Let us assume for a second that we know how to measure how good a teacher (or a school) is. We can then know exactly how well one is performing and hold them accountable for poor performance. In such accountability schemes those who underperform are essentially scolded and warned that they must do better. But we're making a huge assumption when we do this: that teachers (or schools) know how to get better.
And I'm not sure we're as safe making this assumption as many seem to, well, assume. We can berate teacher training and professional development until the cows comes home, but in the end a teacher (or a school) is on their own to figure out how to improve. And I don't think it's as easy as it looks -- or that the answer is as obvious as it might appear.
Most accountability systems seem to insinuate that those who underperform do so because they're not trying hard enough. If this is true, then improvement is easy -- one simply needs to work harder. If this is true, then accountability systems seem like a reasonably good idea -- they will help rid us of those who aren't willing to work hard.
But anybody who knows anything about teaching and schools will recognize that effort is far from the only determinant of success. And that working harder will not always yield better results. Let's use athletics as an example. If you wanted to become better at, say, tennis or golf, would you just go out and hit a ball until your hands blistered? Maybe. And it might help a little. But if you were really serious about it, you'd probably go see a coach, take a lesson, or at least read some articles or how-to books. You'd have to learn the proper techniques, practice those certain techniques, and, if you're really serious about improving, get some feedback on your practice attempts. As they say, "practice doesn't make perfect: perfect practices makes perfect." In other words, it's not a simple manner to get better -- one has to first know how to get better and then work both hard and smart. And it's certainly not a simple process.
And teaching is quite similar. The only way that an accountability system can ever work is if teachers (or schools) know how to improve. If we simply say "that's not good enough, you have to do better," we're assuming that they know how to improve. But what happens when one asks "how do I do better?" I know math and literacy coaches have proliferated in the last decade, but I'm not sure that we typically a.) have somebody to answer that question, and b.) have an answer to the question. And I'm even less sure that many teachers would know the answer to the question.
Of course, one could argue that improvement isn't necessary for an accountability system to work (though it would be for an incentive system to work), that it could also work by weeding out the bad apples in order to replace them with ripe ones. We can argue all day about whether or not there's a teacher shortage, but it's pretty clear that quite a few troubled schools also have trouble recruiting enough talented teachers. Similarly, we can extol the virtues of charter and private schools until the cows come home, but I don't think many people are under the illusion that starting new schools is a quick and easy process. In other words, in order for accountability systems to work we need to make sure that teachers (and schools) know how to get better before we decide on how to punish them for performing poorly (or rewarding them for performing well).
At some point in the coming months the National Center on Performance Incentives is going to release the initial results of the first randomized field trial using performance pay -- 100 middle school math teachers were offered bonuses ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 for three subsequent years based on gains in state test scores. And the results are going to get a lot of attention however they turn out. And most people will want to know one main thing: whether the 100 teachers in the treatment group outperformed the 100 teachers in the control group. It's an interesting an important question. But regardless of the answer, we need to find out why. How did teachers respond to the chance to earn incentives? Did they work harder? Did they change their pedagogy? Assign more homework? Spend more time on test prep? Attend more professional development? Do nothing? And what happened when they did these things? Did they become better teachers, or at least produce better test scores? In other words, did teachers who tried to improve accomplish their goal? Can we, in fact, say that teachers know how to improve? To me, those are more important questions.
We can't say that we know how to fix the educational system until we know whether teachers (and schools) know how to get better. And accountability and incentive systems will never work unless they do. And eventually people will realize this. As Nancy Flanagan put it in a comment on Robert Pondiscio's latest post: "We don’t have any helpful new ideas about classroom management in the 21st century, but we’ve decided to punish you when you fail, anyway."