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The “Accountability” Problem

The “Accountability” Problem

May 31st, 2011 // 1:21 pm @

School Reform in 2011

Schools are typically infected by one fad after another, spreading teacher energy around instead of leaving it focused on teaching. One recent and particularly deadly fad has spread under the false name of “accountability.”

On its face, accountability seems obvious and positive. Who wouldn’t want schools to be accountable in such an important role as educating the next generation of young people? But the reality is more complex simply because there are at least two popular meanings of the phrase “educational accountability.”

Accountability has taken over much of our educational debate—accountability to parents, boards, administrators, accreditors, unions, voters, donors, alumni, the media, and various agencies in Washington D.C.

On the one hand, true accountability is a natural need; but false accountability has become a bane of modern education—false accountability has perhaps caused more harm to schools than anything else.

True accountability refers to results—the quality of student learning, pure and simple. Any and every educational institution and system should be accountable in this way. Their students should learn. And after completing a class or graduating from the institution they should exhibit initiative and genuine interest in pursuing more learning.

This is education, and every teacher and curriculum should be accountable to this result.

False Accountability

False accountability, in contrast, covers everything else—statistics, spreadsheets, cost centers, profitability, days and time in the classroom, teacher credentials, manuals, lesson plans, guidelines, athletic and fieldtrip budgets, and a thousand other things which have little correlation with how much and how effectively students learn.

Unfortunately, the term “accountability” as it is used today nearly always refers to the false kind, and in fact it is often wielded specifically to neglect and even directly undermine or attack the true type of accountability.

A teacher who consistently and demonstrably delivers graduates who have learned well and are excited to keep learning at high levels of excellence is told, for example, that she must change her classroom environment to meet the “accepted standards” of classroom time, testing or other arbitrary measures in order to be “accountable.”

Another teacher whose students show little interest in anything and whose academic performance is decidedly sub-par is held up as the example because she turned in all her paperwork on time and has the right master’s degree. These examples, and many similar, are far too often the norm in much of modern education.

In such an environment, false accountability is the nail used to seal the coffin of many of the best and most effective teachers and programs. Anyone who has spent much time in the educational system—unless they are part of the false accountability bureaucracy—can share stories of this sort.

Accountable to Whom?

“Being a teacher is all about politics,” one highly-awarded charter school English teacher told me the year she was asked to “retire” in order to make room for a new teacher with a more prestigious degree. The school had to meet government requirements and a prestigious degree on the new teacher’s resume would, in the estimation of administrators, make all the difference.

What were the results? Test scores went down through the entire school the next year; it is poignant to note that previously, all students in the small charter school studied with the outgoing teacher, and her influence was clearly missed.

If this were an isolated case, it would be sad. Unfortunately, such realities are commonplace to the point of a national tragedy. It seems that each time a new Presidential Administration attempts to legislate more requirements on teachers, the stack of paperwork grows, the percentage of education money going to administrators and their assistants increases, and quality learning slumps once again.

As Jacques Barzun, former Provost of Columbia University, wrote as far back as 1991:

“The lesson is plain. Children want to know how. Teaching helps them to learn how when able people teach. But they must be allowed to do it, with guidance and encouragement as needed, and with the least amount of dictation from outside.

“Teaching is a demanding, often back-breaking job; it should not be done with the energy left over after meetings and pointless paperwork have drained hope and faith in the enterprise. Accountability, the latest cure in vogue, is to be looked for only in results.

“Good teaching is usually well-known to all concerned without questionnaires or approved lesson plans. The number of good teachers who are now shackled by bureaucratic obligations to superiors who know little or nothing about the classroom cannot even be guessed at. They deserve from an Education President an Emancipation Proclamation….

“…the head of a department in a large state university, not a nostalgic elder, but a ranking scholar in mid-career [asked]: ‘Sitting on my desk is a four-volume institutional self-study filled with charts, figures, ‘mission statements’ and the paper from half a forest, but nothing about education except jargon and platitudes. Where have we gone wrong?’”

The “accountability” fad is unfortunately still spreading twenty years later in 2011. Yet the truth remains unchanged:

It is great teaching that creates great education.

Barzun wrote:

“The Army is not considered the most efficient of institutions, but when it finds a deficiency in fire power it does not launch a ‘Right to Shoot Program’ or a ‘Marksmanship Recovery Project.’ It gets the sergeants busy and the instructors out to the rifle range.”

It is time to stop the paperwork, the endless meetings and trainings, the constantly changing curriculum and standardized guidelines and lesson plans, and instead to put proven teachers in the classrooms and give them their head. As long as teachers deliver excellent educational results, we need to get out of their way.

Principal Teachers

The job of Principals (so named because they were originally the “Principal Teachers” in each school) should be to keep students and teachers safe and to keep all outside distractions away from teachers so they share their gifts and their passion, giving full attention to their students.

This would cause a revolution in American education, and the students and their parents would be the winners. It’s time for real accountability in American education, an accountability that encourages, rewards and settles for nothing less than great educational results—and which rejects every other type of “accountability” as mere distraction at best. This can hardly be stated in strong enough terms.

The growing Global Achievement Gap in our schools, as outlined by Tony Wagner’s book of this title, presents an ominous warning for Americans. We can change things if we choose, Wagner says, by adopting the following values and skills (among others) in our school curriculum:

  • critical thinking
  • agility
  • adaptability
  • initiative
  • curiosity
  • imagination
  • entrepreneurialism

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan quoted Wagner in Foreign Affairs:

“…there is a happy ‘convergence between the skills most needed in the global knowledge economy and those most needed to keep our economy safe and vibrant.’” He also foreshadowed the decades ahead by quoting President Obama: “The nation that out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow.”

What if we had a different goal?

It is difficult to imagine our public schools meeting these lofty needs if our teachers are expected to be anything but entrepreneurial, innovative and agile, when they in fact work in an environment that discourages and at times punishes precisely such behaviors. Entrepreneurial accountability is measured by the bottom line, the results, the outcome.

In contrast, bureaucracy frequently obfuscates the results to avoid losing budget share, instead defining “accountability” in myriad ways—none of which are directly tied to results. As former chancellor of the New York City school system wrote in The Atlantic June 2011 issue:

“Even when making a tenure commitment, under New York law you could not consider a teacher’s impact on student learning.”

Dozens, indeed hundreds of things are counted and accounted for in our schools—but not great teaching and its direct impact on learning. No wonder we have a failing education grade in so many places.

We need a widespread focus on real accountability in modern education, on the things that really matter: how much students are learning, how likely they are to keep learning, and how innovative and effective they are in the real world after they finish school.

This is the only real educational accountability. Everything else is something else, and until we reform education to focus on results we will fail to see the kind of education our children deserve or that our economy increasingly demands. It’s time to call for an accounting of our schools—and to redirect funds (without strings attached) to teachers and schools that are delivering what we want: great students who effectively achieve great education.

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odemille 133x195 custom Egypt, Freedom, & the Cycles of HistoryOliver DeMille is a co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of Thomas Jefferson Education.

He is the co-author of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller LeaderShift, and author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.

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