A Lesson on Accountability Part I

Dear Mr. President:

In the past two weeks, I have read more about schools, teachers, and accountability than I have ever seen in my nearly 20 years in education. Sadly, I can’t say that what I’ve been reading is encouraging. The one word I see over and over again is “accountability.”

Accountability IS a good thing. As a teacher, I strive to instill its meaning into the mind of every single child I’ve taught. Accountability is a life skill that will make you or break you as an adult. But please understand me when I say that I’m afraid “accountability has become nothing more than a political buzzword, and I’m more afraid for American education than I have ever been in my life… and it’s not because I’m afraid of how that term, accountability, relates to me.

An American education has always been about opportunity. EVERY child in the United States has the right to attend a public school. We don’t turn children away because they cannot afford to attend public school. We even ensure they have meals during the day, whether they can pay or not. I fear this right may disappear.

You, Mr. President, are asking for more from our schools, but when was the last time you spent some serious time observing a typical school day/week/month in any public school? When was the last time you saw a teacher work with a child before school, during a lunch break, during teacher plan time, after school… all to ensure that student learns? When was the last time you asked what type of programs are being offered at schools to help struggling learners become more successful? When was the last time you attended a public school nighttime program that focused on bringing a community into a school for a multi-age learning opportunity?

I don’t deny that some schools could do much more to help their students become successful. What I do see, however, is the blame placed squarely on the shoulders of the teachers. We both know blame doesn’t lead to improvement. Besides, are the teachers the only adults responsible for those students academic success? How many of our children have parents who are supporting their education? What are schools doing to bring in community members and parents to be accountable for their children?

Are there bad teachers in our country? Sure, but I can assume that the percentage of bad teachers to good teachers is actually much less than you think. What I really see happening: teachers in the United States are becoming scapegoats. One of the most important things I learned in my history classes is that, when a nation is in crisis, scapegoats are created to assume the blame and suffer undeserved and, many times, brutal consequences. Please explain how blaming and firing teachers will EVER lead to successful schools?

Full disclosure: I am a teacher. I have always been a teacher, even when I was a student in elementary school. My teachers noticed at a very early age (2nd grade!) that I was a natural at helping students understand the concepts we were learning. Peer tutoring was something I loved. From the age of 8, I wanted to be a teacher. One of the most amazing things to witness is that point when you truly see understanding in a child’s eyes.

I worked really diligently to become a teacher. The first few years of teaching, I wasn’t very good. Sure, my choirs sang well, my students could recite facts about music back through the Renaissance period, but I was hung up on classroom management. I didn’t have enough strategies to be as effective as I should have been. Those strategies came with time, as well as advice from a master teacher mentor.

Eventually, my classroom strategies improved, and then I remembered the most important thing about teaching: LEARNING. Those kids didn’t care what I had to say. They wanted to be involved in their own learning. My goal was to help them learn to think, but more importantly, learn to learn. Those were skills they would need their entire lives!

Eventually, I left teaching for higher paying jobs. I felt I wasn’t really making an impact on children, and I was burnt out. Outside of education, I was successful… but  unhappy. So, I took a very hefty pay cut and returned to my first love, teaching. Teaching music, to be exact.  I love working with my students, and I take ownership of their learning and well-being. They are my children.

Almost every day, a student might ask me, “Why is writing (or science or math…) so important to you? It is just a music class!” My answer is the same now as it has always been: you are LEARNING. You are teaching your brain something more important than any fact you will ever remember.

Which brings me to the last point of Part I: your version of accountability is all about standardized tests. Standardized tests do not, and never will, measure LEARNING. They only measure “remembering” and occasionally “applying.” Those are the two lowest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Standardized tests do not measure analyzing, evaluating, creating, inventing… what do we want more for and from our children? Yes, I want children who can read and write, but I also want children who can think for themselves and can move beyond what we already know to what we do not yet know.

I will gladly admit there are some facts that must be memorized before we can move on to higher order thinking skills. Those facts currently on standardized tests, however, do not fully measure what a child knows and is able to do. Yet, we are basing our entire definition of success in schools on standardized tests. Money is tied to standardized testing. Threats to teachers and administrators are tied to standardized testing. Children are being threatened with standardized testing!

Have you ever seen a 2nd grader stressed out because he knows a standardized test is approaching? I have, and it sickens me. 2nd graders should not be worried about a TEST. The result of all the pressure and emphasis on standardized testing: teachers have begun teaching to the test. We can’t have teachable moments in the classrooms anymore, because “it’s not on the test.” “If it’s not on the test, we don’t teach it.” Students do not love learning. They don’t love or even like school. How are the children of this country going to be successful if they don’t want to learn? Their definition of learning has become “preparing for a test.”  And I don’t blame them.

To close Part I of this note to you, I want to re-emphasize my two main points: we cannot have true accountability with tests that are so inadequately measuring our students’ true capabilities and potential; nor can we expect scapegoats to rise up and suddenly become accountable when they are shoved down, stepped on, and blamed for everything that is wrong with American schools. There has to be a better solution. I will address those ideas in Part II.

(Edu friends: I really want to send this post (and Part II) to our nation’s leaders. I would be grateful for any suggestions you have! Thank you!)

16 thoughts on “A Lesson on Accountability Part I

  1. I think you bring up a great point that classroom instruction really isn’t the problem…teachers are/would be willing to transform how they teach. But because of the importance placed on standardized tests (financial, etc.), teachers are either too scared to try something outside of their script or don’t see the need because their students are proficient. I think it’s the big aha I took from Educon: No point in changing instruction until a different assessment has more value.

    • Agreed. I think teachers and administrators are going to have to step up and make their voices heard more. I also think we need to showcase what our kids are doing in a more public mode. Thanks, Josh!

  2. I was going to write a post in response to the same article. It saddens me and ticks me off that the 1st blame is the teachers even with a President I highly respected. My question is why do the blame game? Why say accountability when you’ll probably find that educational policy, the secretary of state, parents in the district, community leaders, and all stakeholders in that district were obviously not accountable to the students. I’m sure a failing student who is stuck in school all day long who probably hates being there is going to suddenly be motivated to learn because of tutoring. How about instead politicians, who do not step into the classroom but feel they know education policy best, really do something radical like stop paying for professional development, providing schools with technology or at least wifi so these children can compete with districts that do have this, pay for a program to get parents more involved, etc.? Why not do something really radical as president and replace Arne Duncan with a real educator? Why not do away with standardized tests in general? I’m tired of teachers getting blamed when we have one of the most important jobs in the world and never will be paid for it. So what if teachers ask for $$. So do athletes and guess what they get their millions, but teachers ask for more $$ and they get fired, like teachers are replaceable. In the minds of the students and parents of that district, the President just sent out a notice to blame your teachers when you fail and I don’t agree with this message at all.

  3. “Those are the two lowest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.” I’d be surprised in our President knows a single thing about Bloom’s.

    “Standardized tests do not measure analyzing, evaluating, creating, inventing…” All critical skills for students to have in order to compete in today’s global economy.

    You bring up some great points. I hope it makes to the people that need to hear it the most.

  4. Greg Schwanke

    Great points!! I believe a big thing with standaridized testing is that it requires more meeting times for teachers and less time for them to become a better teacher. Personally, I have so many ideas and want to do so many things with my students, but often times I can’t find time to develop and put together all of those ideas. I either spend my planning time grading, going to meetings, or filling out paperwork as a result of those meetings. Time is a necessity for a teacher to read, learn, and grow as teachers themselves. To become better teachers!!
    Teachers that get their students to love learning and become life long learners!!

    • Thanks, Greg. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind spending time in meetings about testing if I felt the testing was really measuring our students’ capabilities and knowledge levels. But our kids (nationwide) are over-tested. Think of all the great learning they’re missing- important learning that they will need to succeed- because that learning can’t be measured on a standardized test. Fix the assessments, and I’ll put my everything into them.

  5. Michelle,

    As a former teacher, and a vocal music teacher at that, I cannot agree more with what you are saying. While I have many, many, many more thoughts on what kinds of conversations will lead to REAL change, I’m sure I’m not alone on that one. This letter absolutely needs to be shared with everyone that will listen in our government. Please, let’s all work together to get these thoughts and any other relevant ones to the people who think they are in charge.

    Thanks Michelle for sharing.

    • Matt: I would LOVE to hear your “many, many, many more thoughts” – do you plan to blog those? If you do not have a blog, would you consider either starting one… or perhaps writing a “guest blogger” post for mine? Shoot me an email. Let’s talk!

  6. My state requires standardized testing for 9th and 10th graders to determine AYP for our high school. This means that 9th and 10th grade math and language arts teachers bear much of the weight of keeping our school off the academic watch list. The whole premise of judging an entire school on standardized test scores has forced us to change what our curriculum includes as well as how we teach.

    I do think the curiculum has been strengthened as a result, but I also think we have lost some of the spirit of learning in the process. What we haven’t been able to do as a district is to find the balance between “covering the curriculum” and implementing innovative teaching and learning practices into the classroom.

    Teachers do have professional development opportunities on a limited basis, but those efforts are not as far-reaching as NCLB requirements placed on teachers.

    Because I teach elective writing classes to juniors and seniors, I feel so much more empowered to abandon standardized-type learning in order to stretch my repetoire of instructional practice. I have not always “improved” student learning, but the overall improvement curve is on the upswing. I am renewed and energized and motivated to inspire my students without the nagging guilt that my students won’t do well on “the test.”

    So where is the national, state, and local leadership support for innovation? What message do teachers hear that empowers us to use our judgment and our area of specialty to enhance student learning?

    Our high schools lose about 3 days of instruction because of standardized testing. Teachers literally watch students read, write, and fill in bubble sheets. It is grueling because the rewards are limited to our individual effort.

    If change is the only key word in our discussions about transforming education, then we are in big trouble. If we could figure out what we actually expect from public education, we can have a coherent discussion about what we are able to do to effect change.

    What I’m hearing is blame on people rather than discussions about what we all think is the responsibility of public schools. If all we are expected to do is teach to standardized tests, then all the other expectations of teaching citizenship, life-long learning, tolerance, etc., belongs somewhere other than the schools.

    My message to our national, state, and local representatives is: What is the scope and depth of influence do you want public education to have on our children? Receptacles of knowledge, creators and innovaters, responsible and active citizens, or all the above?

    The answer, I think, is one of our greatest challenges.

    One more thought: if there is only one right answer, we are in more trouble than I thought.

    • Judy: All I can say is, “Amen to that!” Thank you so much for your comment! When I pass this along to our state and federal leaders, I am including all these fabulous comments, too! Thank you for taking the time to write such a passionate statement for LEARNING!

  7. Very well said Michelle.

    I think about our educational system and what is going “wrong” with it at times. I feel the number one problem we have is the lack of parent/community involvement. You touched on this in your letter and I just want to reiterate my sentiments in this area. We would do much to save our students if we had a few more parents that were involved. Not that they don’t care about their children, because I am sure most do. But how involved are they in the process? And as for the community, outside of going to a sporting event, what are they doing to support the schools. It takes a village to raise a child – and educate them. Until we address this issue of parent/community involvement, I feel we are going to have more dropouts and lower standards for graduates. And this does nothing but put a strain on our country, financially and culturally.

    Again, nicely done…

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  10. Very interesting to read. I enjoyed well while reading. I will recommend my friends to read this one for sure.

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