Each day teachers make choices related to these issues: In writing, do we stick to the measurable mechanics of parts of speech, punctuation, and grammatical rules, as found in workbooks, or do we go outside to watch clouds, or perhaps take time to do a play, in hopes that we will infuse young minds with a desire to want to write? In math, do we strive for success in the mindless but measurable manipulation of numbers, and perhaps even get third graders to start long division, knowing that we do at the expense of deep understanding, curious play, and the sheer joy of tinkering with numbers?
In reading, do we encourage and foster the quantifiable activities found on worksheets and outlined in a tidy curriculum--looking for main ideas, ordering sentences, recalling details, finding antonyms, and so on--or do we get on with the business of appreciating literature by reading and discussing and thinking about what the author is telling us, and applying it to our lives? (My class enjoys eight or nine readers each year only because we don't waste time on soul-deadening but highly countable and gradable pages of workbooks). Or do we spend an hour in the evening counting up scores on papers with our little red pencils, or use that same hour to prepare exciting activities in science, writing, and math lessons for tomorrow?
As classroom teacher, I confront choices such as these on an hourly basis. And I am forced to ask, shall I go for the merely countable, or aim higher, to those things that move the spirit? Shall I turn kids on and fan the flame I find in their souls, or shall I spend my creative juices boxing them into squares I find on, say, a Macmillan math summary chart? Perhaps it is my ignorance, but I am unable to perceive these choices as anything other than mutually exclusive.
To be accountable in the narrow sense that we have come to use the word is to be irresponsible in the larger social sense. For if we are working with the infinite range of human behaviors and potential of the young people entrusted to us, then we must depart at once from the comfortable and countable and move into the realms of intuition, common sense, spontaneity, judgment, wisdom, and best guesses--which among other factors, are patently unquantifiable entities.
Even if one were to accept that it is desirable to run a classroom in an "accountable" manner--that is with all activities being fully "countable," and the teacher "accountable" for them--still we have a problem. Consider a teacher who has done everything in her power to teach that 7 + 8 = 15. But still three children can't master the fact. Is the teacher now accountable for this "failure," or shall we hold the student to blame? In either case, there is likely to be precious little we can ultimately do. Shall we deduct pay from the teacher's salary, or shall we hold the students in second grade till they reach puberty, in hopes that they'll one day master the material?
The most reasonable or responsible choice is probably to pass the students along, with the understanding (or hope) that next year's teacher will be sensitive and flexible enough to help the students respond at the appropriate level. Yet even if next year's teacher can "account" for time devoted to that particular fact for those particular students, it ought to be clear that that form of accountability does not have a bearing on the teacher's unquantifiable relationship with those students, or even on the teacher's creativity in presenting 7 + 8.
The mad rush I see and hear for accountability may well be a cover-up for our frightening lack of responsibility. By speaking in the narrow terms which one must do to address what is countable, one shifts the public's attention from those things that do matter in the real lives of real children, and puts the public's attention on numbers, standard deviations, stanines, and other quantifiable irrelevancy--how much easier to speak of the board feet of a forest than to try to understand the unfathomable complexities of its life!
With all the talk and hoopla about "accountability," we have as a nation completely shunned our responsibility , not just to children in our schools, but to our planet, to our species, and ultimately to ourselves. How can we honestly consider ourselves responsible to children when we allow the overcrowding we now see in our classrooms? How can we consider ourselves responsible when we stand idly by, as we prepare to make nuclear weapons that might well destroy our species? How do we seriously answer the 23 year-old who wrote to Ann Landers (again, this article was originally written in 1989), in terms of what we are doing that is responsible? Consider but a small part of what she wrote:
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