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Word Attack: “Accountability”

August 11, 2010
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I love commenters, especially those who disagree with me. A recent comment, on “Carpetbaggers and Charlatans” at Education News Colorado, got right to the heart of what I think is one of the thorniest issues in education– the idea of accountability, and who has the power to decide what accountability looks like in practice. I’ll say right now that this will not be the last time we get into this issue, so don’t consider this post settled.

Anyway, Alexander Ooms writes,

So let’s accept first than whenever there is a lot of federal money in one place nefarious people appear — and history from Medicare reimbursement to claims for fake Katrina victims shows this is not unique to education (it may well be education never had the money to attract charlatans before).

But how do you extend this truism to duck any accountability for turnaround schools for “the teachers and principals who have worked in them for years’? Who else would be responsible (and please can we avoid blaming society, ses, parents, etc — these obstacles are being overcome in too many places to think they are insurmountable). Belief that “the teachers and principals who have worked in [turnaround schools] for years are too inept to be trusted” is not based on images, it is based on student outcomes. Is this really the fault of some other group, or are we to understand that no one is responsible for these schools?

Lastly, you seem to cling to the thread that only experienced educators should be allowed to decide what happens in schools. But this not only often fails to work, it’s not clear that it is good policy. Most people don’t just want just the military deciding what constitutes torture or just investment bankers regulating derivatives. Likewise with schools that are failing (and let’s consider failing to mean significant underperformance compared to similar SES demographics, which would include most or all turnaround schools), why would we not welcome ideas and approaches based on their quality, merit, and outcomes — not just their source?

First things first. No, fraud is not unique to education, and no one ever said it was. Yes, there is going to be an increase in snake oil salesmen angling to get access to public money earmarked for education, because there has been increase in such funds more generally. And, yes, I do believe that there is a faulty assumption out there that every old anyone can be involved in turning around “failing” schools, and that this will make easier for unqualified people to take money that they don’t deserve. Secondly, good ideas should be entertained from wherever they come. But who do you think is in the best position to determine what passes as good? Someone who has no familiarity with the relevant field?

Moreover, public schooling has always been political process. The suggestion that America has ever had a public school system run strictly or entirely by professional educators without outside input, or that we’re in some new era where teachers and school leaders have only just begun to be examined and held accountable for student outcomes (and blamed by the rest of society for any number of social ills) is completely ahistorical. The major difference now is the ever-increasing role of the federal government and corporate America. (ETA: This trend, though contemporary, is still older than I am.) So I’m not “clinging” to anything here. I’m fighting for something: the idea that educators and the communities served by so-called “failing schools” should have more respect and decision-making power  than we currently have, or have had in the past.

I’ll ignore, for the time being, the problematic bit about not “blaming society…” for poor student outcomes. But as a Black woman who comes from a long line of whip-smart forebears who took several generations to break the cycle of poverty, you can be really sure that I will get into that in the not-so-distant future. (In the meantime, I invite you to attempt some empathy, and imagine what it would be like to go to school every day where the culture and maybe even the language isn’t your own, on an empty stomach, perhaps suffering from an untreated ailment, or maybe after witnessing or experiencing violence. Now, imagine being a teacher in a classroom or school where most children face this reality. Could you overcome it? Absolutely. Would it be easy? HELL. NO.)

But let’s dig into the notion of accountability. No one here is “ducking accountability” for anything. Because I’m a professional, I have always welcomed anyone to observe me as I work, review a comprehensive body of evidence of my work, and offer actionable feedback and fair criticism so that I can continue to improve. So does virtually every teacher I’ve ever met. In the short time I worked at DPS, my classroom functioned as a demonstration space, and my lessons were frequently observed, video taped, and so on. When people were close enough to get that kind of in-depth view, they consistently judged me very highly. The same can be said of many of my teaching colleagues. Not all, but many.

Note the terms “comprehensive” and “in-depth”. A person who reviewed only my students’ test scores, for instance, would have no idea of the hard work I’ve done (or the hard work the students have done, for that matter). That person would not be in a position to fairly judge whether or not I’m a capable professional. The fact is, standardized tests have a lot of shortcomings. The most important of those at present is the fact that they offer an incomplete picture of what and how students are learning, and what and how teachers are teaching. Test scores are not nearly as informative as many non-educators assume they are– which is one of the biggest reasons why it’s inappropriate for untrained individuals to have the power to use them as the primary or sole basis for making important decisions.

It is also well-established that such scores and other outcomes are affected by many factors that are beyond the control of teachers and schools. People who are unfamiliar with the teaching and learning process, and with the day-to-day reality school leaders, teachers, and students face, are simply not in a position to fairly diagnose or solve the problems schools face. They may offer ideas, but ultimately, real positive change has to come from within the schools. Allowing outsiders to use faulty and/or incomplete information to make serious decisions about the professionals who serve society’s most vulnerable individuals isn’t accountability. It’s injustice.

Teaching is a profession, and like any other profession, there is a great deal of knowledge and skill required to do it well. People who aren’t trained as educators have difficulty appreciating just how hard our work is. Consequently, they will struggle to fairly assess who is and isn’t doing it well. That is why members of true professions are allowed to assess themselves; a practitioner’s professional peers are in the best position to know if he or she isn’t up to snuff, and to offer useful support or make a judgment as to whether or not that person should continue within it. Members of any profession can and should be held accountable by the broader public to ensure that they’re meeting their obligations. However, there is a big difference between regulating industries and having interested parties offer a say in how a given industry is run, and turning over considerable amounts of power and control to people who are almost completely unfamiliar with it.

For instance, Americans (on average) are less healthy than citizens of many other nations. We suffer from more chronic diseases, we have higher neonatal and maternal morbidity and mortality rates, our average lifespan is shorter, and so on. This could rightly be considered a crisis. However, there is no serious large-scale call in America to “crack down on bad doctors” or vilify the medical profession. Government officials don’t mandate what doctors must do when a patient presents a particular problem. People simply do not assume that because Americans aren’t as healthy as they could be, that there is something inherently wrong with doctors. When individual doctors make serious mistakes or are found to be unfit to practice, they may face legal action as well as professional consequences, and rightly so.

But for the most part, reasonable people look to the systemic causes for why Americans might be unhealthy– the cost and availability of health care, the quality of our diets, our exercise habits and other choices we make, the health and safety of our environment, etc. Reasonable people don’t claim that looking at the complete situation is tantamount to “making excuses” or “ducking accountability.” They don’t say, “Well, these outcomes clearly show that doctors aren’t capable of helping us, so let’s see if we can get some new ideas in here. Sure, they’re not medical professionals, but could they possibly be any worse than the ones we have now?” No one seriously entertains the idea that doctors should keep or lose their jobs based upon their patients’ BMIs, or that non-doctors should be in charge of evaluating individual doctors where they practice.

Not so in education. Despite that it, too, is a profession with its own specialized knowledge, skills, and issues, every inexperienced Tom, Dick, and Sarah on the street thinks that they know enough about it to be the arbiters of educational accountability. Again, I’m not saying that Tom, Dick, and Sarah shouldn’t have the right to decide how their children are educated, or weigh in on how their tax dollars are spent. They should, because have a compelling interest in doing so, and because public schools should be democratically run. But should they have input over the nitty-gritty details of what goes on in the classroom, or over personnel decisions? Should their input outweigh that of the people who have trained and devoted their lives to education?

As a professional, I have every right to be incensed–outraged, even– if Tom, Dick, and Sarah decide to form a “consulting firm,” take millions of dollars of public funds, and partner with a school or district to experiment with teachers and students as they test out their own pet theories of how education should work. If they manage to become school leaders despite their lack of teaching experience, I have every right to question if they’re savvy enough about the nuances of teaching and learning to judge me fairly or to tell me how to do my work. I have a right to be angry if politicians pass laws that significantly limit my ability to exercise my professional judgment in my classroom. If I were a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer, no one would question that. Why should I put up with that because I’m a teacher?

No one here is saying–or has ever said– that educators shouldn’t be held accountable for doing their jobs well. All I’ve ever said is that accountability should be FAIR. Educators should be held accountable what is in our power to control, and those decisions should be based upon a comprehensive, in-depth examination of what we are doing given the circumstances we face and resources we’ve been given. Accountability should also be multi-directional. Just like I should be held responsible for my conduct and my professional practice, my “superiors” and the broader community should be held responsible for theirs, and for ensuring that they’re supporting me and my students to be successful (More on that in another post…). Anything less than that is unfair and counterproductive.

Much havoc has been wrought by well-intentioned but ignorant meddling, in education and in many other aspects of public life. We ignore that at our peril.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. August 11, 2010 5:06 pm

    Absolutely right, Sabrina! and who is to say that the schools targeted for these disruptive and damaging “turnaround” strategies are really “underperforming, compared to similar SES demographics” as your commenter assumed?

    These schools have an overwhelmingly poor student population, most of them children of color, English language learners and students w/ special needs; and there has been absolutely no attempt to analyze as to whether given their challenges, given the highest needs populations and the worst conditions, their teachers are doing a good job or not.

    Among the schools targeted for interventions includes the Hawaiian school of the deaf and the blind. Also Georgia School for the Deaf. Sure close these school; and/or fire half the teaching staff. Does that make any sense? Where are they going to find trained teachers to replace them?

  2. August 11, 2010 5:16 pm

    http://goo.gl/s5tN <===Please go to Eduwonk and lay it on them…

  3. brian holt permalink
    August 11, 2010 9:39 pm

    “Most people don’t just want just the military deciding what constitutes torture or just investment bankers regulating derivatives. […] why would we not welcome ideas and approaches based on their quality, merit, and outcomes — not just their source?”

    This is a fascinating quote. For one, he is intentionally confusing seniority/experience with power. In my college, the most senior faculty have the least amount of respect from administrators because the speak from history and aren’t afraid to speak up. But as far as influence goes, not much.

    Furthermore, the author of the quote is equating the few people with power (generals & bankers) with hundreds of thousands teachers, as if teachers speak in a collective voice. This closest thing we have would be union representation, but as an active member I can attest that there ain’t no collective or clear voice.

    He’s also using hyperbole, or at least extreme examples (torture and financial crisis), to claim that his windmill of a creation about teacher power is being used to scare, intimidate, belittle, hell, I’ll say it, to TERRORIZE our students if not our country.

    Lastly, he steals from teachers the very thing they want while simultaneously claiming that teachers in fact do not want it: “[to] welcome ideas and approaches based on their quality, merit, and outcomes — not just their source?””

    Good god if only teachers ideas and opinions would be treated thus.

    This guy is a Public Relations expert and offensive. He is smooth and smart, and should probably not be trusted nor engaged. Remember Public Relations was coined by Freud’s nephew, an admitted propagandist. He came up with the phrase because of what Germany did to the word Propaganda.

    • brian holt permalink
      August 12, 2010 11:22 am

      I need to pull back some. Alexander is not offensive–as a person, though his arguments may be. I have no idea whether he is trustworthy or not, but his use of language makes me skeptical.

  4. Miss_McInerney permalink
    August 12, 2010 5:50 am

    Fantastic article. The passion in your argument is palpable but, even more importantly, you back it up with convincing logic. Thanks for saying what many of us think but can’t articulate as eloquently

    • BronxEnglish permalink
      August 12, 2010 7:17 am

      This article is beyond brilliant. It speaks to everything teachers feel about their classrooms, their work, and how we are being railroaded. The worst thing of all is that our students are being robbed.

  5. August 14, 2010 10:27 pm

    Refreshing to find an education post that *finally* recognizes that standardized testing is not the equivalent of accountability. There just isn’t a lot of that out there. Far too many toss the accountability baby out with the standardized testing bathwater.

    Accountability is critical (to schools and a lot of other things), but it’s also critical to be sure that the right things are being measured – and that’s where we all have a lot of work to do.

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