in New York State, the Fair Education Act in California and RCW 28A.300.285 in Washington State to see the need for blanket rules. For too long school personnel ignored and lacked the understanding on how to protect students from harm. Now there are laws enforcing that they follow through on protecting all students.

It’s hard to look at two blanket rules and really like one while really disagreeing with the other. Blanket rules that protect kids are important, so I’m thankful that DASA is around. It’s sad that there has to be a rule to ensure that administrators are doing the right thing. Blanket rules that seem to kill the learning process seem to be counterintuitive to why we educate children.

In the End
The evaluation process needs to be less punitive and more collaborative. Politics, just like usual, are getting in the way of what makes good practice. As we all negotiate our way through this process it is my hope that public schools and state education departments can find ways to work together instead of working against each other.

One thing is certain, many of us will walk into our schools every day and do observations and meet for professional conversations. Most teachers will walk into their classrooms and try to meet mandates at the same time they educate children. We will all begrudgingly move forward trying to figure out how we can best meet the needs of students during all of these changes. However, we all need to stop being on opposite ends of the spectrum and find ways to work together to truly find the best way to meet the needs of our students.

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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.