Why We Need a Better Word than “Accountability”

Everybody needs to chill for a second with the word “accountability.” It is not doing schools any good.

There is a very simple reason. It totally collapses two distinct concepts. As it is deployed (by schools, bureaucratic structures in charge of schools, politicans, education reformers, etc.), it simultaneously means

1) Making what you’re doing public, i.e. investing others in what you’re doing

on the one hand; and

2) Judging you with an eye to making decisions about you

on the other.


Public stake vs. high-stakes judgement

At a school where I used to teach, I had a colleague who taught a self-contained special education class. This was well before the recent accountability fervor, and my colleague was frustrated by the lack of accountability to which he was subject. He read in it a lack of concern for the education of his kids on the part of the administration. “If I felt like it I could breakdance in class all year and nobody would say anything to me.” It bugged him.

Really what he was frustrated by was the lack of public stake in what he was doing. What he wanted was to feel that the administration of the school was invested in his students and their learning in his class. He wanted his teaching to be part of a conversation and a striving bigger than himself.

I believe that the desire for this is what makes all the recent talk about increasing the accountability of schools compelling to well-meaning people. We want the education of our children to be treated as a matter of public interest. We want society as a whole to care about it. We don’t like the idea that it’s going on behind closed doors and nobody is checking up on what’s happening.

The problem is that the only name for “public stake in the job you’re doing” that anybody seems to know right now is “accountability.” And “accountability” is equally well a name for “let me judge what you’re doing so I can give you high 5 if it’s awesome and kick your *ss if it’s not.”

I hope you see what this adds up to. Really I hope a lot of people who probably aren’t reading this will see what it adds up to. Because your classroom practice being the subject of a public stake – the energy, thought, discussion, problem-solving, and passion behind what you do spreading through and beyond you to your whole community – this is gonna help your kids. In fact even the knowledge that your work is gonna be visible to lots of folks who care about it is an inspiration. But your practice being the subject of high-stakes judgement – the energy, thought, etc. that would have been squarely on the educational problems you’re working on now diverted to your stress, your fear, and the work-intensive processes of making sure your *ss is covered and trying to hide the areas where you think you don’t look good – this is not gonna help your kids. You are filled with a desire to reach a state of “success” for the sake of survival, but not for the sake of inspiration, and in any case your stress works against your thinking clearly through the problem of how you will get there.

My answer: we need to express a public stake in education in ways that don’t look like high-stakes judgement. There are already existing models: serious mentoring and coaching programs; critical friends groups (observation-based, video-based, student work-based…); Japanese lesson study; and more. There are still more to be found. But the central point is this: we need to be in this together, working together, looking at what each other are doing, not afraid to be critical, not afraid to expose ourselves to the thoughts and analyses of others. This should be the norm and the expectation in the profession. But this DOES NOT mean we need to judge and be judged.

To make all this concrete. Have a look at this journalistic account of a meeting between teacher and evaluator in DC. Here’s what kills me about this. The evaluator thinks this is so great because the evaluation rubric provides a uniform language for talking about instruction and improving it systematically. He thinks he is here to help teachers grow. Meanwhile, the teacher he is evaluating walks away from the meeting feeling judged, misunderstood and demoralized.

Bethel gave him the final score, which was low. If the trend continued, Harris realized, he could lose his job.

“It’s just — I don’t feel that I’m putting in ‘minimally effective’ effort at all,” he said.

For Bethel, this was most excruciating part of the job. He began shutting off his computer.

“This does not measure your effort,” he said, packing his bag. “But I do see your effort, Mr. Harris.”

“So — what is this measuring?” Harris asked.

“It’s measuring the effectiveness of that effort,” Bethel said. “This is not a reflection of your passion for education, your love for students. Not at all.”

Which for Harris was precisely the problem and for Bethel was part of a difficult, painful solution.

As he left, Bethel offered to help Harris with lesson planning, a gesture that would not count on Bethel’s own evaluation. Harris leaned back in the little chair. He pursed his lips.

“I don’t think you’re being personally unfair, it’s just — ” he paused. “I’m going to look over it again. I know where I could improve. So. Yeah. It was nice talking to you.”

The bit that landed hardest for me was when the evaluator offered to help the teacher with lesson planning. In the context of just having given a bad evaluation, this gesture plays as maybe above and beyond the call of duty (as the journalist stressed) but also as condescending, and more importantly half-*ssed and hollow: if you really wanted to help me, you would listen to my explanation of my choices, and you sure as f*ck wouldn’t jeopardize my job. Is Harris going to change his practice because of this evaluation? Probably not in a positive direction, in my view – he’s being told to do something but not given the tools to take it on for real. Maybe he’ll stick more closely to his lesson plan next time; but he’ll be doing it out of fear, and with resentment. If you want a formula for removing passion from his practice, this is it.

Now just for a second imagine how this conversation would have gone if the evaluator were a coach instead, there to help, not judge. To express the community’s stake in the job at hand without fear or threat. Just imagine.


8 thoughts on “Why We Need a Better Word than “Accountability”

  1. This is not an adjustment of what we have, but a different approach entirely. It will require jetisoning the accountability nonsense.

    We need to be clearer, I claim, that we are rejecting the current course, and more emphatic, I further claim, with our alternate vision.

    Pieces like this are a good step in that direction.

    What if the evaluator were rated on their ability to help teachers improve?

    What if there were more peer intervisitation and discussion (I guess that gets towards your lesson study)

    But already, those two ideas presuppose that the school (and administration) is not under NCLB/AYP pressure. They presuppose an end to Accountability as practiced in the US today.


  2. I read this on the subway between school and PD. It rejuvenated, inspired, riveted me. I love the world more because Ben is in it, with all his insight and clarity. I feel seen and heard and known and understood and that heals whatever tenderness there is in me.

    THANK YOU, Ben, for being you. I love this.

  3. To be held accountable is to be asked, “Did you do what you said you would do (generally) in the way you said you would do it?”

    Accountability is an easy idea to sell: surely people should use money and time and resources the way they promised; surely they should do the job they said they would do.

    I think “accountability” is being used as a cover for something else. People use it as a way to say “You should do something different.” (The evaluator offering to help plan lessons.)

    But telling us that our goals or methods should be different doesn’t make us accountable – it just imposes new goals and methods. My boss is allowed to insist that I use, say, workbooks from her brother-in-law’s company, but she isn’t allowed to say she’s making me more accountable. She’s not. She’s diverting funds.

    The “back to basics” and “direct instruction” crowd – with remarkably open ties to one large publishing company – are allowed to advocate for a certain kind of curriculum. And administrators and board members are allowed to change their hiring and pay structures. But these things are about the redirection of money – not accountability.

    P.s., that’s a made-up example. My boss would never do that. 🙂

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