Monday, September 13, 2010

Responsibility With No Responsibility

Researchers and practitioners all seem to agree that teachers are the most important factor within a school.  And many have taken that another step and asserted that teacher quality is almost the only thing that matters.  I've pushed back by pointing out that lots of things affect a teacher's performance other than a person's talent or moral character.

But here's what blows my mind.  Across the country, people seem to argue that teachers need to put up or shut up -- and that if a school fails it must be a result of poor teaching.  And, yet, all across the country, teachers are told to do things the way the principal, superintendent, board of ed, or whomever wants them done.  The last decade has seen the proliferation of scripted curricula ("teacher-proofing" they call it) and increasing micromanagement in urban schools (ask an NYC teacher if they have their "word wall" up or if their bulletin board properly displays student work).  If teachers bear all the responsibility for student success, why are they given so little responsibility for what and how students learn?

Think about it: if a teacher's not given any responsibility for how and what their students learn, then how can we hold them responsible for how and what students learn?  It's accountability without autonomy, responsibility with no actual responsibility.

When NYC started their principal accountability program, it was in the context of an "autonomy zone".  Principals signed contracts that basically said they would be fired if student achievement didn't improve in 5 years.  And, in return, principals had far more say over how their school was run and how professional development funds were spent.

Teachers, on other hand, aren't really offered the same deal.  They're essentially being told that they will be held responsible for what happens in their classroom (which isn't entirely unfair) -- but also that they will run their classroom a certain way . . . or else. 

If we don't trust teachers to do what's in the best interest of students, then maybe they're not the ones we should be pointing fingers at when students don't learn.  If a teacher follows a scripted curriculum and students don't learn, maybe we should point our fingers at the curriculum writers.  If a teacher follows the checklist the district passes down and students don't learn, maybe we should point our fingers at the district personnel.  If a teacher does everything their principal demands of them and students don't learn, maybe we should point our fingers at the principal.

If we think a teacher's primary responsibility should be to stick to the curriculum, decorate their rooms the way the superintendent says to, and follow the instructions of their principal, then, by all means, we should evaluate them on these things and hold them accountable when they fail to do them.  But if, instead, we think a teacher's primary responsibility is to ensure that students learn, maybe we should think about letting them determine what and how students learn before holding them accountable for this.


Anonymous said...

What you are talking about is what I find so fascinating...the teachers have not been able to find their own voice (it must be completely outside of the union) to state these very issues. Why can they not do this? Why aren't they doing it? They cannot easily be fired? Aren't they suppose to be doing what is best for the student? If they don't find their voice then what?

Attorney DC said...

Corey: Good post. I agree that it is bizarre to hold teachers responsible for their students' progress, but at the same time tie their hands with regard to the methods they can use to achieve said progress.

I would go further and posit that teachers have no control over many other factors that influence their teaching effectiveness, such as class size, subject/grade they are assigned to teach, certain aspects of student discipline, retention, parental involvement, student motivation, and a host of other issues. I find it bizarre, for example, that a teacher in his tenth year teaching a subject would be held to the same standard of achievement as a teacher who was just pulled by the principal and assigned a brand new subject two days before the school year began (not an infrequent occurence!). These myriad factors incline me to look skeptically at any evaluation methods that tie teacher performance directly to the test scores or performance of their students.

Parry Graham said...

But, playing devil's advocate, you still have wide disparities in teacher effectiveness within the same schools. In other words, in a school with an overbearing superintendent, a micro-managing principal, and a scripted curriculum, different teachers still get disparate results from similar student groups. Some of this is likely random variability, but some of it reflects true differences in teacher effectiveness. Should this not factor into a teacher's evaluation?

It seems as though the teacher corollary to the principal example you mention is to give teachers three- to five-year contracts that say "If you show evidence of high student achievement, you get to stay -- if not, you're fired." Do you think teachers would go for that?


Parry Graham said...

In the teacher contract example I mention, I would also include increased teacher autonomy and decision-making. In other words, a teacher has (for example) five years to teach what she wants and how she wants, but if student achievement hasn't increased over that time, then she loses her job at the end of the five years.


Corey Bunje Bower said...

ADC: While you're correct that teachers don't have influence over a heck of a lot of things I didn't even mention, a number (though certainly not all) of those things can be controlled for when calculating value-added scores. Not that this completely solves the problem, but it at least addresses it to some extent.

Parry: Yes, I do think a number of teachers would go for that. I'm not sure if that number is 20% or 60%, and I suspect younger teachers would be more likely to sign up, but it certainly wouldn't be universally turned down.

Also, I never claimed that a teacher's success is wholly dependent upon the curriculum they use or the support they receive from their principal, just that these things impact their success -- and that we should take that into account when evaluating teacher effectiveness.