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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

When We Say ‘Accountability’

By Peter DeWitt — May 06, 2014 4 min read
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Words convey meanings, and some words evolve into having negative meanings because of the way people use them. Accountability is one such word. A few years ago, Diane Ravitch said, “Accountability just means someone to blame.” She was right then, and still is today. When we use the word accountability, we do not mean it in a positive sense. Accountability is used to describe how we, as educators, are not doing our jobs.

Of course, it’s not just with educators. When we talk about holding students or parents accountable, we certainly don’t mean that we want to hold hands and figure it out together. It simply means that group is not doing what they should be, and should be disciplined or reprimanded for it.

Sadly, it also pushes the receiver of the word against the wall. Say the words accountable and teachers in the same sentence, and we see an image of people being pinned up against the wall with very few places to turn. The word accountability is the reason why so many of our educational conversations become angry. Accountability does not mean trust, innovation, collaboration, and respect. It means, “prove to me that you are doing your job.”

We can prove we are doing our job in so many better ways.

School Climate

We know that when it comes to school climate or classroom discussion, using common language is very powerful. Using consistent words repetitively, students and teachers can bring their learning to a deeper level. The same goes for how we talk about education as a school community, or even at the larger state and national level.

Learning should be our constant focus. Accountability focuses too much on the teacher and not at all on the learning the student should be involved in.

It reminds me of that show “Lie to Me.” It wasn’t on for very long, but the producers had a creative way to show pictures of famous people in infamous situations. The main character, Tim Roth, would talk about the body language used by a character on the show proved they were lying, at the same time the producers would switch to a picture of someone like former President Bill Clinton saying he did not have an affair. Match up the body language between the character on the show and the real-life person in their infamous situation, and you have the villain.

The common language we have been using around education is not positive and makes someone the villain. It creates a deficit mindset, and makes teachers feel like victims who cannot adopt a growth mindset. That does nothing to move education forward. It causes people to choose sides, and creates confrontation around every corner. It has a negative impact on school climate.

We need to use language that fosters a growth mindset. Through using more language, we can make our school climates much more conducive to learning.

A Better Way

There are many other words that are much more powerful, and they can help us become more innovative. Words like dialogue, collaboration, feedback, and assessment-capable are much better to use when we discuss education. Those words inspire collaboration between students, teachers and parents.

Dialogue - Many people believe they know how to solve the problems in education. Unfortunately, people cannot seem to agree on what the problems are. Through dialogue, positive change can happen. But too often, we have only been engaging in monologue. Perhaps it’s my time spent with John Hattie, but dialogue is much more positive.

Division Principal, and Twitter aficionado, George Couros and many others have said, “no one is smarter than the room.” Which leads to collaboration...

Collaboration - If everyone in the room, truly listened to one another instead of ignoring voices until they got a chance to talk, we could all solve some of our issues, and even agree upon what they are. Stakeholder meetings used to mean that the person in charge would get everyone who agrees with them on a committee, but true stakeholder committees bring together diverse voices. Through structure and real-problem solving, these groups could solve building, district, state and national issues.

At the classroom level, collaboration means teachers and students working in unison together. In the words of Hattie, know where they are going, how they are going and where to next.

Feedback - Over the past few years we have learned a great deal about feedback. In my opinion, the best catalyst for the conversation came from ASCD when they published their September 2012 Educational Leadership focusing on Feedback for Learning. Grant Wiggins, John Hattie and many others have focused on how positive feedback can be in the learning process. In the words of John Hattie, feedback is “Just in time, and just for me,” and that can be powerful no matter what role you find yourself in.

Assessment-Capable - The hard part about the word assessment is that our minds go directly to high stakes testing. In many states, those tests are not assessments because of their lack of feedback they provide teachers, students and parents. Assessment is much more authentic than that, and it is ongoing.

Assessment capable learners also comes from Hattie. It’s meant to convey the meaning that students, through the modeling of their teachers, need to learn how to assess their own learning so they know where to go to next. Assessment capable learners know what to do during those tough times when an adult isn’t around to guide them.

In the End

If we truly want education to improve, we not only need to have a common idea of what that may look like, but we need to understand how to get there. Using harsh words like accountability only brings about negative monologue, and not positive dialogue.

So, the next time you use the word accountability in a sentence, understand why the people around you may not want to hear it.

Connect with Peter on Twitter.

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.


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