Wednesday, July 11, 2007


What does accountability mean in teaching, and why are so many teachers afraid of it?

I have a feeling that what teachers are afraid of--what they fight against with whatever limited powers they have--is what passes for accountability in the schools, not what real accountability would look like. Real accountability pushes everyone in a system to work their hardest and do their best, rewarding people who do so and removing people who don't.

Here's how I'm held accountable in the business world: I have a manager who assigns work to me. If I don't do that work, or do it in a way the manager considers sub-standard, or ignore his assignment and do what I feel like doing instead, I get fired. Plain and simple. Oh, sure, it might take a while--he might need to establish a paper trail, a history of lousy performance, just to make the HR department feel safe about the firing. But it doesn't have to take years.

How do I know this? Because I've had to do it, myself, for people working under me. And why would I be so vicious and cruel? Because my performance for my managers depends on my staff's performance for me. And my managers are in the same position with their managers, all the way up to the chairman of the parent company.

And it doesn't go only in one direction. With those kinds of stakes attached to accountability, I can't just roll my eyes and close my office door if I have a lousy or incompetent manager. A bad manager threatens everyone up and down the chain. If I'm not getting what I need, I have to challenge that person (in a professional manner, of course) to give me what I need, so that I can give him what he needs.

Does that happen in schools? Far from it. Where principals view themselves as building managers more than instructional leaders, teachers are left alone to do whatever they think is right. For years--generations, really--teachers have known that, when push comes to shove, they can always close their doors and be Free. And they've come to view that as their birthright, not seeing how damaging and isolating it ultimately is. Their opinions about their practice are never tested, never challenged, never compared to anyone else's. If their practice leads to great student performance, they aren't rewarded. If their practice leads to lousy student performance, they aren't punished, warned, or helped to improve. The only way for one teacher to make more money than any other teacher to is to outlast her. Seniority uber alles.

Some principals do get involved in instruction. But what tools do they have to hold teachers accountable for following whatever plan they put in place? Very few. It's nearly impossible to fire a public school teacher. It takes years, and tons of paperwork, and most principals prefer to give them satisfactory evaluations and move them into non-threatening positions in the school. And if those teachers decide to transfer elsewhere, principals often have little or no control over who may come in to take their place. They can't build their own team, and they can barely manage their own team. Their hands are tied a hundred different ways.

In many cases, principals can't even mandate that teachers attend professional development sessions. I've worked in one district where the teacher's contract stipulated that they would get paid double-time for any sessions labeled mandatory. "You can train me, but it's gonna cost you double." Nice.

And who are principals accountable to? Their superintendent. In what ways? Generally, through end-of-year test scores. That means that the supe can judge a school once, come summertime. Along the way, of course, there are all sorts of anecdotal ways of seeing what's going on--behavior problems and police incidents, maybe a science fair or art festival. But unless there is real student performance data tied to the curriculum, available at regular intervals throughout the year, it's hard for any supe to really see what's going on in terms of teaching and learning.

And, of course, if there is no district-wide curriculum, there's no way in hell that a supe can know what's going on in his 50-60-plus schools. Even if he can dig up some data, every school is a completely different place, and every teacher is an independent contractor. The data is meaningless.

Who is the superintendent accountable to? The school board--often elected--usually made up of parents, business people, and other non-education-professionals. They may or may not understand the educational and pedagogical issues at hand. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don't. Sometimes they invest their supe with real authority; sometimes they don't. One way or another, by quitting or being thrown out, superintendents across the country tend not to stay in a position for more than 3-5 years.

So to what extent is a principal or teacher going to feel compelled to change what they do, when they know they're going to outlast the superintendent?

And who is the board accountable to? The public that votes for them--which includes the teachers and the parents.

So to what extent is a board going to go out on a limb to radically change what's going on, when the very people they need to hold to account--against their will--are the ones who can vote them out of office?

In no meaningful or effective way can any of us hold any of the rest of us accountable for what we're doing for--or to--students.

Which is a large part of the reason why nothing ever changes.

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