A Teacher’s Response to Mike Petrilli’s Article, Accountability’s End?

Mike Petrilli’s article was probably my favorite article ever about accountability. To be fair, it doesn’t have much competition. Many articles about the subject are so one-sided they leave me too frustrated to even try to respond.

In “Accountability’s End?“, Petrilli divides accountability supporters into four distinct groups, which I found accurate. His categories also make it a lot easier to explain why teachers have so much trouble explaining that we are not against all accountability, so much as we have seen the idea of accountability misused for political reasons. We also have ongoing experience with its unintended consequences.

The truth is that while many teachers disagree strongly with some of the groups described in Petrilli’s article, we are in agreement with others. Opinions among teachers vary, so I won’t claim to speak for all of us, but here are my reactions to each group as Petrilli describes them.

The Tough Lovers: This group wants to make sure that teachers are not unduly shielded from a tough economy and that only hard, competent workers stay on school payrolls. Personally, I don’t mind. I’ve never had a problem with being expected to do a good job – few teachers I’ve ever met have a problem with that. Then again, I have a smart and fair-minded principal who isn’t likely to bully me over some comment I’ve made at a faculty meeting. Not all teachers are so lucky. More so than in the private sector, teachers let go for poor performance – or perceived poor performance – will likely have their careers permanently destroyed. It would be nice to see increased “tough-love” in HR departments balanced out with options for good teachers who get stuck in tough situations.

The World is Flatters: This group supports things like STEM and the Common Core standards as a means to make American education more cohesive and keep us competitive with other countries. I have no major disagreements with this group, and have yet to hear from a teacher who does.

The Tight-Loosers: This group favors results-based accountability as a means to cut back on traditional regulation. On paper, the idea of using some type of end results as a means of giving teachers more autonomy sounds great. For example, I’d love English teachers to be able to read more novels instead of giving expensive, time-consuming, relatively useless bi-weekly assessments. At the same time, teachers get uneasy about the “tight-looser” camp because we’ve seen firsthand that standardized tests don’t tell us everything accountability hawks say they do. Plus, increased emphasis on test results has yet to be matched with more autonomy in most public schools – instead they are the justification for things like replacing novels with bi-weekly assessments. For now, I’d describe the way it plays out as the “tight-tighter” approach.

The Poverty Warriors: This group claims that test-based accountability will keep schools and teachers from shortchanging poor, minority students. It is generally arguments from this group – however well intentioned – that frustrate me the most. Teachers at low-income schools often choose to work there in spite of problems known to impact student achievement. The “poverty warrior” rhetoric has recast these teachers as lazy, racist conspirators against poor kids. It is disingenuous and unfair to suggest that non-teachers in clean, well-decorated offices with all the copy paper they could ever ask for somehow care more about poor kids than teachers who get up at 5AM and break up hallway fights and work with these kids every day.

Teachers have also seen how many accountability measures – even well-meaning ones – have unintended consequences that undermine their stated goals. When we bring this up, however, even if we are really only arguing with one of the four groups above, we get slapped with the label of being against everything all four groups stand for, and thus treated as lazy, against what’s best for children, unrealistic about what kids need to know, and un-caring.

If we had those four characteristics, why, exactly, would we have chosen this profession?

While I don’t agree with every statement in Petrilli’s article, I still hope a lot of people read it. It is definitely a starting point for a more thoughtful discussion of this issue.

-Roxanna Elden

Roxanna Elden is a National Board Certified Teacher in Miami, and the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers.

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