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Is the New “Accountability” Actually Professional?

September 22, 2014 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

When looking at teacher accountability, we’ve experienced many turbulent changes in the past few years. Unfortunately, they aren’t likely to have nearly the impact some are hoping for. One problem? They don’t do enough to professionalize teaching.

The criticisms of traditional teacher evaluation and accountability systems are well-worn by now. They rely too much on years of service as a proxy for quality. The due process guarantees are too strong. At the heart of the criticism is that teachers’ contracts look too much like blue collar labor contracts and are unprofessional.

In response to these criticisms, a wave of reform came in promising to move teacher evaluation and accountability beyond their industrial roots. We have already seen countrywide adoption of teacher evaluation systems that are based in part on student testing data, and there are many who want to see these evaluations replace seniority as the basis for budget-forced layoffs. This, we have been told, is a more professional way of evaluating teachers. The argument goes on to suggest that, perhaps now that people know they will be judged on their performance, we will attract higher quality teacher candidates who were repelled by the previous industrial model.

A growing chorus of voices dispute this assumption. One of the more current entries is the National Center on Education and the Economy’s report, “Fixing Our National Accountability System.” Citing well-established research on management practices, the report argues that the new system isn’t any more professional than the old system. Instead, the new model has merely adopted an additional strain of old industrial practices, relying on simplistic quantitative measurements to incentivize and punish job performance.

The problem with this, as the report points out, is that the new carrot-and-stick approach to teacher accountability doesn’t produce the same results with teaching and other professions relying on “knowledge work” that it does with historical industrial work. (It should also be noted that less and less of today’s industrial work is a good fit for the historical approach, too.) Instead, this is an attempt to claw back at protections that school districts granted in exchange for keeping pay low and hours long.

A truly professional accountability system, this report suggests, would rely much more heavily on accountability to one’s peers and oneself in the honest pursuit of high quality work. Instead, the report suggests a system that uses career ladders—informed by a much more nuanced definition of performance than test-based calculations—that increases teachers’ compensation, recognition, and authority while also increasing responsibility. It would support a system of mentorship, with higher performing teachers supporting those still developing, and advancement would depend in part on spending time working at schools whose students grapple with more outside obstacles.

There’s a lot more to the proposed system (including a scaled back approach to testing that shifts the high stakes to students rather than teachers or schools), and it is not without its share of issues, both political and policy-related. However, it does represent a genuinely different direction in accountability that looks more like that of other professions than like an assembly line. That distinction may be its most important contribution, and it’s a notion that, while not new, certainly has not received enough attention.

One can imagine other routes to alternative accountability systems. Community-based accountability, for example, is a more democratic process that puts families and teachers together to define the objectives for students, agree on appropriate measurements, and identify the response when objectives aren’t reached. Whatever the approach, it’s important to sustain a broad definition of what students should learn and to involve teachers in their own professional development process.

Achieving any alternative to the current system will require more work on the part of teachers and their unions. We have already seen some examples of this. Teachers have participated in the creation of career ladders, and have developed effective peer assistance and review programs that support teachers that need it and move out those who belong elsewhere. Most of these efforts have happened at the local level, and we can apply the lessons learned by that local work to future statewide changes. The accountability system we have isn’t professional and isn’t likely to be as effective as hoped; we deserve something better.

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