Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Ah...accountability. What fun. Here I was, just braying about it regarding our Vice President, and it comes up again in terms of education, everywhere I read.

I've written about the subject before ( and most explicitly), but it's a thorny issue that isn't moving any closer to resolution.

Why thorny? Wouldn't you assume that most grown-ups are willing to be held accountable for the jobs they do? I mean, most grown-ups not involved in politics?

I mentioned once before that a major difference between the worlds of business and education is that in the former world, when you perform well and accomplish things, you tend to get rewarded--with a bonus, a raise, a promotion, something like that. In the latter world, you get nothing. If you are a more innovative teacher than your neighbor, you get nothing. If you are a more beloved teacher than your neighbor, you get nothing. If your kids' test scores are higher than those of your neighbors', you get nothing. The only way to earn more than your neighbor is to outlast her. And the only way to advance in the profession is to leave it and go into administration.

This means that the only incentive for working harder that is built into the system is our expectation of their sainthood. That is, we assume they'll bust their asses because they Love The Kids. And after all, it's All About The Kids.

Hell, even doctors aren't expected to work solely for the Greater Good of saving lives. But teachers are another matter.

This got me to thinking, today, about my experiences teaching behind what had just stopped being the Iron Curtain, in 1993. I got to see, up close and personal, the remnants of a system where virtually no one was rewarded for innovation, initiative, or hard work (in fact, people were viewed with deep suspicion if they exhibited any of these traits). Whatever people's salaries were determined by, it wasn't performance. In groceries and other stores, it didn't even seem to be connected to sales. Stores shut down for hours in the middle of the day; salespeople were rude beyond belief and seemed to find it personally humiliating to have to serve customers; no one did the slightest thing to make stores or displays or products look enticing or desirable, or even very clean.

At one point while I was Over There, Kmart came to town, having bought out one of the major department store chains. They sent trainers to work with the employees. I heard rumors of the near-riot that occurred when the Americans began insisting that floorwalkers and salespeople start saying things like. "May I help you?"

All of which is only to say this: it is a very small minority of the human population that does its work purely and solely for the love of that work and the private, personal satisfaction they derive from doing it. The rest of us, sorry to say, need to get paid.

And payment can come in many forms. When I was a schoolteacher in New York City, I would have happily traded a raise in pay for an improvement in the physical conditions in which I had to work. Promise me you'll sweep and mop the floors, cover the peeling paint, and provide me with decent and accessible bathrooms, and I'm a Happy Worker. Or how about this one: instead of a raise this year, give me the right to throw a kid out of school after three Major Incidents. I mean, really out--as in, he has to petition to come back, and prove that he values and desires an education. What would that be worth to most teachers?

So...accountability. In a situation where an employer provides the incentives and rewards for work, from base pay through potential perks, it seems pretty reasonable to me that the employer would want to put in place some system of accountability, to make sure the work is getting done properly and correctly. Fair is fair.

And maybe this is where it all falls apart in K12 education. The teachers do get paid--but there is virtually no management of them as employees. Whoever signs the checks doesn't know them from Adam. They're not paid as individuals; they're paid as a class of employees. And since the rate of pay, and the dearth of potential perks, is completely un-influence-able by the quality or quantity of work the teachers do, it's easy for teachers to feel un-beholden to their employers and therefore unaccountable. I do what I do for the love of doing it, and to help The Kids. Therefore, I'm accountable to no one but myself and my view of what the kids need.

And I can tell you from personal experience, in the work I've been doing for the past few years, that it's damned hard to convince people who live in such a situation that:
  • while we understand why you feel the way they do, and
  • while you are historically justified in feeling the way you do, and
  • while it is true that what you do is incredibly difficult and demanding...

Even given all these things... notwithstanding... regardless... anyway...there is something you must see and believe and deal with, which is this:

The way you are doing your job is ineffective and incorrect, and must change.

But because teachers are accountable to no one, and beholden to no one, and feel as though, really, they work for no one except themselves, the response in every district where I've worked, in every subject area, at every grade level, is pretty much the same:


1 comment:

Heather said...

Yeah, but hang on just a minute there, bub.
ALL the teachers aren't ineffective, and incorrect, and it ALL doesn't have to change.

Administrations are at least as responsible for the morass. If they would watch their teachers, look at the curricula, and choose the best and the brightest as model teachers who help the other teachers teach IN CONCERT WITH EACH OTHER (a defacto core curriculum) then it would be fine.

Teachers, qua teachers, can't solve this problem.

But, you know, everything else is dead on.