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Face to Face: Real Accountability

September 7, 2011

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.


photo by the author

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?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Joan permalink
    September 7, 2011 8:54 pm

    Thank you.
    Experience leads to wisdom.

    I once talked with some one at the California Department of Education (CDE) about a requirement for a added credential. I will never forget what she told me, “The state of California does not recognize experience; it only recognizes coursework.” Hmmmm.

    I have begun to have my “grand-students” in my classes the last couple of years. Talk about accountability! When we sit down at parent conference time, I’m talking with former students about their children as students.

  2. Mike Hladio permalink
    September 8, 2011 6:07 pm

    A tremendous point that meaningful accountability comes from our colleagues. Outside of students and families, this group of professionals, in my building, district, and around the country, are the strongest force for excellence I can imagine. I am challenged every day to be a better teacher because of the outstanding work being done all around me.

  3. Cynthia Sloan permalink
    September 9, 2011 6:24 pm

    You have written a magnificent piece. Bravo!

  4. Alberto B permalink
    September 13, 2011 11:47 am

    This is beautiful. Would love to see two follow up pieces related to this part:
    “craft policies (and include funding) that will promote stability in schools”
    1. What policies?
    2. What kind of funding?

    The statement, taken together with “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 “We feel more accountable for what we create than we do for what you purchase and order us to implement” seems to me exactly where we get stuck when pushing for progress. We ask for policy and funding while stating after each attempt that it isn’t what we need – or better – isn’t welcomed. Or, worse, when something small appears that seems to work for some, instead of recognized as a step in the right direction or insight into future solutions, it gets pounced on as either un-scalable at best or a mere distraction at worse. …but I digress.

    I’m a first time visitor to the blog so maybe there’s more here on specific solutions applicable in general that address these concerns. I’ll look around for more.

    The last two paragraphs are, of course, the crux and the whole of the issue: it isn’t a teachers/education problem – it’s a community problem. We either look at doing the best we can with what we have at a given time – grassroots and individual supporting individual, or we wait for the day someone will deliver the solutions for all our community issues to bring some sort of balance upon which we can rebuild a foundation.

  5. David B. Cohen permalink*
    September 13, 2011 7:27 pm

    I appreciate the positive feedback! Thanks also to Alberto for pushing my thinking a bit further.

    1. What policies?
    2. What kind of funding?

    Just on the subject of accountability, I would say that education policies cannot produce the type of accountability I’m talking about. As my friend Larry Ferlazzo would say (and he wrote a book on the subject), the best learning doesn’t come from teachers motivating students but rather from students’ own, intrinsic motivation. Teachers have responsibility for the conditions that foster that motivation, and the instruction and feedback to maximize the effects of that motivation. Governments cannot mandate that intrinsic sense of accountability, but they can foster it by supporting programs and initiatives that encourage outreach, collaboration, and productive engagement among stakeholders. It might come in the form of matching grants or even direct funding for the most effective programs in the neediest schools.

    My opinion is that the greatest obstacles in schools that can be overcome in schools will require much more time and an expanded sense of the teachers’ roles in schools and in the profession. Compared to most developed nations, the U.S. expects the most of its teachers in actual instructional time per day, with the least time to prepare lessons, evaluate results, and analyze practices.

    Alberto added, “We ask for policy and funding while stating after each attempt that it isn’t what we need – or better – isn’t welcomed.” That’s why ACT exists, in part – to try to improve the front end of that process so that policy makers have a better understanding of what we need and what will work, improving the odds that the results will be welcomed.

    Alberto also wondered, “maybe there’s more here [at InterACT] on specific solutions.” I hope that a decent percentage of our blog posts have had some specifics, though the main place I would direct you to is the “Publications” tab at the top of this page.

  6. Alberto permalink
    September 14, 2011 7:26 am

    What’s most interesting to me here is that it seems the ACT would actually be the back end of the process so that educators and policy makers/funders can tweak what has been implemented in the larger work of a policy – or, rather, a tidal shift – that addresses everything in your 2nd paragraph. That is, the larger work, as you say, is in returning to valuing K-12 education so much that lesson planning, evaluation, and analysis is robust and common again (with resources and expectations/guidance appropriately provided at every school) and the results help inform what is working (vs. what will) and, therefore, further guides practice. (This argument is cyclical, of course; I’m not suggesting a correction.)

    I’m interested in examples of communities who are making attempts at the comprehensive solution you speak of and that we all would agree is required. Is there any small community that has a greater percentage of involved, engaged, informed constituency that is, through involvement, engagement and appropriate prioritizing, managing the pressures of living wages, affordable healthcare, respect for all persons, investment in early education and seeing strong results throughout their K-12 programs. I ask this question about schools as well; I’m always tempted to look around and see what schools are implementing programs, etc. that other schools can apply or adapt to problems the face.

    Our leaders failure, I believe, is often just a mirror of our own failure to prioritize, to lead them. Engagement with each other and openness to what the other has to say is a first step to showing them how to better serve us and in that way we can all find the comprehensive solution together.

    I look forward to exploring this blog further and through the publications as well.

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