Thursday, October 24, 2013

Sophisticated Accountability | October 18, 2013

Accountability Should Be Sophisticated and Complex
There has been a growing demand in the past decade for accountability in public education. Policy makers, students, families, and taxpayers all want teachers to be “held accountable.” Conventional accountability in teaching is based on student achievement on standardized tests and graduation rates. A current bill (MIHB4625) up for consideration in the Michigan House of Representatives proposes that teacher accountability be based primarily on student growth measured by assessments. Legislation such MIHB4625 suggests that accountability in the teaching profession is merely an objective matter; however, teaching is complex work and it has subjective elements that must also be considered for accountability.

The rhetoric accompanying legislation such as MIHB4625 touts that objectivity in accountability would incentivize teachers to focus on results, reward our best teachers, and make the profession more attractive to prospective talent. Attempting to evaluate complex work with simple quantitative measures could yield inaccurate results and adverse outcomes. We have seen in recent years how too heavy a reliance on objective measures of accountability can lead to distortion of goals by teachers and schools, misguided decision-making, and corruption within education systems. While these adverse outcomes are predicated upon the actions of educators, the ultimate antecedent is oversimplified accountability.

While teachers have the greatest in-school impact on student achievement, external factors have an even greater influence. Teachers could be using the most research-proven effective instructional methods in their classroom, but truancy, poverty, neglect or abuse may inhibit students from fully focusing on their learning. The resulting achievement outcomes might suggest ineffective teaching; conversely, teaching quality could look highly effective even in the absence of solid instruction. Teachers might not be using effective methods, but students could be receiving extensive outside-of-class tutoring, leveraging online learning resources, and achievement measures would suggest the teacher exceeded their professional responsibilities. This means without considering broader subjective indicators of instructional quality and service, along with student achievement, it will be difficult to accurately measure performance of teachers.

Ultimately, there should be accountability for the teaching profession based on student learning, but one-dimensional approaches are inadequate. After all, teaching is complex, multi-faceted work, and not easily summarized by simple quantitative measures. A model combining multiple measures, qualitative and quantitative, such as effective instruction, external factors, and student achievement could yield a more sophisticated and nuanced accountability model. This approach could more accurately measure the complex work of teachers and provide better feedback to foster high levels of learning for all students.