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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 09/25/2009

Accountability in Education: High Hopes and False Promises

By Valerie Strauss

Today’s guest is Dorothy Rich, founder of the MegaSkills Teacher Training Programs. Used in more than 4,000 schools, they are designed to develop the habits, behaviors and attitudes children need to succeed in school and beyond.

By Dorothy Rich
It’s IN, it’s BIG. It’s what passes for “glamour” in education today. It’s called Accountability.

Right now, accountability is being presented as the great problem solver. Yet, one big problem is that the teacher and the school are the ones being held accountable. It would be easier if it worked that way, but it doesn’t. Instead, real accountability is an ever changing mix of a multitude of factors including teacher competency, student motivation, and parental responsibility.

Accountability has been by and large very narrowly defined, mostly these days by whether schools get high or low grades based on student test scores.

There are other accountability measures, but they are more complex and take longer to measure. One of them is whether the student who learns how to read actually does read. Another is how parents become more accountable to help children become successful learners.

Accountability works in different ways and at different levels: One size does not fit all students. Accountability keyed to a rise in standardized test scores is different from accountability for teaching imaginative and critical thinking. Newspapers report on the basic test scores but how about student thinking scores?

When test prep takes over, there is decreasing room in the school day for subjects vital to success in today’s post-industrial world. We need schools that teach problem solving, encourage imagination and provide practice for critical thinking. These are the job skills for a high wage, technological society. There is only so much time in the school day. When administrators take away the so-called extras to concentrate on test scores, there is a real loss to wider teaching needs.

I recently visited schools in a number of schools in different states. All of the schools were being graded: it was letter grades in some states, numbers in others. The overall theme was high anxiety. You could feel it as administrators talked and teachers taught: “We have to have higher test scores, we have to move from a C to a B, from a 3 to a 4.”

School accountability works only just so far. It is limited by what even good and great schools can do. This is a different scenario from much of the current discussion which holds that if only teachers were really accountable, then all would be well. I have a deep commitment to accountability and to what I believe that we can realistically hold teachers accountable for. Included on this list are:

*A classroom that provides the structure and discipline needed for effective learning
*Teacher knowledge of the subject, for teaching effectively.
*A teacher’s personal commitment to work hard, to be caring, to be a learner, to be enthusiastic.
*Paying attention to each child and treating each child fairly.
*Working with students’ families to help children learn.

This is what I wish teachers could be accountable for – but they can’t:
*Kids coming to school – adequately fed, rested, in good medical condition
*Kids coming to school ready to learn with the attitudes and behaviors suitable
for success in school
*Kids coming to school from homes, rich or poor that encourage learning and respect for learning.

That’s why accountability, while generally a useful concept, is a limited one. Too much big stuff happens outside of school, and it determines what happens inside of school and on the tests.

I am not excusing teachers from their responsibilities. And I am certainly not excusing parents and students from theirs. Even the best school can’t do the job alone. Getting everyone on board and accountable, with lots of information sharing and knowing what everyone has to do, is the only way to make accountability work.

Dorothy Rich is the author of the new 5th edition of MegaSkills: Building Children’s Character and Achievement for School and Life, founder of the nonprofit Home and School Institute and former member of the National Assessment Governing Board. She can be reached at, where you can also find sample home teaching activities, and at

By Valerie Strauss  | September 25, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Tags:  Dorothy Rich, MegaSkills, accountability  
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Your wish for teachers to be accountable for noneducational issues is way beyond their ability. Yet it is exactly this wish that has burdened schools, and teachers, to the point of idiocy. You may wish for this, but in many schools this is exactly what is required. We have lost the true cause of education and now we try to subordinate parents into sideline watchers of a confused game of political correctness and social engineering. We try to change the course of this rudderless ship often and when headed for the educational nightmare iceberg, we shuffle the deck chairs. Stick with high standards, strict discipline and true educational outcomes. Why do you think parents are abandoning public schools and heading for home schooling and charter schools? Its not due to the breakfast meals.

Posted by: deej18032002 | September 27, 2009 7:19 PM | Report abuse

Micro-management is grossly over-valued and has many teachers resigning in their first year - not because they aren't committed to education - but because they cannot commit to an education system that considers rows of children sitting at their desks, silently watching a teacher write on a blackboard as the ideal. Their first years as teachers are used up in this exhausting task of micro-managing their classes, shaping them to have this outward appearance.

My most successful classes - with the most rapid advances on all fronts - were ones in which fear was absent.

There's no point, though, in ad hoc application of this principle because to remove fear is frightening!

New teachers must keep a very tight conservative rein to begin with, to hammer out the day-to-day of teaching and learning, trust and expectatiion. The higher goal may disappear over the horizon of details of homework and classroom control and parent's 1970s picture of what school means, brought forward with a consumer's attitude where a co-worker's attitude is what's needed.

Then again, change always came to education through unexpected, BIG picture, large processes, that were considered obvious to everyone once they'd occured.

Posted by: osuno | September 28, 2009 3:20 AM | Report abuse

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