The slightly-cranky voice navigating the world of educational “reform” while trying to still pursue the mission of providing quality education.
Real Teacher Accountability
I know one good model for teacher accountability, a model that I can testify works, because it’s the one I have worked with for almost forty years. It’s simple, effective, and costs the school district nothing.
My school district is a small town/rural combo. We’re based in a city of about 6,000 and encompass several contiguous townships. We have just over 1900 students enrolled, of whom a little over 50% are economically disadvantaged, spread over 188 square miles.
I graduated from the same high school I teach in. That was not the plan, exactly– just how things kind of worked out. And like most (though not all) of my colleagues, I live within the district, a resident of the same town in which I grew up. Right in the city, in fact, across the street from the district’s main office.
We have, of course, all the usual trappings of ‘accountability,” from an idiotic VAM system (PVAAS, in Pennsylvania) to a bad standardized test and an ever-morphing state model for how my principal is supposed to keep an eye on me. None of that is what keeps me honest. I would point to two things that have driven my accountability (beyond the fact that, like most teachers, I’m highly self-motivated to do the best job I can– in my experience almost no people go into teaching with the intent to half-ass it).
First, teaching is a self-policing line of work because the worse you do, the more miserable you are. Every teacher has been through it– the day when you are waaayyyyy off your A game, and consequently the day seems to go on for a hundred hours, each hour more unpleasant than the last. There are lots of jobs in which you can sit quietly in your office or cubby or break room and just hide from the consequences of doing a lousy job. But teaching is the equivalent of a job where the supervisor follows you around every minute of the day and, every time you screw something up, whacks you on the head. Do a lousy job in the classroom, and the classroom will punish you immediately and ruthlessly. Do a lousy job day after day, week after week, and your students will make you wish you had never been born. You get good or you get out.
Second, you live where you work.
To one side of my house is a home where a guy I went to high school with is raising his three children, who all attend my school. To the other side is a married couple, both halves of which graduated from my school. The garage where I get my car serviced is run by a guy I went to school with, and his chief mechanic is a former student (whose kids attend the school where my wife teaches). My wife and I often eat at a restaurant run by my son-in-law’s brother, a graduate of my school. Some of my teaching colleagues are former students; some of their children are my current students. Back when I was a church choir director, my choir included former classmates, former students, and parents of current students. I cannot walk into any business in this town and not encounter someone who is familiar with my work. Ditto for the folks I encounter when I play in town band or work with community theater. I’m not a member of any fraternal organization, but the same thing holds true of membership in those organizations.
I know some teachers would find this sort of thing terrifyingly claustrophobic, and there’s no question that at some times it can feel a little fishbowly. But the flip side is that I understand my students a little better, understand their language, their attitudes, their history (and trust me– there’s nothing quite like dealing with a student whose parents you knew when you were all sixteen years old).
I don’t mean to suggest that we teachers are subject to rock star caliber scrutiny. But do people in our district know the kind of work that we do and have opinions about specifically who does a good job and who doesn’t, every teacher’s strengths and weaknesses? You bet they do. Meanwhile, if you’re going to teach in a small town setting, you’d better be prepared to answer for your choices at any moment of the day. It’s a different sort of transparency, all the better because it doesn’t tell the taxpayers what they are supposed to care about. Modern reformster accountability calls for transparency, but it also tells parents, taxpayers and government folks “This is what you want to see.”
So what if local folks aren’t concerned about the things the state says they’re supposed to be concerned about? What if locals say, “Yes, that Mrs. McFuzzyheart has long been everyone’s favorite first grade teacher because she is so kind and makes the children feel strong and capable and secure and loved,” and the state says, “Yes, but what about the first grade math test scores??!!” Is there any particular reason that the federal or state’s preferences should overrule the judgment of the local community? My community, which is pretty static, population-wise, has a pretty good longitudinal view. Folks know what kinds of opportunities their kids grew up to have, and they have a pretty good idea of how much the schools had to do with those outcomes.
But the modern model is distance management. I’ve had private industry folks tell me about management classes in which they’re told that business managers should live at least fifty miles away from their employees, so that they can make purely business decisions without any human distractions. Distance management by data screen is a popular model, and yet it gets you pretty much the exact opposite of real accountability.
I feel far more accountable to my community than to the state bureaucrats because I will have to meet community members on the street, see them in the grocery store, and look them in the eye knowing that they probably know my worst and my best.
Of course, none of this will generate data on spreadsheets or a method of comparing me to teachers across the state. So what? Granted, I am well into Crusty Old Fart stage of my career, but I could not care less about how the state ratings turn out (PVAAS is as accurate and predictable as rolling dice on the back of a horny toad under a full moon, anyway). State tests are an obstacle thrown in my students’ path, a useless exercises that has to be gamed every year, but otherwise, who cares? On the other hand, I face the taxpayers who pay my salary, who entrust their children to me, who remember how much of an ass I was or wasn’t when they were in my class– I face those people every day. At this point in my career, I conduct myself primarily so that I can face myself in the mirror (I remember the times when I couldn’t, and they suck) but also that I can face every one of them today and tomorrow and the next day.
Should all teachers be of the community and in the community? Probably not– some fresh outside eyes are good. But bottom line– the best accountability system is based on relationship. I don’t feel accountable to my spouse or children because of some system of threats or punishment, but because our relationship means that I will feel consequences for how I treat them.
And are their challenges in places where the community is fractured or has already turned its back on some of its own members? Certainly. A school reflects its community. A sick, fractured community gets sick, fractured schools.
But the best accountability system for educators is still a strong relationship with the school community. It may not serve many needs of bureaucrats or policy wonks, but it serves the needs of the school, the community and the students. Build a formal digitized number-spewing accountability system if you must, but if relationships are not at its heart, you’ll end up with nothing but empty, useless, meaningless faux data.