I’ve Taught in a School With Zero Accountability, It’s Terrible

Feb 8, 2018 12:00:00 AM


By last December, the fall of my ninth year of teaching high school, I had been observed by teacher coaches, visitors from educational non-profit organizations, principals and assistant principals, no fewer than 15 times. Each visit resulted in formal observation ratings, and feedback on specific areas of my teaching strengths as well as focus areas to improve in order to take my teaching to the next level. My students had taken two quarterly assessments to demonstrate their mastery of specific reading and writing standards and had also submitted the first of their two yearly teacher surveys assessing my teaching effectiveness. This had all occurred in the first four months of the school year, and it is exactly this type of accountability that needs to be more common in our schools. As a teacher, I am held accountable to a highly rigorous set of teaching metrics. I should be. Nearly every industry in our society relies on accountability to maximize effectiveness. As noted by the Brookings Institute, “elected officials are accountable through the ballot box. Bureaucrats are accountable through rules and regulations. Doctors and lawyers are accountable through professional standards. Consumer-serving firms are accountable through the market.” So [pullquote position="right"]why shouldn’t teachers be held accountable?[/pullquote] We must be honest with ourselves. We cannot say out of one side of our mouths that teaching is among our society’s most important professions, and then not ensure that our teachers are effective. We cannot insist that education is a major lever of social justice and equity, and then resist holding our schools accountable for educating our most at-risk youth.

Relax, I’m Not Just Talking About Tests

To be clear, accountability needs to be more than simply a yearly state exam. These one-off exams are vulnerable to many of the arguments hurled against accountability; in addition to not only running the risk of being socially biased, the massive importance placed upon one such exam can incentivize teachers and schools to teach students to pass an exam, rather than master a concept. This risk, however, ought not push us to eliminate accountability, but rather increase and diversify our methods of measuring effectiveness. In my school, I am held accountable to a variety of measures that do not just include student test performance, but also take into account in-class observations, student surveys, and student growth algorithms that emphasize student growth alongside student proficiency. As a teacher writing in support of a dynamic system of accountability, I anticipate coming under fire from our local teachers union, whose tireless work in education I honor and commend. The union, whose primary responsibility, it should be remembered, is to protect its members rather than support students and their education, often asserts that holding teachers accountable is unfair due to the many aspects of students’ lives that are outside of their control . To be blunt, this is an excuse, and a shameful one at that. Every profession has within it variables than exist outside the nexus of one’s control. Hospitals cannot account for the lifestyles or choices of their patients, yet they are held accountable for patient outcomes. Manufacturers cannot account for market forces, yet are held accountable to produce desirable and safe products. Teachers must likewise be held accountable for our impact on students, no matter who they are or where they come from. If we are the professionals we say we are, if we are the professionals who are entitled to respect and dignity, then we need to stand by our work, not just when it’s easy, but especially when it’s difficult.

Zero Accountability Wears You Down

Many of the same unions argue that linking teacher pay to student performance is likewise unfair. Some have argued that creating such a link can result in a lowering of expectations for students, or lifeless teaching practices aligned solely to test results. While I can understand these fears, I have little patience for education experts that place the welfare of teachers over those of students. I have taught in schools with near zero accountability. I have seen and felt the culture of a school where teachers felt protected from nearly all standards of professionalism. I’ve seen teachers arrive to work in tracksuits and distribute mindless worksheets day after day, immune to the chaos around them. [pullquote]These teachers may have begun their careers with the highest of intentions and aspirations, but the school’s culture of zero accountability likely wore them down.[/pullquote] They knew that student scores on state tests were going to be awful and, thus, nobody expected or demanded otherwise. They knew they weren’t going to be observed by a principal more than a handful of times the entire year. They knew that they had a union behind them to nearly guarantee their job security, regardless of their teaching performance. Thus, the unintended consequence of a union-protected teacher workforce was a rapid descent to the lowest common denominator; many teachers, despite the tireless and honorable work of many, worked just hard enough not to get fired, with scant attention given to teacher effectiveness and student learning. It only takes so long for a young teacher, working her butt off to go above and beyond for her students, to see the tolerated ineffectiveness around her and start to wonder, “why am I working so hard when others aren’t, especially when we’re all going to get the same contractual pay raise next year?” This is the culture that thrives with zero accountability; a culture of failure perpetuated year after year.

Why Are We So Afraid of a Little Accountability?

Teacher and school leaders who fight against effective accountability must ask a follow up question; what exactly are they afraid of? If a teacher is afraid of being deemed ineffective, then that teacher should advocate for support and coaching in order to improve their practice rather than hiding behind a union’s political might. [pullquote position="left"]School leaders ought to invest in effective accountability[/pullquote] so as to show off their amazing educators and investigate means of supporting their newest or least effective teachers. As with many topics in education, clarity can often be achieved when we simply think of our own families. We would never willingly put our children in cars that didn’t earn high safety crash ratings. We would never willingly take our children to a hospital that didn’t meet health standards. We would never willingly take our children to eat at a restaurant that failed a food safety inspection. The same is true for our schools. If we are honest with ourselves, and hold student achievement as our most sacred charge, than we, all of us, must hold ourselves accountable for our work. We cannot be hypocrites who only insist on accountability for the schools to which we send our children, all the while railing against accountability for the schools within which we teach. Not only are we better than that, our students deserve it.

Zachary Wright 

Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating classes. Wright was a national finalist for the 2018 U.S. Department of Education's School Ambassador Fellowship, and he was named Philadelphia's Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2013. During his more than 10 years in Philadelphia classrooms, Wright created a relationship between Philadelphia's Mastery Schools and the University of Vermont that led to the granting of near-full-ride college scholarships for underrepresented students. And he participated in the fight for equitable education funding by testifying before Philadelphia's Board of Education and in the Pennsylvania State Capitol rotunda. Wright has been recruited by Facebook and Edutopia to speak on digital education. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he organized demonstrations to close the digital divide. His writing has been published by The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Citizen, Chalkbeat, Education Leadership, and numerous education blogs. Wright lives in Collingswood, New Jersey, with his wife and two sons. Read more about Wright's work and pick up a copy of his new book, " Dismantling A Broken System; Actions to Close the Equity, Justice, and Opportunity Gaps in American Education"—now available for pre-order!

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