Some thoughts on "accountability in education," from a former elementary teacher.
In a comment I made suggesting that George Lakoff be framed with a toilet seat, I offered a few alternatives to "framing." Rob Kall tossed out five challenges in reply, that I said I'd try to address. I chose his challenge on education first, since I taught elementary school for twenty years. I also chose it since I wrote an article on the topic, circa spring '89, for Perspectives Magazine (for Idaho School Administrators).
One of my alternatives to "framing" was, "" educate kids so they can read and comprehend"" Rob came back, "This is a good thing. But the right wing is trying to do that too and they control a good portion of the educational system. Look at the new Texas school book disaster. You can't just assume that putting kids through public school creates adults who challenge and think. The truth is that a huge portion of the population never learned how to critically analyze, question and think."
Of course Rob is correct, and I don't pretend that my answers come without challenges of their own. We're talking about nearly everything I believe progressives are about: bringing change to Empire and empowering people, rather than skewering and roasting them. My attempt is to offer specifics that go beyond words, as I think we all need to do, rather than knocking ourselves silly with exactly how we frame things. "Accountability" was coming into vogue in '89, and this bugbear has grown larger since, particularly under the Bush and Obama Administrations (it was interesting that one of Bush's first debacles was the "No Child Left Behind Act," disguised under the notion of "accountability in schools"--stomping on the minds of defenseless kids for his first act. But alas, my article:
"Accountability" has become for many adults akin to the bells to which Pavlov's dogs salivated. By that, I mean the word itself has developed a probability of eliciting a predictable, reflexive response. For surely it appears reasonable to join the parade of politicians, which asserts that teachers should be "accountable" for their actions in the classroom.
My hope is that we can that we can take a look at that response with less reflex, and a bit more thought. I suggest we begin by considering the heart of the word "accountable." The word "count" means "to call off numbers of the units of a collection or an amount in their regular order of progression, to enumerate, as to count a flock, or to count to a hundred."
So too, "accountability in the classroom" has come to mean that a teacher should be performing in a way that his or her actions, or the consequences of those actions, are somehow countable, measurable, or systematically quantifiable--presumably by some competent administrator or testing instrument and thus, the underlying assumption seems to be, easily accessible to the scrutiny of the public eye. In this manner, educators can be "accountable" to the public which employs them.
This is a tantalizing carrot to hold before the public, especially a public which likes to view itself as scientifically oriented and objective in its search for solutions to society's problems.
However, as a third grade teacher attempting to do what I intuitively and logically perceive as "best" for the minds and lives of the twenty-six 8 and 9 year-olds in my class, I find a wide and unbridgeable gap between "accountability" and what I must call "responsibility."
Those things I do which appear most important in the lives of children do not seem to be "countable" by any stretch of my imagination; on the other hand, if I am to hold myself to things which are strictly "countable," I would be doing a huge disservice to the kids I'm trying to educate.
A short list of important goals for me as an educator include the following: fostering a sense of wonder in children; creating excitement about learning; developing skills for social problem solving, including the ability to make friends; helping children feel good about themselves; instilling the desire to read, to write, and to play with numbers; and encouraging good manners and courteousness. Yet these goals, as near as I can tell, are 100% not countable and essentially not measurable.
My argument is that the art of teaching, or seriously doing things that matter with children, goes beyond the quantifiable. We can no more measure the real effectiveness of a teacher on some external yardstick than we can determine the value of the Mona Lisa by weighing the paint; we can no more arrive at a judgment on the quality of student-teacher interactions through quantified analysis than we can determine the complexities of a forest ecosystem by counting up board feet of timber. Teaching may well be a science up to a point, but after that it is pure art, and, I believe, not even accessible to anyone with a purely behavioristic mindset.
Of course there are relevant indicators that any attuned educator is likely to look for and, on a personal level, interpret as positive or negative feedback. But such things are at best fortuitous and indirect clues that one is or isn't doing the right thing in the classroom. For this article I can only offer you a sampling of real feedback that I interpret as relevant: parents who tell me their children are always talking about what we do in class; the girl whose mother told me she cried because she couldn't come to school; students who bring back library books about what we have been studying in class; children who get visibly upset because they miss writing on a given day; the unbridled excitement I saw when we had "engineering workshops" brought in by a local college; the thrill of kids when they were doing a special "construction" program, sponsored by a local museum; the joy of discovery when they went through "archeological" hands-on activities, also brought in by local specialists trained in that area. The list goes on, but I trust you get the idea. Young humans are naturally happy, inspired, and learning, when exposed to a positive and stimulating educational environment.
These things tell me, at least to some degree, that I am successful as a classroom teacher. Yet such feedback is scarcely countable, measurable, or quantifiable in any sense that an administrator can report to the public. Further, it has no relationship to the test scores on Iowa Basic Tests, and not a hint of a connection to any teaching behavior which an administrator, however capable, might note and somehow "count" in a classroom observation.
Many student behaviors, on the other hand, are countable or quantifiable in some way. We can measure mastery of math facts and skills (at some specific point in time, though disuse, attitude, and other factors may quickly erode the validity of our measurement); we can determine a student's ability to syllabicate words; we can measure reading comprehension, at least in the lower ranges of the skill; we can evaluate one's ability to alphabetize; we can ascertain, for the most part, some level of understanding in science and social studies.