Opinion
Accountability Commentary

Who’s Responsible for Student Learning?

By Marc F. Bernstein — August 23, 2016 5 min read

From the paltry amount of attention paid to the state of American education in the 2016 presidential campaign so far, one might think we’ve already successfully figured out how to prepare America’s children for the challenges of a global, high-tech, competitive environment.

Reality disagrees. Our students are not improving. This spring, the “nation’s report card,” the National Assessment of Educational Progress, showed a drop in 12th graders’ math scores and no improvement in reading—results unfortunately consistent with those previously released for 4th and 8th graders. Other recent news, such as New York state’s easing of graduation requirements for special-needs students, highlights how state requirements for earning a high school diploma are being dumbed down, while self-satisfied educators and politicians praise higher graduation rates. All too many graduating high school students enter college requiring remedial courses.

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Perhaps the lack of attention to education from the candidates is not an oversight, but smart politics. After all, Congress is still congratulating itself on its bipartisan approval of legislation to succeed the No Child Left Behind law, signed in 2002, with the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in December 2015. Highly charged attacks on the Common Core State Standards, which are intended to add rigor to math and English/language arts instruction, continue, as do increasingly fierce complaints from parents and teachers’ unions about high-stakes tests.

No candidate wishes to contradict any voting bloc that has chosen to challenge the “education establishment” during this year of anti-establishment politics.

Of course, there is no single public education solution in a country that consists of more than 13,000 separate school districts across 50 states. However, after spending more than 30 years as a teacher and school administrator, I had hoped one promising effort would take root: the Obama administration’s attempts to hold the adults within the school community accountable for student learning.

This effort was based upon consistent research that some educators were significantly more effective than others in assisting students’ learning, even when accounting for students’ economic status. Some states legislated that teachers and administrators would continue their employment only if the students for whom they were responsible showed improvement from year to year. Employment decisions would be partially based upon statewide student test scores, among other criteria, including classroom observations.

Is it too much to ask that teachers and administrators remain current in the knowledge of their subject areas?"

But almost every state that had begun to adopt these accountability measures has now backtracked because of horrendous implementation. First, the effort was foisted upon schools by the federal government through coercive grants and by self-serving governors who saw an opportunity during the recent Great Recession for fast money and quick change.

State education departments led by individuals who lacked an understanding of school culture only made matters worse. For example, would anyone with any sense of how a school community functions implement both the more challenging common-core curricula and teacher evaluations based upon student test scores simultaneously? Too many teachers were ill-prepared to teach the new curricula, and yet both students and teachers were to be evaluated by these test scores. No wonder parents revolted, choosing to have students opt out of taking the tests, often with the encouragement of their teachers and school administrators.

Increased use of technology, once considered a social equalizer, has predictably been less than a panacea. Charter schools have had a checkered story of success. Legal challenges to teacher tenure continue to percolate but have little likelihood of success.

Thus, the American schoolhouse of the 1920s and that of today appear remarkably similar.

If change is to occur, it must happen through the states, as recent federal legislation has recognized.

I believe that the answer rests in placing more responsibility upon teachers and teachers’ unions to determine who among them should remain in the profession. States can do this through required periodic recertification. Is it too much to ask that teachers and administrators remain current in the knowledge of their subject areas, child and adolescent development, and effective teaching strategies, regardless of when they first became eligible to teach?

In 1971, at age 24, I received permanent teacher certification from New York state in three subject areas: mathematics, social studies, and commerce. With these certificates in hand, I am still eligible to teach dozens of courses and grade levels in any one of the state’s hundreds of school districts, for the rest of my life, without having to take a single refresher course related to my subject areas or teaching strategies. It’s as if the worlds of math, statistics, history, geography, psychology, and business have not changed over the past 45 years—not to mention what we know about how students learn. These certificates are a property right I own for eternity regardless of the effect upon my students.

Yes, teachers in New York state must undertake 175 hours of professional development over a five-year period, an average of 35 hours per school year. This requirement is typically met through attendance at schoolwide monthly teacher meetings and one- or two-day conferences, with few, if any, hours devoted to addressing any individual teacher’s specific needs. And most insultingly, teachers have little responsibility, involvement, or accountability in directing this professional development.

To be clear, I am not proposing we eliminate tenure, the legal guarantee that a teacher can’t be fired without due process and for cause, but rather that teachers assume the responsibility of always being abreast of content and process changes pertinent to their teaching and student learning.

Teachers’ unions and associations should be empowered to coordinate teacher recertification. A teacher who does not receive an extension of certification should not be eligible to continue teaching, regardless of tenure.

Though family poverty plays a significant role in educational outcomes, adult accountability for student learning is essential. There is little question that a competent, effective teacher makes a world of difference in the lives of children. Children deserve teachers at the top of their game.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2016 edition of Education Week as Who Should Be Responsible For Student Learning?

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