On accountability.

For the district-level TOTY competition, I had to send in an application packet that included responses to questions about public education and my own teaching practices. One of the questions was about accountability in public education:

Who should be accountable in public education and for what should they be held accountable? Please include how this/these should be measured and evaluated.

I’m not sure that I responded to the prompt the way they wanted. My original answer was longer and included numerous swear words and death threats, but I figured that out of respect for my coworkers (who voted for me) and my current and former students (who helped out with the application and recommendations), I should probably tone it down a bit. Here’s my response:

The people with the most accountability, whether they realize it or not, whether they want it or not, are the students. They are the most accountable in the sense that they will eventually leave the public education system, and they will either reap the benefits or suffer the consequences of their education. Their parents, teachers, administrators, and school board officials can’t live their lives for them. But we can’t exactly fire the students, so let’s move up the ladder a bit.

Among education professionals, teachers are the most accountable because we have the most direct influence on the students—we are the ones who teach them about academic subjects. I think measuring and evaluating teacher performance should have an objective and subjective component. Principals and administrators need to be able to observe teachers in the classroom, monitor grades, talk to mentors about newer teachers, possibly even talk to students about teachers, in order to develop a subjective sense of the teacher’s performance. In doing so, principals and administrators must also take into account the circumstances of the teaching assignment: the available materials, the group of students being taught, whether students have been placed in classes they can reasonably be expected to succeed in, and so forth.

That said, teacher evaluation must also include an objective component—and here, I’m talking about standardized test results. Using test results as part of the evaluation process is not a very popular position among teachers, but when discussing the matter with others I use the following example. I am fortunate to have taught APUSH to International Baccalaureate (IB) students at my school for six years—they are, on average, the hardest-working and most intelligent students at my school. If my IB students do far worse on a standardized test (such as the APUSH exam) than the non-IB students do, then I think the principal and administrators have the right to take that into account when evaluating my performance. Conversely, if I had non-IB students, and my students did far better on a standardized test than IB students, I’d want the principal and administrators to take that into account if they ever have to decide whether to keep me or the IB teacher.

I don’t know what the proportion of subjective judgment to objective measurement should be, but I believe it’s appropriate to use both in evaluating teachers. Similarly, principals and administrators should be held accountable for the performance of their schools, and district personnel need to directly observe their performance often enough to blend a subjective judgment with the objective measurement of the school’s test scores. I think that laws mandating reassignment (if not firing) of administrators at low-performing schools are well-intentioned but inadequate to solving the problems at those schools. They may even serve to spare higher-level personnel the effort of direct observation and making subjective judgments, and perhaps permit these higher-level personnel to dodge whatever accountability they should bear for a schools’ poor performance.

I bring this up with a particular issue in mind: in this district, we seem to be forcing as many students as possible into as many college-level classes as possible with no consideration of their reading level, the coursework they’ve taken, or teacher recommendations. Too many students are forced into these classes unprepared and fail the year-end standardized tests such as the AP exams. Well, in the next few years, school evaluations will be based not simply on the number of AP exams taken, but also on the pass rates. When that happens, if we continue to place students in college-level courses without regard to their preparation, pass rates will remain low, teachers and administrators will be transferred or fired—and worst of all, students will have not learned as much as they could, or performed as well as they could. Using pass rates on standardized tests to evaluate teachers and administrators can be useful and productive as long as we are allowed to put students into courses that we can reasonably expect them to succeed in. Allow teachers to use students’ standardized reading and math scores, student performance in prerequisite courses, and teacher recommendations to determine student placement, and then test scores will be a much more reliable tool for evaluating teachers and holding them accountable.

I’d also like to address political accountability. I believe that elected officials at the national, state and local levels should only have as much power over education as they can be held accountable for. While there will always be arguments about how much power should be wielded by administrators or school boards or state departments of education, I think today’s greatest accountability concern lies at the federal level. It is difficult for the general public to hold federal official accountable for education because federal elections arise at best every two years, people tend to see education as a state and local issue that doesn’t translate well to national politics, and it is difficult for a voter to trace a path of accountability from a child’s performance in school directly to a congressman’s or President’s performance in office. Due to the difficulty of holding federal officials accountable for the educational system, I believe that there should be no federal funding of or control over public education beyond enforcing civil rights legislation. Funds currently distributed through the federal government should be returned to the states and school districts and should be used at the states’ and school districts’ discretion.

Pretty tame. I don’t think it’ll cause any hurt feelings or bruised egos. It’s a little choppy and a little sloppy because I had to fit this and my responses to several other questions into a 15-page packet, and I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on editing. But that was my answer, in eleven-point Times New Roman.

6 thoughts on “On accountability.

  1. As a student, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to hear someone say the greatest accountability belongs to us. There have been many excuses given for me and some of my peers regarding the teaching we have received in certain classes. I won’t elaborate for the sake of being brief but I will say that I’ve never been one of the many who join in the excuse making. I’m not claiming that my education in the classes in question was sufficient or adequate, however it is equally true that we, myself included, did not by any means do all we could to get the knowledge and skills we needed in light of what we knew at the time to be inadequate education. The responsibilty to educate me is mine, not my teachers’. I will gladly accept accountability in exchange for independence. I don’t mean to just go on and on like this, but this is something I feel very strongly about. I believe accountability is directly linked to independence, one can’t have one without the other, and as regrettable as personal accountability is, I won’t sacrifice my independence for not having to answer for myself. Anyways, thanks for the post, did me good to read it.


  2. This post is pretty tame.
    While I agree that at the end of the day it’s the student that is responsible for whether or not he/she learns. It’s up to the instructor to provide adequate explanations of the material and guide the student toward the goal of mastering the material. If the student doesn’t receive an explanation nor guidance on how and where to find the answers (and is consistently told not to go to “Google” for answers) how can anyone expect students to understand complex topics. It’s the student’s responsibility to become educated but what if they just can’t grasp the concept on their own?
    I think somewhere in the pipeline of the idea of forcing students to take more college-level classes is the hope that the students will be challenged and will eventually rise to the challenge and succeed. DCPS just needs to figure out how to get the last part accomplished. Personally, I think it’s a complete waste of time to take the class if I have absolutely no hope of passing the exam. The experience of being in the class will only help you to a certain extent and I would’ve rather been in a class that I would enjoy more.
    What do you think about Rick Scott’s education savings accounts idea? Funds used at the parent’s discretion.
    Yay for the 11-pt font!


  3. Doc, about that lousy professor… that was me with a fake moustache, a monocle, and a soap-bubble pipe, but you were absent on the day we revealed the hidden cameras. Shame, too; we were going to give you one of those big novelty checks for a hundred grand.

    5, I’ll read the article at some point this weekend and respond.


  4. I agree, it really comes down to the ambitious student and the passionate teacher, because the bureaucratic system that wants to just lump everybody together whilst ignoring the different needs is just going to slow us down.


  5. 5: I read the article, but it wasn’t too specific about the ESA/voucher proposal so I may have to do some more digging. In principle, I have no problem with vouchers and school choice, and if I were the state’s education czar there’d be much more of both. Implementation is a much different matter, and there are all kinds of ways for legislatures and school boards to screw it up. The only rational solution is to put me in charge of the whole shebang, but the state could probably not afford my services and I couldn’t possibly win an election.


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