The Trouble with Accountability

Perhaps the greatest residual impact of No Child Left Behind has been the emphasis on accountability in our school systems. Phrases such as "merit based pay" or "data-driven instruction" have crept into educational parlance and are influencing policy decisions with rapidly increasing momentum. Accountability has wrought such a frantic fixation on test scores, graduation rates, and every fathomable numeric metric, I sometimes wonder if CPAs and statisticians are better outfitted to work in schools than teachers.

In a perfect world, where children are cherubs, teachers are saints, and classroom resources abundant, accountability measures can do a great deal of good. They encourage transparency, an invaluable commodity to educational stakeholders, and provide method through which teachers and administrations can appraise their work in the classroom. They also, to the chagrin of unions, help crack down on administrators and teachers who have no business in the system.

But more often than any of us would like to admit, rigid accountability measures inadvertently operate as perverse incentives, driving schools to mask the real problems. To maintain a stellar report card, schools come to prioritize posting impressive figures over those that illustrate the real needs of our students. Two areas where accountability has been most ubiquitously responsible for distorted realities are in relation to grading policies and how behavior problems are addressed.

As part of the NCLB fallout, it is now incredibly difficult to fail a child. A high rate of failing students reflects badly on a school; therefore, teachers are "encouraged" to maintain a high passing rate. But what about the students who outright don't deserve to pass? Should I really give the lowest possible passing grade to a student who sat in my class everyday, did nothing, and refused extra help? What if, while not completing assignments, their behavior was so disruptive it prevented their peers from learning? I am inclined to think the student should fail -- at least for one marking period to get the stern message. Unfortunately, more often than not, as the end of a semester approaches, teachers find themselves manipulating grading policies or accepting last minute, subpar work in hopes of eking out a suitable percentage of passing marks.

When we pass students under these circumstances, we reinforce the idea that the absolute minimum is satisfactory. While I am not advocating for the right to administer rampant and arbitrary "F's," honest grading policies are important. Aside from delivering a candid portrayal of performance, grades provide teachers with leverage. It is a rare breed of student who approaches their school performance with genuine ambivalence and for many receiving an "F" serves a valuable, not easily forgotten lesson.

In addition to deteriorating high academic standards, an obsession with accountability can have a negative impact on school culture and environment. Often, the schools under the microscope for low achievement face additional struggles in regards to student behavior. Unfortunately, for fear of acquiring suspension rates that indicate large scale disciplinary problems, some schools will avoid addressing behavioral issues in a way that would require documentation.

When trying to pare down suspension rates, schools save documentable consequences for the most severe of offenses. Under this model, cursing at teachers, walking out of classrooms unexcused (aka cutting), or coming to school obscenely late become minor transgressions. They are addressed via a stern chat with the dean or a phone call home. For first time transgressors, this is fine. But after a while, it's time to step off the bottom rung of the consequence ladder. Students are quick to realize what actions will be met with impunity and as we fail to dole out adequate consequences, such behavior becomes chronically embedded in school culture.

The bottom line: by masking reality, we are doing our students a disservice. In no job can a person curse at their boss, arrive upwards of an hour late, or walk out the door when something doesn't go their way. It is our job to teach students those lessons before they graduate high school. Furthermore, by passing our students for completing minimal amounts of work or simply sitting in a classroom, we are conditioning them to believe that they can succeed without working hard. In the workforce, an individual who does the bare minimum will face professional stagnation. They are lucky not to be fired.

It is time for children to matter more than the numbers. Yes, high passing rates look good, but if the students are simply pushed along without doing the work, that statistic is vapid and empty. Yes, high numbers of incidents make for a less attractive school, and while no one wants the selection for a child's educational institution to resemble the decision between doing a family vacation at Disney World or a country on the State Department Watch List, without taking a much needed step back, it is near impossible to move forward.

If we are to have honest transparency and true accountability, schools need to be met where they are. I believe the first step is for school administrators to receive support from above. Let schools implement an actual zero-tolerance policy and crack down on troublemakers. There may be a temporary spike in suspensions, but more than likely, the following year would see less serious incidents and improved academic performance. Whether it is instilling proper disciplinary standards or upholding rigorous academic expectations, schools should not be punished for acting in the best interest of their students. After all, aren't the children who we should be most accountable to?