You might have read the title of this blog post and heard a whiny tone. You might have heard an angry tone. Maybe you read it and heard an exasperated tone. Actually, it was with none of the above. Accountable is just an adjective that accurately describes me as a campus leader.
The day after my open letter to Mr. Hammond, he tweeted this:
I was anxious to see Mr. Hammond’s ideas for holding schools more accountable, so I immediately clicked the link. It wouldn’t open. I’m not sure if this is a super, secret accountability plan. It is certainly possible, as schools are often the last to know the rules by which we play. Regardless, it got me thinking. To whom am I accountable? How am I accountable?
I started with the most obvious:
At the most surface level, I am accountable to the state and the federal governments. They
have very detailed, complex plans with formulas that hold me “accountable” at certain levels of success. The formulas look at all students, but also specific subgroups of students. Most of the formulas involve standardized testing where the questions are constantly changing, and the bar is always moving (both up and down) based on what picture the state hopes to paint with the results. It also includes attendance rates, financial expenditures, staffing allocations, staffing qualifications, and demonstration of the inclusion of activities of House Bill 5.
This type of accountability is the one that gets the most publicity. It is also the one that governments try to simplify the explanation into nice clean categories, but I assure you, there is nothing “simple” about it. I do not oppose standardized testing or accountability to the state or federal government. I use these results to develop my campus improvement plans and yearlong professional learning plans so that we grow as a campus. Using this data in healthy ways has helped us improve our methods and help our students gain a deeper understanding. I oppose oversimplification of the results with labels that don’t explain the entire picture. A word such as “acceptable” or a letter grade creates a mental model in the public’s head of “good”, “decent”, and “bad”. I would just pose a question. Which were you more proud of in school: the easy A or that hard-earned C?
I also oppose to the abuse of the data and tactics of some school districts that use “quick fix” solutions at the cost of students’ long-term learning. Some district leaders are so desperate to make the news; they will do anything to succeed. They judge teachers without looking at growth and don’t develop plans to support teachers improve their practice. How can district leaders expect teachers to grow their students if they don’t do anything but threaten them? Desperation results in desperate practice. I am grateful to work in a district that isn’t desperate and supports its campuses to grow through best practice, not quick fixes.
As I continued to contemplate, this is the accountability list I came up with:
- I am accountable to my district. It is an honor to work for this amazing community. I am proud that they expect more from me than performance on tests. I must make sure that each dollar of the money allocated to me makes a positive impact on student learning in some way. I am accountable to these incredible district leaders because of the servant leadership they show and for their belief in me and my ability to make a difference with students. I want to make sure that I always represent them well.
- I am accountable to my community. I have a responsibility to make sure that I am preparing my students to become positive contributors to this community. I must make sure that my actions support the beliefs of those I serve and add value to the properties and the lives within its boundaries.
- I am accountable to the parents of my students. They trust me with their students almost 8 hours a day. They trust me to prepare their students academically. Some need me to help meet basic needs. They are counting on me to make good decisions. I am especially accountable to those that may disagree with me. If I am unable to give a parent the answer they want, I must believe I have knowledge of a bigger picture and that it is what is best in the long run for all involved.
- I am accountable to my teachers and their families. It is my job to make sure they have the knowledge and materials they need to do their jobs effectively. My teachers work hard. They put in lots of extra hours. They make sacrifices for our students. They do this willingly, but it is my job to prepare them with knowledge and skills…to give them time to plan and collaborate so that every minute is powerful and not spent spinning their wheels. I am responsible for making sure that any minutes teachers give to our school rather than their families provide benefits that outweigh the negatives.
- I am accountable to my family. I come from a long line of amazing educators. I have family members who paved a path in public education before me. I witnessed the tremendous impact they have had in the lives of children. I am accountable to respect the legacy they have created.
- I am accountable to my husband and my amazing boys. I could not do this job without them. They truly sacrifice so much because they know this job is my passion. Being a parent has made me much more sensitive to the parents of my students helping me to realize we all send the best children we have, and we are doing all that we know to do. My family has stood up and cheered for me when the rest of the world was silent. I want them to know that nothing I do would be possible without their love and support.
- I am accountable to my students. I know this would seem obvious, but here is where the accountability becomes especially complex. I am accountable to these eyes that look up at me each day with hope as they say “Good morning, Mrs. Stuart” with hope for the future. I am responsible for stepping out of my comfort zone to put on the performance of my life each Friday to sing, dance and celebrate their successes (even if it means playing air guitar). I am responsible “no excuses” and must teach them the power of education. I am accountable for making sure that each one of them is a literate problem solver ready to go to college if they choose. I must make sure that they have the instruction that teaches them how to think and make real-life connections while also preparing them to answer abstract applications on standardized tests. I have to know them as individuals, know their needs, tell them what they need to hear and not just what they want to hear, all while loving them unconditionally. I am accountable for putting them on a path of success.
- I am accountable to my God. He has given me gifts and talents that I am responsible for using for the purpose He intended. My actions must show His love and care for others so that others can see Him through me. He has charged me with this mission. Some day, I know I will answer directly for my choices.
The truth is I think all educators feel the same way and do the best they know when trying to accomplish this accountability. We all enter education with a passion for making a difference. We know it will not be easy.
While I don’t think pointing fingers is the answer, here is where I think we need “stronger accountability”:
- Legislators need more accountability for spending time in schools investigating education first hand before passing blanket laws with no direct knowledge or considering the unintended consequences of their actions.
- The Media needs more accountability for reporting the negative situations about schools in a disproportionate way. There are way more good things going on in public schools than reported. It may get people’s attention, but it skews public opinion in harmful ways.
- Special Interest Groups need more accountability for the claims they make about public education. Those who profit from less funding for schools and more funding for testing need accountability for their actions. People like Mr. Hammond make statements with skewed data and half-stories that create fear and panic in the public. I suspect his reasons are self-serving and not for the good of public education, student, or their families.
- School districts that over-emphasize standardized tests need more accountability. There are those districts that have decided to make their mark on the world by commanding high performance on tests without a balance in quality instruction. “High scores at any cost” is the motto. It works for a while, but when people fear for their jobs and desperation sets in, they will do anything for test defined “success.” I believe this is what happened in Atlanta. I am grateful that I do not work for one of these districts, but they are out there. Anyone who abuses data needs stronger accountability for the harm they incite.
Finally, I guess educators do need stronger accountability, but not for what you might think. We need more accountability for standing up and telling our story to the public. We need to speak loudly enough to have a say in the policies that affect us.
I hope that it is clear that I am not opposed to accountability. I am not opposed to testing. I know without a doubt that if I am preparing students in meaningful ways, this will translate to success on standardized tests, but more importantly success in the real world. I just think that sometimes we throw around the concept of increased “accountability” without exploring it more deeply. Even with testing, we have to examine what these tests can and cannot tell us about how students are growing and the variables that played into the results.
In my twenty-four years of being an educator, I have learned that being accountable for the lives of those you serve is anything but simple. My work cannot be defined by a single word or category. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I fail. No matter what, I try to get better every day because student success is my obsession. James 3:1 says ‘Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” I don’t think you can get any more accountable than that.