Since Education Post publicly launched last September, we have had the privilege of getting to know people across the policy spectrum who are passionate about public education. Two in particular, Oklahoma teacher John Thompson and New York teacher Audrey Hill, are regular debaters in social media.
Though we agree on little, we strive to be respectful. Following a debate on accountability, we invited them to outline an alternative to the current system of test-based accountability. Hill’s recommendation follows, and Thompson’s can be found here.
The public face of corporate reform rests on two false premises. The first is that teachers have not been accountable for their performance and the second is that an annual test is needed to assess each teacher’s value to their students.
It is simply not true that teachers in most schools have had no accountability. What is true is that previous measures of accountability aimed at completely different targets than those of current reform.
Over the last 30 years, teachers have been accountable to the theories of the progressive reform popularized in the ’70s and ’80s. These emphasized whole language, invented spellings, multiple intelligences and heterogeneous grouping.
Children were expected to learn to read and write naturally and unconsciously without formal instruction; explicit grammar and phonics instruction was repudiated. Skill-based issues could be addressed only in a contextual and piecemeal way.
Heterogeneous grouping, while not an ill in itself, often resulted in an impossibly wide range of reading ability from third grade to post-high school in the same classroom. Fuzzy standards, feel-good pedagogy, and hands-off expectations contributed widely to the decline in skill acquisition, especially in low-income communities.
This is an important understanding because the problem in education hasn’t been a lack of accountability; the problem has been what measures teachers have been accountable for. They have had the expectations and definitions of successful teaching that they have been trained to have, and they have been assessed in those same ways.
What Accountability Should Look Like
You ask what accountability should look like. It begins with administrators making appropriate hires. Good people want to do good work whether they are being watched or not.
It continues with care in the kind of environment that is nurtured. A school should promote a culture of safety, growth and self-reflective practice.
Good administrators provide teachers with the time and resources to create and collaborate. They maintain a good balance of new, mid-career and senior teachers who can influence each other with their separate strengths.
They provide quality professional development, adequate evaluation and regular feedback. They visit classrooms both on schedule and unexpectedly. They give coherent and meaningful feedback after every visit. They use tools like the Danielson Framework that look at class environment, preparation, standards and learning targets, teaching methods, work produced, relationship to children, grading and assessment policies, class routines, relationship to parents, and participation in the school community.
They look to create relationships with their teachers through a culture of trust and mutual respect. This is the kind of accountability that I am familiar with in my district. It is local, relational and specific to teacher and context. It evaluates those things that a teacher can control.
Testing: A Worse Cure Than the Disease
You might say, well let’s do all that and give a state exam every year. But, there is no good reason to link student performance and educator job security to test scores. Accountability already exists and is already measuring teachers by new standards.
And, testing is already proving to be a worse cure than the disease. First, a test that requires more than one year of growth each year from each student is invalid. There is nothing aspirational about an inappropriate bar or institutionalized punishments for not meeting it.
Second, the test does not measure what it is called to measure. Teachers are evaluated by something over which they have little control instead of being evaluated by that over which they do.
Third, a high stakes test undermines school culture, reduces the quality of instruction, and creates a climate of anxiety for all. It mandates test prep which, as Stanley Kaplan, Success Academy and KIPP can attest, improves scores.
Good teachers will try to integrate test prep into instruction to limit the amount of explicit dry runs, but that still refocuses instruction toward the test, which erodes content in favor of test scores. As one of the Expeditionary Learning Schools has argued in its opt-out letter to parents:
By increasing the importance of standardized tests while making it easier to fire teachers based on those scores…Governor [Cuomo] will force us to…devote an increasing amount of time to test prep. Under this system, we will be left little choice but to spend our energy on months of multiple-choice practice sessions and hours-long practice tests. The alternative is to lose our jobs & livelihood.
Why advocate for a test-based accountability that is inaccurate (as multiple cases of inaccurate scores has already proven) and is replete with injustice and negative consequences for everyone (as has been reported and documented in schools all over the country)? We already have a more relevant and thorough method of accountability in place in most schools.