Face to Face: Real Accountability
In my last post, I was considering how ineffective it is to rely on numbers, scores, policies, sanctions, or rewards to bring about the results we want in education. At my most optimistic, I believe that education stakeholders all want the same things – though some people have a hard time articulating what they want without relying on test scores as a proxy for achievement or learning. Still, for the sake of argument, let’s leave motives out of this discussion.
For many politicians and outside experts, it’s axiomatic that high standards and accountability will improve public education. They can always come up with more hoops for teachers and schools to jump through. Still, we could probably build a broader consensus around school improvement if we could reach agreement about what standards and accountability should look like. Today, I want to describe to policy makers what accounability looks like and feels like for me.
Accountability enters my classroom every morning in the form of teenagers who depend on me to provide excellent lessons and learning opportunities. They look me in the eye and challenge me to excel in handling my responsibilities to them and their future. Accountability sits in my room, or stands, listens, and talks, contstantly reminding me that every moment matters and will never return; every interaction has meaning and cannot be unlived. At the end of the day, or school year, or even at graduation, I know that accountability is the invisible tether linked to my students and former students as they leave and carry on with their lives, taking with them both academic and non-academic experiences that will help shape their future.
Accountability shows up at in homes all around town when my students share with their family their experiences of my classroom and curriculum. By now, thousands of students and parents have had that connection with me, and accoutability is knowing that if my career is to have a truly meaningful legacy, it’s out there now and growing each year. Accountability walks through the door – tomorrow night – at Back to School Night, and every time parents come on campus. For an increasing number of parents, we’re in our second, or even third experience together, and in some cases those sibling are separated by a nearly a decade. Accountability is the unspoken trust that exists, and sometimes, it’s the trust that has been earned through prior difficulties. Accountability is the promise that I’m looking out for every student, and that I’m improving at my job every year, (and if you have a study that suggests otherwise, well, they didn’t study me!)
Accountability seeps through the cracks into the classroom next door, and flows into other buildings on campus. My colleagues depend on me to do my job and do it well, to educatate students and cultivate their love of learning, preparing them for what comes next in school, and in life. Accountability is the subtext of our talks about books and lessons and interesting articles and web sites, the expectation that we are always developing our courses and expanding our skills. Like the tide, accountability flows in and out, back and forth; we know our work will be judged by the quality of preparation observed in our students as they progress through school, and we know that we’d better not stall the student development that began in prior grade levels.
Accountability lives in my classroom, strolls the grounds of my campus, visits my students’ homes daily, sits by me as I work at home, and perches near my bed to whisper its way into my subconscious.
There’s no grant you can dangle before us, Mr. Secretary… no law you can sign, Governor… no legislation you can draft, Senator… no policy you can mandate as a school board member, that will ever instill half of the accountability I already know and work with each day. You do not motivate me. I’m not claiming to be perfect, but I’m not striving to improve because of any provisions in education code or No Child Left Behind.
But if you really are fond of accountability, and if you really want to help, here’s what you can do. First, get out of the way – or do what you can to encourage others to do so. Give teachers autonomy and control over their own professional practice. We feel more accountable for what we create than we do for what you purchase and order us to implement. Relieve the pressure on schools to meet unreachable targets in order to avoid punitive measures. These approaches have failed, not only in my opinion, but according to a National Academies’ study of test-based accountability – looking at the results you seem to value the most.
If you really want to help, you’re going to have to realize that Bill Gates is leading you down the wrong path: experience matters. You’re going to have to stop laying off teachers, and abandon “turnaround models” that have neither a proven track record nor a basis in research. Instead, craft policies (and include funding) that will promote stability in schools; my sense of accountability increases each year, along with the strength of my relationship with my community and colleagues.
You’re also going to have to talk about the inconvenient truth that poverty matters, and fight for comprehensive solutions for children, taking into account early childhood education, affordable housing, living wages, and health care – instead of insisting that under-supported schools and teachers must solve every problem and overcome every obstacle.
And before I wrap up, one more thing: where is your accountability? Can you look us in the eye – teachers, students, and families – and say that you feel directly responsible to us all, and that you’ve done all you can on our behalf?
I’m feeling plenty of accountability, every day, thank you very much. How about you?