Accountability

Accountability:  1. The state of being accountable, liable or answerable. 2. a policy of holding schools and teachers accountable for students’ academic progress by linking such progress with funding for salaries, maintenance, etc.

The idea of accountability in education isn’t exactly a new thought. But I think it deserves some new attention, and possibly some new techniques. I teach college, so I am fairly removed from the world of elementary and seconday education. The reality of most schools today has accountability being measured by standardized test scores, and regularly changing standards and benchmarks to follow in each subject area. Often, these tests rely heavily on multiple choice questions and recall of facts. The scores your classroom gets determines how well you are teaching the students. And often, the scores are related to the budget of the school as well. So if your students aren’t scoring well, the implication is that you are not doing a good enough job of teaching them.

While factual information is essential to our ability to think well, they are still empty without conceptual information. We value conceptual information when it is displayed by a student. We often look at students who display good critical thinking, and problem solving as gifted or ahead of their grade level.  But with your accountabilty (read: ability to keep your job, get raises, get money for the school) determined by a test score, many teachers focus much of class time on learning the information on the test, so the students can pass it.

I think we may be doing this backwards. What if accountability was measured in other ways?

In college classes, the students fill out teacher evaluations. The students are in the class. They spend a semester, or quarter, with that teacher, dealing with how they teach, how they speak and what the subject matter of the class is. They are in a unique position to have a voice. As a society we seem to put value onto people who have a voice, who become meaningful contributors to their communities. So why don’t we have student evaluations of teachers starting in middle school, or even earlier? I suspect it’s because we don’t trust the opinion of a student so young. But in my experience the younger the student, the more adept at detecting bad teaching, and dishonesty.

Elementary and Secondary student evaluations of teaching, however, is not enough to completely fill out the idea of accountability.

Annual peer evaluations would help. The teachers in a school are, in theory, working together to produce a whole individual. And while there are teachers not vested in their students success, having peer review given by a different teacher each time would increase the objectivity of the evaluation. And I think it should be a rotation of subject area as well. In one rotation the art teacher could give the peer evaluation of the science teacher, and the science teacher could give the peer evaluation of the gym teacher. What this could achieve is a more present unity amongst the teachers. We tend to think of each subject area as being a separate, independent entity. We as teachers tend to stay in our own little area of “expertise”, while the students move from room to room, every day, and are expected to internalize and process all of it. We could improve the quality of education if we improved the ability of subject areas, or departments, to work together.

Add to this, annual reviews of teaching by Principals, and semi annual reviews of a school by Superintendents and we are starting to develop a better working model of accountability. But, accountability only goes so far. If we teach a certain way, or work together, because we are afraid of losing our jobs, or the school not getting enough funding (which are in fact valid points), we might be leaving an important thought out of the conversation. Motivation.

Why we as teachers wanted to be teachers in the first place. And what the goal of education is, and could be in the future. How to instill in students a sense of themselves, their communities and their society?

These are questions that deserve our regular attention, and thought if we are to have any hope of US students remaining relevant in the world. And probably should affect the way we think about teacher education and certification.

Definition of Accountability came from Dictionary.com, and much of the information that is fueling my thoughts is currently coming from Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham. It’s a great book, and deals specificall with how a cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom.

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