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.