Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Moving Past Shallow Accountability

accountable  (əˈkaʊntəb ə l)
-adj.
1. responsible to someone or for some action; answerable
2. able to be explained

Since the early 1990's (perhaps before, but I wasn't particularly concerned before then) both state and federal politicians have been calling for measures to "hold teachers more accountable." Most of their ideas have lacked creativity and instead of searching for true measures of accountability, have searched for efficient and scaleable ways to sort the good from the bad. Instead of rich, multi-dimensional measures of accountability, we get mechanized testing.

Students corralled into auditoriums, gymnasiums, any available classroom in front of computer screens for several hours a day over a two to three week period taking mostly multiple choice tests. Schools and teachers are then judged on the results. Schools must go through great efforts to make sure that every child sits for a test. If they don't for any reason, it counts against the school. Testing coordinators must track down transfer students who've moved from out of state or who've failed tests in other Virginia districts to take the tests. If they do poorly, the school is accountable even if they haven't provided the instruction. Students only need to pass a set number of tests to graduate. If they've met this requirement, they still must take the additional tests. Their performance doesn't affect them, but again, it will count for the school.

Schools have had informal methods of accountability for decades. Whenever I give a grade to a student, or make a decision about their instruction I am accountable to a student, parents, and administrators at all levels. From A-F, my class policies are clearly defined and in print year after year. From time to time, a student or parent will ask for an explanation while a term is in progress or after a grade is received. I am answerable to them, and on more than one occasion in my career, that answer has not been acceptable. 

Then it moves up a level. Those conversations are difficult and uncomfortable, but usually lead to growth. Sometimes a parent is left dissatisfied and angry.  Sometimes the teacher is left unsupported and frustrated at having to make a change. Usually a compromise is reached, both sides having a chance to dialogue with each other, and future actions informed by the outcome.

Teachers live with accountability.

I can understand that what I described above doesn't always work so well. Some parents are not empowered to advocate so well for their child and some schools are not so inclined to responsiveness. But accountability should belong to the very individuals most influenced and invested in a given action. We're moving in the direction of making teachers accountable to the influence of corporate standard setters, test makers, and data gatherers.

We can create a better system of accountability. It's not as easy as giving a test and applying a score, but the informal systems of accountability like what is outlined above could become more formal through policy. It would also place accountability into the hands of the ones who deserve it the most.

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