Teacher Voice

John Thompson: A Teacher Proposes a Different Framework for Accountability

Since Education Post publicly launched last September, we have had the privilege of getting to know people across the policy spectrum who are passionate about public education. Two in particular, Oklahoma teacher John Thompson and New York teacher Audrey Hill, are regular debaters in social media.
Though we agree on little, we strive to be respectful. Following a debate on accountability, we invited them to outline an alternative to the current system of test-based accountability. Thompson’s recommendation follows, and Hill’s can be found here.
I agree with Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, who says that Congress needs to find a way to “let 1,000 flowers bloom” and back away from a punitive approach to controlling schools. The federal government should hold states accountable for the validity and reliability of accountability protocols that are tied to federal money. It should concentrate on:
  1. Equity and improving outcomes (which, real world, can’t be predetermined by a statistical model) and/or opportunities for underserved persons, or those who have faced a history of discrimination or underachievement.
  2. Spurring innovation.
Also, in contrast to Race to the Top (RTT) and the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, federal interventions should favor “win-win” experiments, not innovations that will inevitably hurt some children in an effort to help others.

State Accountability and Consequences

Many reformers have an inflated appraisal of what accountability systems can possibly accomplish. Accountability can help improve schools, but there is no reason to believe it can drive systemic school transformations for the better. States should determine how much they want to invest in accountability and design their systems accordingly. If states can afford an “Inspectorate,” with highly-trained teams of inspectors who are armed with data when visiting schools, that would be ideal. If not, most states have always had inspection and accountability systems for individual districts and schools, and the federal government could incentivize the improvement and/or the funding of those systems. Data-driven accountability undermines those goals by making the juking of the stats the #1 priority. However, federal and state governments should encourage collaboration and experimentation in data-informed accountability. It could borrow from data-driven crime fighting to use metrics to identify “hot spots” of schools, systems, or other areas that need additional patrols, or other forms of oversight. Data can be used to pinpoint places for extra scrutiny. Teachers and principals also should be evaluated on their professional practice, as observed by trained, flesh-and-blood human beings, using rubrics and observation techniques developed by Pianta and others. We already have an evaluation model—early education—that could be applied to traditional public schools. I don’t believe it’s possible or desirable for pre-K-to-12 schools to keep track of as many metrics as the best early education programs use, but they show that it is possible to raise outcomes by holding educators accountable for their practice, not their outcomes.

Peer Review

I would also encourage peer review and/or the use of both in-school and outside, objective evaluators. Under no circumstances should we have ever adopted a system where management could unilaterally determine whether the failure of an individual to meet a growth target was due to that individual’s shortcomings, or due to the policies set by management. But, growth measures could be used for professional development or school improvement, as opposed to assessing consequences. We would get the best bang for the buck by efficiently firing bad teachers while respecting due process. It’s easy to identify bad teachers. If accountability meant firing bad teachers for their bad practice, few would complain.

Building Trust

Building trust is more necessary than ever, and it requires honest conversations. Yes, unions played a role, albeit a minor role, in protecting bad teachers. After all, unions defend not the individual but the collective bargaining agreement, and everyone is supposed to be equal under the law. So, even bad teachers deserve due process. To start to rebuild trust, reformers need to hold themselves accountable and say out loud that unions only played a tiny role in keeping bad teachers in the classroom. We need to also be honest about why systems haven’t fired demonstrably bad teachers, even when unopposed by a union. In the inner city, principals haven’t gone through the stress of firing bad teachers mostly because the result would be teacher-less classrooms. Until adequate replacements are available, spasms of firing bad teachers occur only in temporary spurts. And, since recent reforms have done so much harm to schools and the teaching profession, teacher shortages are likely to get worse than better.
Dr. John Thompson earned his doctorate at Rutgers in U.S. History and taught in the Oklahoma City Public Schools for 20 years, where he was an award-winning inner city high school teacher. His book, “A Teacher’s Tale,” is scheduled for publication in 2015.
John Thompson
Dr. John Thompson earned his doctorate at Rutgers in U.S. History and taught in the Oklahoma City Public Schools for 20 years, where he was an award-winning inner city high school teacher. His book, “A Teacher’s Tale,” is scheduled for publication in 2015.

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