Sunday, February 22, 2015

Looking at Teacher Accountability Through a New Lens

In case you haven’t noticed the education profession has been under attack as of late. The brunt of these attacks has been aimed at the very professionals who are tasked with positively impacting the lives of children each and every day – our teachers.  In my mind education is the noblest of professions.  Without education, at some level virtually all other professions would be non-existent. This places our teachers at the forefront of molding young minds into the next generation of doers, thinkers, creators, leaders, and entrepreneurs.  If there is ever a profession that should be revered as much as that of a doctor who saves lives it is that of a teacher.  

Image credit:

Unfortunately there is a growing rhetoric and sentiment that the education system in America is broken and our teachers are to blame for this.  New accountability systems have been championed and adopted across the country that reduce teacher effectiveness to a mere number.  The algorithm adopted by many states, which quite frankly makes little sense, crunches data sets in an attempt to measure the quality of a teacher against his or her peers. Each state has different factors that go into their value-added measurement (VAM) of a teacher, but the dominant component is standardized test scores.  Teachers are the true catalysts of change that can create schools that work for kids. Even though countless studies have debunked this means to truly assess teacher effectiveness states have moved full steam ahead ignoring the research.

With such a focus on standardization in schools, many teachers feel compelled to prepare students for a litany of exams, as the data extrapolated from them will be used for high-stakes evaluation. Administrators are also intimately tied to these results as well, so as a knee-jerk reaction an environment that resembles a test-taking factory is created.  The sole focus becomes one that emphasizes performing well on a test as opposed to learning.  What results is the proliferation of an industrialized model of education that reformers claim they want to get away from, but the policies they support only help to sustain it. This gloomy depiction of what is happening to schools across the country by people that have no business enacting education policy is forcing teachers to leave the profession at alarming rates. 

The structure and function of the majority of schools in this country is the exact opposite of the world that our learners are growing up in.  There is an automatic disconnect when students, regardless of their grade level, walk into schools due to the lack of engagement, relevancy, meaning, and authentic learning opportunities.  Our education system has become so efficient in sustaining a century-old model because it is easy and safe.  The resulting conformity has resulted in a learning epidemic among our students as they see so little value in the cookie-cutter learning exercises they are forced to go through each day. The bottom line is that they are bored. It is time that we create schools that work for our students as opposed to ones that have traditionally worked well for the adults.

Creating schools that work for students requires a bold vision for change that not only tackles the status quo inherent in the industrialized model of education but also current education reform efforts. Even though Common Core is not a curriculum, many schools and districts have become so engrossed with alignment and preparing for the new aligned tests that real learning has fallen by the wayside.   We need to realize that this, along with other traditional elements associated with education, no longer prevail.  How we go about doing this will vary from school to school, but the process begins with the simple notion of putting students first to allow them to follow their passions, create, tinker, invent, play, and collaborate.  Schools that work for students focus less on control and more on trust. 

There is a common fallacy that school administrators are the leaders of change. This makes a great sound bite, but the reality is that many individuals in a leadership position are not actually working directly with students. Teachers are the true catalysts of change that can create schools that work for kids. They are the ones, after all, who are tasked with implementing the myriad of directives and mandates that come their way. Leadership is about action, not position. Schools need more teacher leaders who are empowered through autonomy to take calculated risks in order to develop innovative approaches that enable deeper learning and higher order thinking without sacrificing accountability. If the goal, in fact, is to increase these elements in our education system then we have to allow students to demonstrate learning in a variety of ways.  

For change to be successful it must be sustained.   Teacher leaders must not only be willing to see the process through, but they must also create conditions that promote a change mentality. It really is about moving from a fixed to a growth mindset, something that many educators and schools are either unwilling or afraid to do. The essential elements that work as catalysts for the change process include the following:

  • Empowerment
  • Autonomy
  • Ownership
  • Removing the fear of failure
  • Risk-taking
  • Support
  • Modeling
  • Flexibility
  • Collaboration
  • Communication

What I have learned is that if someone understands why change is needed and the elements above become an embedded component of school culture he/she or the system ultimately experience the value for themselves. The change process then gets a boost from an intrinsic motivational force that not only jump-starts the initiative but allows for the embracement of change as opposed to looking for buy-in.  We should never have to "sell" people on better ways to do our noble work nor rely on mandates and directives. These traditional pathways used to drive change typically result in resentment, undermining, and failure.

Even in the face of adversity in the form of education reform mandates, Common Core alignment, impending PARCC exams, new educator evaluation systems, loss of funding, and an aging infrastructure, at my school, we have not only persevered but proven that positive change can happen with the right mindset.  Teachers were put in a position to overcome these challenges and experience success.  Others can as well. Throughout the past couple of years, I have seen improvements in the "traditional" indicators of success by mainly focusing on creating a school that works better for our students as opposed to one that has always worked well for us. Technology was a tool that my teachers harnessed and leveraged to do what they did better while creating a culture of learning that actually meant something to our students. My recent TEDx talk provides insight into how this was accomplished.  

My message is to everyone who has and continues to bash teachers by implementing accountability structures that will do nothing to help our students succeed in life and follow their dreams.  There need to be more creative ways to hold teachers accountable so that a school-wide focus on relevant learning becomes the norm. Teachers should no longer be forced to prepare students for a world that no longer exists and be held accountable through one-dimensional means.  Teacher success should be judged on the products students create with real-world tools to solve real-world problems.  If teachers are allowed to innovate and allow students to create artifacts of learning to demonstrate conceptual mastery, the end goal should be the acquisition of higher-order thinking skills.  


  1. Thank you Eric for spotlighting one of the biggest issues plaguing our schools today... we are still preparing kids for a world that existed yesterday... not for tomorrow's world! Keep shedding light on these important issues my friend- your voice is heard by many!

  2. If the author expects public support for the teaching profession, as a start, I think that the accompanying cartoon to this article ought to be removed, and the reasons why it was even included in the first place deserves introspective examination. Sure, there are some parents with poor parenting skills, but there are poor teachers and administrators also. In general, parents want the best for their children but are operating under the same sorts of societal pressures of lack of time and money as faced by teachers.

    Our historical success in schools is not all rosy. We've had Creationist teachers or ones like my "Blacks were happier before the Civil War" history teacher. We've had children with disabilities and children from racial minorities whose educational needs were ignored. We now have some curricula in some schools, like the AP or IB programs, that offer some students the ability to learn to their ability levels.

    We need a mutually supportive, "It takes a village" collective attitude to move forward. That needs to reach down to the preschool level. And also to encompass summers. And seek to find students ready to advance at younger grades. Like the real life Jaime Escalante as opposed to the one year wonder of the "Stand and Deliver" movie.

    I'd also raise communication and collaboration to the top of this list. And, autonomy is not one of the values that teachers ought to have without limits. While there are stellar teachers out there, ones that ought to be leaders and providing framework and guidance to other teachers, there are also many who are in need of more of that guidance and some that ought to be drummed out of the profession in a much more rapid fashion than is currently the case.

    I do think that medical doctors are a good analogy. Doctors must operate within the framework of the best available science and modern medicine practices. But the also must listen to their patients and ultimately follow the lead of those patients in designing their individual care plans. They also must attempt to meet the needs of society overall. Children should be vaccinated. Similarly, children should be able to accomplish basic skills, like reading, writing and arithmetic, which serve as a tool kit for higher level skills and critical thinking. Some of what is going wrong with the way that the basic precepts of the Common Core Curriculum are being transformed into meaningless drivel and redundant exercises in the classroom must be laid at the feet of teachers and administrators themselves.

    If you don't want to collect blame, you should avoid attempts at isolating blame among others. But rather recognize this as something we as a society needs to work on overall.

    1. The image depicts education "experts", not parents, as the impetus for the failing school rhetoric. At least that is the way I see it. I agree that there are inherent issues in all systems that consists of a combination of teachers and admin and more autonomy needs to be given to deal with these situations. My blame is in fact isolated to a group of people motivated by politics and money that believe our education system is broken. The attempts to "fix" it with a one-size-fits-all approach has resulted in the narrative described above and is doing more harm than good. This perspective comes from my practical experience as both a teacher, administrator, and parent.

  3. You pose a great challenge here, Eric. And you provide teachers like me with encouragement and support. One group of advocates in this regard is parents--parents who want their children to learn in vibrant, student-centered, engaging ways. As an educator, I'll continue to push forward by embedding standards into worthy learning endeavor as much as possible. So far we've made some good progress in this regard. I'll continue to listen to the ideas others present as well. Thank you for your leadership.

  4. Hi Eric, I totally agree with you it's the same in NZ also. Wouldn't it be great if teachers were accountable for the levels of engagement they enable students to attain?


  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Thank you Eric for fighting the good fight to disrupt the status quo. You are right Eric we have too many messiah complexed people who fly around the country who think that signing people up for Twitter is leadership. Leadership is grabbing your boots and digging those tough trenches right alongside your students, teachers, and parents to excavate a better future for everyone. Too much emphasis is placed on the actual technical part of learning that we lose focus on the human side.

  7. I think to expect 30 inspired, energetic years out of an educator is an old outdated MO that doesn't always work. How about a new compensation model that can actually attract mid-life career changers who can impart real world applications and career know-how to kids? I'm a former engineer and know a few who would jump into teaching - if they could only afford to. I've also worked alongside 2nd career educators who are all outstanding!

  8. Thoughtful and important post. It really is mind boggling that our field seems to have devolved. It is as if the whole enterprise has been co-opted by naysayers. I see many of our excellent teachers really struggling right now to stay positive. The great irony--as you know all too well-- is there are ever more ways to engage students creatively and empower them to become contributors and true citizens of the 21st Century. And we need teacher leaders to support them. This really resonated: "Leadership is about action, not position. Schools need more teacher leaders who are empowered through autonomy to take calculated risks in order to develop innovative approaches that enable deeper learning and higher order thinking...." Amen. Looking forward to meeting you this week at the Leading Future Learning Conference in Worcester, MA. I'll be attending with our Assistant Superintendent who wants to learn how to support our 'tech pioneer' teachers.

  9. hi eric, thanks for great post. I totally agree with you.

  10. Unfortunately, decisions are made based on the worst. Worst schools, worst teachers, and worst administrators. Because of this, the good people are not trusted to do their jobs.

  11. Unfortunately, decisions are made based on the worst. Worst schools, worst teachers, and worst administrators. Because of this, the good people are not trusted to do their jobs.