Looking at Teacher Accountability Through a New Lens by Eric Sheninger

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.  


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 needs 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.  

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