Perhaps the most misunderstood word in public education is “Accountability.” To one side, it means catching teachers who don’t do their job effectively. To the other, it means having outsiders try to control what and how we teach kids. From my experience as a principal, I would propose that embracing this word in its true form could pay dividends to our students.
From my memory, the earliest existence of educational accountability began with the bipartisan reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2001, more commonly known as No Child Left Behind. While state testing did predate this act, NCLB gave teeth by providing the ability to not only rate each school’s “Adequate Yearly Progress,” but also impose sanctions on unsuccessful schools. While I doubt that many would call NCLB a success, I would argue that there were some benefits to the act.
Most notably, I believe that the demonstration of growth within various subgroups was a critically necessary component missing in schools. This requirement forced schools to pay attention to many student groups who were often ignored (or worse, brushed under the rug) in the past.
For me, these requirements provided the roots to the benefits of accountability. While I was originally in the camp of those who protested, it was a small workshop with a wonderful speaker who changed my mind. While his full name and background escape me, his message has stuck with me ever since. For the sake of this post, let’s call him “Matthew.”
Matthew spoke at length about the importance of accountability and how educational leaders could embrace these reform efforts to make our schools a better place for children to learn and thrive. It might seem second nature to us now, but fifteen years ago, it was not nearly as common. The audience of principals was completely enthralled with his remarks, taking copious notes, and asking clarifying questions. I was also very interested in what Matthew was saying, however I was struggling with making the connection as to how we could apply it. It was then that a colleague of mine, a more senior and highly respected principal in our district, asked Matthew a question. This principal agreed that our school leaders needed to do more to advance achievement. However, he astutely pointed out that we were a diverse, largely blue collar school district. Many of our students came from unstable households that didn’t have the ability or wherewithal to provide an environment conducive to learning in the home. How are we supposed to improve the standardized tests scores of kids who are frequently absent, hungry, ignored at home, and/or disruptive in the classroom? Without missing a beat, Matthew responded. He moved closer to my colleague and in a soft voice asked, “What about this surprises you each day?”
Everyone was speechless. The entire group had an “a-ha moment” at once. We needed to stop falling in love with our daily problems and start addressing them. Step one was recognizing that we have a problem. Once we got passed the notion that we were one of the most downtrodden, underappreciated, overburdened districts districts in the state, we were able to turn our attention to addressing the areas that we could effect change and figuring out how to minimize the impact of the things outside of our control. For me, this was the beginning of my love affair with accountability.
At the middle level, educators spend a great deal of time talking to students about “preparing for high school.” We give long-term assignments that require research and proper format. Students are told to do their homework because it will not only help you practice the concepts, but it will also teach you about responsibility. While I could likely write an entire blog about the fallacy of this practice, it is the hypocrisy that arises from the result which bothers me the most. Far too often, the same educators who have this mindset of preparation, responsibility, and accountability, also protest when they are asked to do the same. “Do as I say, not as I do.”
Another memory from my early years as a principal was debating with teachers the merit of banning “White Out” in our school. Again, fifteen years ago the world was a different place. For all of you youngsters and hipsters, there used to be a liquid called “White Out,” which came in a bottle roughly the size of a nose spray container. When you unscrewed the cap, it pulled off to reveal a small brush or sponge that dipped into the milky white inky substance. You would use the brush to correct mistakes on paper made in ink. There was no backspace or spell check to fix our mistakes before we did everything digitally.
Anyway, back to the point: a small group of kids in our middle school were using “White Out” to deface property. Some were also inhaling the fumes in an attempt to get high. Because of this, a couple of teachers came to me wanting to ban “White Out” for the students. I rejected the request for reasons too numerous to mention here, but one was because teachers were allowed to have “White Out” in class to fix their mistakes. I asked how we could justify a ban for something that was “so dangerous” when we still allowed it in our school. You would think that I had kicked a puppy by the reaction that reason provoked out of the teachers. “Well I am an adult! I know how to properly use it.” My response, “So do they. But some of them choose not to use it properly.” My point was that if we want our kids to learn and appreciate accountability, then we need to model it. Whether it is “White Out,” water bottles, or smart phones, if kids cannot have them then adults should not have them either. The argument changes faces when you make that point.
So if you aren’t convinced by Matthew’s remarks or by my “White Out” anecdotes, let me try one final argument persuading you to embrace accountability. Think about the power struggles that take place over the course of a day in our schools. Students, parents, taxpayers, teachers, principals, central office staff, and school board members all play a role in various types of interactions taking place that often have implications across the district. As building principals, we are placed in the middle of these struggles, both large and small, more often than any other group. We are the “middle managers of education.” A few months ago, I was talking to a current colleague about just this topic and how much it takes away from what I am trying to accomplish. This fellow principal who I will call “Bob,” had a simple but effective manner for dealing with these situations. Simply stated, he embraces them. Bob gave me an example:
“Let’s say the bus driver shows up to see me and is angry about a couple of students eating lollipops on the bus. She comes in ready for a fight. I could easily try to argue that the lollipops were given out by our office staff when kids are extra helpful and polite. I could go on and on making the case for what we are trying to teach our kids about character and respect. But I don’t. Instead, I look her right in the eyes and tell her that I am shocked and that I will get to the bottom of this right away. She will never see another lollipop on her bus again. Disarmed before even getting a chance to fight, she leaves my office in less than a minute. Then I go and tell my office staff to switch to a jolly ranchers so the driver won’t see the lollipop sticks in the kids’ mouths when they get on the bus. Then I talk to my students about how there should not be candy on the bus. I keep my promise of no more lollipops and I get to allow my office staff to continue praising kids for good behavior. If a couple of kids forget, they at least won’t have the evidence sticking out for the driver to see.”
For me, this is how we should embrace accountability. Let’s disarm the complainers before they even get to our office and show that we are part of the solution. As school leaders, we should be on the front lines carrying the flag of accountability. When we make mistakes, we own them. Show both our teachers and students that we know we are not perfect. If those mistakes require consequences, we accept them proudly. More often than not, we should make ourselves accountable for their mistakes too.
If a teacher is doing an unsatisfactory job, isn’t it the principal’s responsibility to help them grow or to remove them if they do not? If a student violates a rule, shouldn’t we try to see how we could have helped prevent that violation from occurring by clarifying rules or providing more supervision? Whether it is for standardized test scores, student behavior, teacher quality, or if there is enough soap in the bathrooms, everything falls on our shoulders.
In The Godfather Part II, Hyman Roth is trying to explain to a much younger Michael Corleone that he has survived so long in the mob world that most of his friends were either in jail or dead. But then he says to Michael, “This is the business we have chosen.” The same is true for us. We have chosen to be school principals. Accountability is just one of the many facets of the job. We need to understand it, accept it, and embrace it as we strive to make a difference in the lives of our students.
Transcription of Speech at Awards Recognition Breakfast for Families and Students Demonstrating Respect, Responsibility, and Resourcefulness
“(Why are you here today?) It has nothing to do with grades. It has nothing to do with a test score. It has nothing to do with a rank or maybe the fact that you turned in all your homework (even though that is responsible).
For the past twenty years, I have been proud to be an educator. However, I have to admit that I have been a hypocrite. I have bowed at the altar of standardized testing. I have allowed PSSAs to become an anxiety inducing problem for our students to the point where 30 or more families each year opt their students out of the entire test.
The truth of the matter is that I don’t care about that testing. All that shows is one tiny snapshot of your time here at Downingtown Middle School. That’s not something any of you are going to remember years from now. What you will remember are the experiences that shape your character and help you become even more special than you already are. Your parents already know how special you are. They are already enjoying watching the people you are becoming. Our job as educators is to provide you with those experiences.
Over the past twenty years I am willing to admit I have failed to a large degree because I haven’t practiced what I’ve preached. Today is our way as a school of saying “No more.” We are going to be recognizing and rewarding the things that matter moving forward. We want you to leave here not with a resume or having classes under your belt. We want you to leave with the skills to be critical thinkers, communicators, to be able to collaborate with one another, and in turn be able to create. We want you to go on to high school and beyond being able to have empathy for others and being always willing to own your actions, taking personal responsibility for what you do and who you are.
We are so proud of all you today which is why we are here celebrating you and why we invited your families here to celebrate as well. Congratulations.”
It was the spring of 1992 and there was no doubt about it; I was going to change the world. I had just walked out the door of Millersville University with my bachelor’s degree in one hand and my special education certificate, hot off the presses from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, in the other. Kris Kross’s “Jump” blared on the radio waves as my very own personal theme music and I knew nothing could stop me from changing lives.
After going through the grind of daily substitute work for a couple of months, I was thrilled to land a long-term substitute position at an alternative school for students with emotional disturbances. I was still having nightmares about cafeteria duty, trying to find some kind of footing, when I received an interview for a full-time contracted position as a learning support teacher in Upper Darby. I nailed the interview and got the job. Everything was happening exactly according to plan.
That summer, as I excitedly prepared for the upcoming school year, I had a conversation with two family members who enjoyed pontificating about all the problems with public education. They did not mind that teachers received raises, but they objected to the increases if kids didn’t learn. One relative, a member of the corporate world, said that she could not understand why there was no accountability for teachers. She asserted, “If my product does not sell, my salary suffers.” The other relative, who worked in construction, pointed out that if he does not do his job correctly, entire projects break down. “You think I would get paid then?” Those conversations disheartened me. I worried about how others may view my chosen career and I hadn’t even started. Instead of the positive vibes of Kris Kross, I was now hearing the warning signs in Joe Public’s “Live and Learn” as my personal soundtrack.
My first few years of teaching coincided with the beginning shift toward accountability in education. With that shift came push back from my colleagues on the intrusion into their classrooms. I sat in numerous meetings and teacher lounges listening to them object to accountability measures that were supposed to help provide an objective measure of our job performance. They wanted to know why, after so many years of uninterrupted teaching, their instructional practices were being called into question by politicians and the general public? They pointed to the “raw material” that they were given as being the problem and asking, “How can we be accountable for kids from a poor upbringing? If the parents would do their job, we would be fine! It’s not our fault.” I left those meetings equally as disheartened as the previous ones with my relatives. I did not necessarily agree with either side, but I did gain an understanding as to why the conflict existed. Neither side wanted to give the other any ground.
Since that time and up until today, I have firmly believed that there has to be a middle ground. Educators need to realize that the days of relying on tenure to give us the power to shut our doors and just teach the curriculum as we choose without any sort of accountability are gone. On the flip side, the politicians and public need to understand that there is so much more to what schools do and who students are than just a data point. They need to realize that today’s educators did not get into the profession as a backup plan or to have summers off. Teachers today are better prepared and more passionate about making a difference in the lives of children than I have ever seen in my 25 years as an educator. They do not mind being held accountable; they just want a reasonable measure to be used that paints the entire picture: academically, socially, emotionally, and behaviorally.
To be honest, I have vacillated back and forth on this topic. As an educator, I have called for more freedom to do as we see fit in our schools. As a father and taxpayer, I have also questioned the tactics used in my own children’s classrooms and wondered exactly what the heck was going on in there (thankfully, I have my wife keep me in check, reminding me that I am not the principal of the whole country).
I have been a union representative, serving on a negotiating team for a teacher contract and calling for more academic freedom and less intrusion from administrators. I have also been a champion of data and accountability, making the analogy that every kid should have an imaginary tag on their ear like cattle. Only these tags would have their test results so every teacher who works with them could know about their achievement scores. I am not proud of either of these viewpoints, but I do appreciate them because I believe that they have led me to where I am today.
So here we are in 2017. “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” have both proven to have some upsides, but neither have led to substantial improvements in education. In fact, most of the recently released data shows that neither program moved the dial at all. Just more data points for those who want accountability. More money for those who are willing to play the game. The pendulum appears to be swinging away from so much accountability. I propose that we all join in together and push it ourselves.
I am not suggesting we push it back in the other direction. My belief is that it needs to be pushed off the rails completely. Let’s stop this constant back and forth where we make modest gains occasionally and then lose ground based on the whims of the day’s popular accountability system. We are talking about the future leaders of our country, the next generation of workers, which means we need to put aside the political talking points and focus on what is best for them which is also best for business. Side note: Whenever I talk about this generation and their future, I always think of The Breakfast Club when Vernon is talking to Carl the custodian and says, “Now this is the thought that wakes me up in the middle of the night. That when I get older, these kids are going to take care of me.” To which Carl responds without missing a beat, “I wouldn’t count on it.” (Best line in any education movie ever!)
I can hear you saying to yourself, “How do we do what you suggest? How do we fight against a rigged system that controls everything?” My answer? It’s simple. Both sides need to embrace the salient points of the other and work on a plan to move forward. Much like the current political atmosphere in our country, I believe we have dug in our heels to the point of being unwilling to budge. What we don’t realize (and what our politicians do not realize) is that while we are busy serving the masters of standardized testing and accountability, the whole system is suffering. We cannot continue to support schools where every student is just a number who walks the halls like cattle with an eartag. A place where there is so much focus on the data that we have no time to build relationships. Where we are competing so much with our fellow schools and teachers, within our own district and school building, that we miss out on chances to collaborate and grow together.
We also cannot support schools where teachers have full autonomy to teach what they want, where they want, and when they want, without some form of accountability to make sure the customers are getting what they paid for. A place where we are so focused on doing what we alone think is best we miss out on learning from our community and even our children who have so much that they can teach us, too. If you truly want what is best for all children, then you have to be willing to see both sides of the argument.
Locally, as teachers and principals, there is plenty we can do. First and foremost, stop worshipping at the altar of standardized testing. Trust me, I know how difficult it can be to not get sucked in. They play this game of scoring and ranking us and we immediately click the link and start comparing ourselves to one another. Out of one side of our mouth we pound our chest and brag about getting this recognition. Then, when the ranking inevitably goes down, we turn the focus on educating the whole child or, worse yet, make excuses for why we are not as highly ranked as previous years. Mind you, I am not saying ignore standardized tests completely. I am saying the more power we give them, the more powerful they will be.
Provide your teachers and community with the information. Have open lines of communication to respond to questions. Do so with transparency holding yourself accountable. But also, remind everyone about the other measures of a good school that we all know exists because we live them every day. I can tell you from first hand experience, there is nothing quite like the response you get from teachers, parents and students when you announce that you will not be “teaching to the test.” Stop all of the testing pep rallies where we try to convince the kids that this is a great thing. Quit trying to jam a square peg into a round hole by doing last minute test prep. Teach the curriculum. Address the standards. Use multiple measures for effectiveness. Then move on to other matters. That being said, don’t be one of those educators who cries about standardized testing taking away from your instruction and then providing your own “high stakes tests” in your school with midterms and finals. If we want other methods to measure our effectiveness, we need to lead by example by moving away from our own version of this type of assessment. If you think having kids cram endless details into their heads just so they can spit it out on a final is worthwhile, well, you probably stopped reading this post long ago.
If we demonstrate an openness and willingness to not only accept constructive criticism, but actually go out and request it from our communities, then we disarm those who want to paint us with the broad brush of institutional failure. Don’t just invite your parents in for conferences. Have opportunities all year long for them to see what happens during the 98% of the year when you aren’t doing standardized tests. Reach out to your community for input and cooperative activities. All of the statistics in the world will never replace the conversation on the sideline of a Saturday soccer game. People believe what they see most, but what they hear from their circle of neighbors and friends is a close second.
In today’s world of technology, it is also critical that we control our message and brand. Get active on social media. Embrace the unknown. For all the negatives of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, there are myriads of opportunities for positives. Set up official accounts for your school (with proper permission) and go to town. Get the truth out there in the digital community so those who are on your team can help spread that truth. Trust me, they want to help you. Give them the chance to share your posts and comment your brand.
Finally, be a champion for children. Take risks. Put your neck out there for what you believe is important. Will it occasionally get you flak? Absolutely. But, as the bomber pilots were known to say in WWII, “If you’re not catching flak, then you’re not over the target.” We have to remember that the objects of our attention are quite frequently also on the radar of others. Quite often, those others will feel significantly different about the topic than we do. How do you think the person responsible for data will feel if you start minimizing its impact potentially threatening their job security? How about the person in your school whose job it is to make copies for everyone? What are they going to do when you start talking about going paperless? Naturally, they are going to push back. You have to be prepared for that flak. It means you are over the target.
As I sit here penning this article in late 2017, the radio is blaring the lyrics to Imagine Dragon’s “Believer.” Maybe it’s prophetic. I listen and I say: Let’s lead by example. Let’s control the narrative, but also be warm and welcoming to those who disagree with our with ideas. Let’s push that damn pendulum so far over the cliff that we never have to see it again.
“I'm fired up and tired of the way that things have been, oh ooh
The way that things have been, oh ooh
Second, don't you tell me what you think that I can be
I'm the one at the sail, I'm the master of my sea, oh ooh
The master of my sea.”
By Jon Ross
This article originally appeared in the March 2014 edition of the NAESP Communicator (Volume 37, Issue 7) and can be found online HERE.
First and foremost, we are all both parents and educators. Each day, we find ourselves straddling the line between allowing our children the opportunity to make mistakes and determining the right time to swoop in and save them. After explicitly teaching students how to read at the elementary level, we quickly expand our focus and begin the hard work required to help our students develop critical thinking skills. Through the years of K-12 schooling, our goal is to improve student achievement socially, emotionally, behaviorally, and academically. One of the most difficult things for me over the years has been trying to remain relevant and up to date with the pop culture, social media, outside influences that are kids experience each and every day. These trends are ever changing and as my generation ages, it becomes more and more difficult to keep up with our own children (my children, Bella and Talia, are 8 and 7 respectively, and I can barely keep tabs on them). Over the past few months, a new “internet celebrity” has emerged that has concerning implications for all of us.
On a fall episode of the Dr. Phil Show, a mother was seeking help for her out-of-control daughter, Danielle Bregoli. Drama ensued (as usual) and Danielle issued a challenge to the studio audience by saying (in some form of slang-talk), “Cash me ousside, how bow dah?” Loosely translated, she was challenging members of the audience to fight after the show. Since that appearance, this thirteen year old has gone viral and become a social media sensation based on that one catch-phrase. She’s also been involved in a physical assault on an airplane and then another in a pizzeria. She has since dropped out of middle school completely, began charging $30,000 for public appearances, signed product endorsement deals for over $200,000, and worse of all, she just signed on to be part of a cable network reality show. This means that by the end of 2017, she will be a multi-millionaire. (For a more comprehensive case history of her story, see this link: http://www.newshub.co.nz/home/entertainment/2017/03/cash-me-outside-girl-gets-her-own-tv-show.html
I usually tend to ignore these stories. But, unfortunately, as middle-level educators and parents, we cannot ignore this one. Her social media accounts have over 8 million followers and I see the memes, pictures, videos, and such involving her all around school. More than one student has actually told us that they look up to Danielle Bregoli and aspire to achieve the same level of fame. Another student went as far as telling us that she was cutting classes because Danielle Bregoli doesn’t even go to school and “she’s a real success.” So in essence, there are middle school students looking up to a now fourteen year old girl who dropped out of school, disrespects her parents, uses profanity in almost every sentence, has been arrested for assault more than once, and constantly disparages/insults/threatens other people via social media. Worst of all, this is the type of person who gets rewarded with attention, notoriety, and large amounts of money.
So what do we do about it as parents and educators? I think we should start by actually having a real dialogue about these types of things when our kids show us a video or ask to purchase an endorsed item. Rather than laughing or blowing it off, we can engage in meaningful discussion with our children to talk about our own values and the type of people we aspire to become in life. It may make a difference if they hear us reaffirm the characteristics that make a good friend, a solid citizen, and someone who values the discipline involved with working hard to accomplish goals. Next (and this one involves a little more work), purposely seek out true positive people in the world who are real role models. They might not get the news headlines and reality show deals, but they are out there. We need to overwhelm our “news feed” with those types of stories. Need help getting started? How about Eric Cowan, who volunteers for the Boys and Girls Club, overcame a speech impediment, and became “Youth of the Year” in his town? How about a group of teenage students who are creating a curriculum and cinematic experience to break down the stigma of mental illness? Or how about Felix Finkbeiner who believes so strongly about his cause, that he is on pace to plant over one-trillion trees? There stories are right here:
In the end, there’s no accounting for bad taste. But in our schools and in our homes, we can still demand more from ourselves, our children, and our community. I can assure you that no one in my household will ever be tuning in the Bregoli’s reality show. Instead, I challenge all of us to look for the “good news” about great people contributing to the world and society. By doing that, we can begin to swing this crazy pendulum back in the right direction.