Accountable for What?
Recently, I had a chance to catch up with a former colleague of mine after school, in her classroom. As often happens when teachers chat, we tried valiantly not to talk about school, but gave up after about five minutes.
“I just saw that movie, Waiting for ‘Superman’. I’d been so excited about it, thinking that it was such a great opportunity for education to finally going to get the attention it deserves. I left with a stomachache.”
(I’m sure you can picture me nodding in agreement.)
She continued, “It was just so clueless.” I followed her eyes around her classroom, as she glanced over the different areas of her classroom– visually tallying her to-do list, as I often do. “I mean, I’m thinking about all the different things I have to do: send in notes from grade-level meetings and data team meetings, submit my (students’) AR goals to one person, hand in my kids’ reading data for the week to another person, start preparing my grades, do SMART goals for my kids who have ILPs, share my lesson plans with our admins…it goes on and on. Everyone is demanding that I do something different– I feel like nothing that’s going on here is my choice. So how is it fair that teachers get blamed for everything, when I’m not even making any decisions?”
“Exactly,” I said, commiserating. “To hear them tell it, you’re the root of all evil, yet if that guy had even bothered to talk to a teacher in one of the schools he trashed, he’d probably see a lot of hard-working people– a lot of people jumping through hoops to keep up with other people’s demands.”
As the Los Angeles Times continues its crusade publishing teachers’ value-added scores (and misleading the public in general– like most principals and peer teachers never knew who was good and who wasn’t before they came along with their stupid algorithm? Like most teachers never shared their teaching practices? Are they serious?!?!), and as the federal Department of Education continues to justify raising the stakes on standardized tests and teacher evaluation, I keep coming back to the faulty assumptions surrounding teacher accountability.
News flash: It makes no sense to hold people accountable for things they cannot control.
Now, I’m not even just talking about student background characteristics, and poverty, and the other things that are generally considered when statisticians and researchers calculate that around 90% of the variance in students’ scores are the result of “student-level factors not under the control of the teacher.”
I’m talking about the things that go on inside the classroom, that most people assume are completely up to the teacher. Things like decisions about curriculum, how materials are used, how time is used, etc. Increasingly, and especially in “failing” schools trying to comply with district, state and federal mandates, these decisions are made outside of the classroom. Teachers are required to follow strict pacing and planning guides– if not a fully scripted curriculum– whether that pace works for their students or not. Teachers are required to teach certain topics in certain ways, and follow a mandatory schedule (i.e. 90 minutes exactly, uninterrupted, of literacy; 75 minutes exactly of math, etc.). Teachers have to keep up with building, district, and governmental reporting requirements– which takes time and energy away from lesson planning, grading, and meeting with students and parents. In some places, school and district officials have gone so far as to mandate things like the exact format for how things must be presented on each teacher’s dry erase board.
And none of this even touches on the bigger things that are beyond most teachers’ control– the sizes of their classes, whether or not they have in-class help, whether they have the materials they need because of budget cuts, or even how long the school week and year will be.
All of these decisions affect teachers’ ability to teach and students’ ability to learn– yet in many cases, such decisions are not made by teachers. (And if you try to do what you think is right despite those official decisions…well, good luck! Especially if you’re still probationary…) So how is it fair, or even logical, to press for greater “accountability” for teachers?
If student performance declines in a place where budget cuts force a district to move to a four-day school week, does it make sense to hold the teacher “accountable” for losing up to 20% of the instructional year? Should a school that follows whatever scripted reading program comes along with federal “support” be faced with reconstitution or closure when students still struggle to read effectively?
Presumably, the point of these accountability measures is to improve teachers’ (and schools’) performance, or to identify and fix instructional problems. But if the people in question have little control over what they do, how is that useful? (And really, if a school is dutifully following a given curriculum or whatever, and still failing, should the school be forced to clean house, or should the curriculum publisher??)
If the educational buck is going to stop at the teacher level, then teachers should be given all the support and freedom for which we ask. But if everyone over our heads is going to get to determine our every move, or limit the resources we need to work, they should bear the ultimate responsibility for the results.