Opinion
Accountability Commentary

Sharpening the Accountability Focus

By Ronald S. Thomas — June 12, 2002 8 min read
The "everything agenda" of today's schools cannot form the basis of a viable accountability program.

Having been an educator for more than 30 years, I often find myself offended—and sometimes downright angry—when I hear politicians or talk-radio hosts demanding that we educators become “accountable.” The plain fact is, I’ve always been accountable. In a classroom-teaching career that spanned the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, there was never a moment when I did not feel accountable to my students, their parents, my principal, and the public that paid me.

I was accountable for teaching a prescribed curriculum, for involving my students daily in engaging instructional activities, for maintaining a pleasant and orderly classroom, for assessing my students, for reporting my students’ progress to their parents.

Of course, teachers are still “accountable” for meeting these responsibilities. And in almost every way, the task is much harder today than it was a decade or two earlier. But look carefully at my accountability list above and see what those responsibilities signify: I was accountable for what I did. I was accountable for process.

Accountability has changed significantly in the last 10 years. In the early 1990s, it moved from a process to a results orientation. Former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Chester E. Finn Jr. was among the first to note this evolution when he wrote 12 years ago in the Phi DeltaKappan about a radical new definition. Education would be defined solely by the outcomes students achieved. That is, only if student learning occurred would we be able to say that education actually had happened.

Teachers were no longer to be accountable solely for what they did as professionals—for clear lesson plans, engaging instructional strategies, effective discipline techniques. Instead, they also would be accountable for the performance of their students, as shown most importantly, as it turned out, on state and national standardized assessments. What Mr. Finn called then “the biggest reform of all” has since become an educational megatrend.

Yet, as important as this process-to-results shift has been over the past 10 years, a second change, one we are currently experiencing, is even more dramatic. Once again, the focus of accountability has moved. It is shifting from accountability for school improvement in the aggregate (that is, the overall student achievement, or that of a certain racial, ethnic, or gender group of students in x school will go up by y percent in z data point) to accountability for the success of each individual student at an advanced level while “leaving no child behind.” This is a much higher and admittedly more important goal, but it requires us to reassess the very nature of educational accountability.

As the lens of accountability is widened, we need to sharpen its focus considerably. Schools cannot continue to be accountable for everything on an individual- student basis.

Beginning in the early 1990s, teachers were no longer to be accountable solely for what they did as professionals; they also would be accountable for the performance of their students.

Consider the public’s current expectations for what educators are to accomplish in the approximately 13,000 hours children from birth to age 18 are in school. The list, as many have said, is staggering: from teaching very young children to read to cultivating positive character traits in preadolescents; from preparing and serving two meals a day to running Saturday evening dances; from instructing young children in how to button overcoats and put on galoshes to conducting anti-drug and sex education programs for teenagers. Almost every social malady and every special-interest cause has found its way into our mile- wide curriculum.

It is easy to see why. Educators find it very hard to say no. We see need all around us in so many areas. We know schools can help. That’s why we became educators.

All of the programs operated by schools today may, in fact, be worthy and play a role in helping students grow into healthy and happy adults. They don’t, however, all need to be the responsibility of schools. What the Harvard University researcher David Perkins called the “everything agenda” of today’s schools cannot form the basis of a viable accountability program. Instead, we need to identify a small number of specific academic foci on which to center our efforts as educators, areas in which we will ensure that no child is left behind.

Sharpening the accountability focus will require a major rethinking by society of what is expected from schools. As educators, we can help make this necessary transition happen by continually refocusing school-based conversations back to student academic growth and by resisting the temptation to take on activities and programs that, while well-meaning and perhaps needed, do not promote increased student academic performance.

This is not a new concept. Drawing on long- standing research showing that students in other industrially developed nations receive twice as much instruction in core academic areas as American high schoolers do, the National Commission on Time and Learning in 1994 called for the establishment of the “academic day.” This meant, in essence, that the existing school day should be devoted exclusively to academic instruction. The implication of the commission’s recommendation was that many worthwhile student programs—athletics, clubs, student government, nonacademic studies, and the like—would have to be moved beyond the current six- or seven-hour school day. Now, eight years later, how much of this has occurred? Not much.

As educators, we can help sharpen the accountability focus by continually focusing on student academic growth, and by resisting taking on activities that do not promote increased academic performance.

But even if a pure academic day were to be established, I would suggest, the commission missed two important points. Not only must the nonacademic functions of school be taken out of the academic day, but people other than teachers must run them. If we moved all these activities to late in the day or the evening, and then asked teachers to direct them, we still would be forcing teachers to blur their academic focus and to devote limited time and energy to the performance of nonacademic functions.

Consider the example of a high school social studies teacher and adviser to the junior class. The big dance is coming up in a few weeks. How does she spend her Tuesday morning instructional- planning time: identifying ways to align her instruction with state standards and developing innovative techniques of presenting American history to teenagers, or meeting with the caterer or class officers and finalizing the contract negotiation with the band? The adviser knows the importance of her professional development and lesson preparation, but logistical reality and the press of time might lead her to say she should prepare for the dance. Lesson improvement would have to wait.

And this, too, we should bear in mind: An academic day must be accompanied by an “academic attitude"—one held not only by teachers and students, but also by parents and the public at large. This attitude includes having high academic expectations for all students, maintaining safe and orderly learning environments, providing aggressive assistance for students experiencing difficulties, and cultivating a positive school climate. Focusing on academic instruction can only be effective if real and enforceable academic and discipline standards follow.

Students are telling us in national surveys that often they are not challenged enough. As long as our education system continues to distribute its rewards—passing grades, promotion, diplomas, even college admission—to those who do the minimum, we cannot hope to have a real and credible academic focus.

The call for a concentration on academics as the sole mission of schools has assumed greater urgency as the results-oriented definition of education has taken hold and various sanctions are envisioned by the federal government for schools that don’t measure up. How should the key accountability points be identified?

In my view, schools should be accountable for individual- student results only in those functions that are unique to public education, areas in which our responsibilities are not shared with other social institutions, such as the home, religious organizations, community agencies, and other public and private enterprises.

Schools should be accountable only for those functions that are unique to public education, areas in which our responsibilities are not shared with other social institutions.

The key questions should be: What do schools do that no other institution in America does? What is our core business? In what do we specialize?

To me, the unique function of public schools in America is teaching basic and advanced reading, writing, and computing skills and how to apply those in science, social studies, and the arts. There are no other institutions in America today with this as their primary mission.

True, more and more private businesses are becoming involved in education, but they survive only because of the public’s perception that public schools are not achieving their essential mission. Such companies may in fact be excellent models for public schools: They thrive precisely because they are able to focus solely on student academic growth.

The improvement of student performance in a few selected areas of focus should be the sole accountability points for schools. This does not mean that the other tasks and responsibilities that have been embraced by the schools over the years will suddenly go away. To the contrary, recent history teaches us that educators will not soon lose their responsibility to provide both social support and academic instruction for today’s young people.

So, because of need, pattern, and the public’s expectations of schools, we may have to continue to “do it all.” But the reality is that we can’t be accountable for it all.

Ronald S. Thomas is the associate director of the Center for Leadership in Education at Towson University in Towson, Md., and was formerly the assistant superintendent for educational accountability in the Baltimore County, Md., public schools. He can be reached by e-mail at rathomas@towson.edu.

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2002 edition of Education Week as Sharpening the Accountability Focus

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