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Learning at its Best

Which Comes First–The Child or the Data?

One of the most moving and eye-opening experiences of my life was attending a national conference, hosted by the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People and the National Education Association, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision. Like most Americans, I had been taught that Brown was the turning point toward justice and equity in educational opportunity for all, the watershed moment where Americans were forced to face the fact that schools for African American children were separate and unequal—and that something must be done to live up to the worthy principles embedded in constitutional law.

After the opening ceremonies, which were full of noble rhetoric and tears, a cluster of elderly African American teachers who had lost their jobs after Brown took the stage. Their rundown schools had been closed, their credentials were denigrated, and their mission as teachers and their dedication to the children they served were crushed back in 1954—a by-product of implementing the grand new law.

Fifty years later, these ladies were still shaking their heads, outraged: We made those children proud of themselves—and we taught them everything they needed to know! And we worried—at the white school, who would teach them how to behave? Who would care enough to make them do their schoolwork, or tell their mothers when they did wrong?

It wasn’t only a history lesson. It was the best illustration I can imagine of full-on teacher accountability, a word that has, unfortunately, become synonymous with culpability in the discourse about improving public education in 2012.

“Accountability” is a word fraught with liability: obligation to bear consequences, being called to account, guilty. “Responsibility” has a different flavor and outcomes: reliable, answerable, receptive to taking action. One takes responsibility, but one is held accountable. The two concepts ultimately diverge, suggesting different human motivations and goals.

The dignified African American teachers at the conference were both wholly responsible and accountable for the children they taught. They were personally willing to be dependable role models and taskmasters for the children whose future opportunities hinged almost entirely on the instructors’ teaching and guidance. And they were accountable for their students’ human rights, to the point where teachers lost their jobs when federal policy changed.

When it comes to today’s schools and teachers, do we want them to acknowledge and embrace their responsibility for meeting children’s needs? Or do we want the schools and teachers to be held accountable for specific, measurable outcomes?

Both, of course—but the question is whether we can have it both ways. Can we put first priority on producing gains in standardized indicators, while simultaneously demanding that teachers be responsive to individual children: their diverse needs, aspirations, and goals? Is it possible to achieve 100 percent success on the numbers while meeting the unique learning needs of every student? Which comes first: the child, or the data?

I’m pretty sure I know what those distinguished African American teachers would say.

Why are we wasting our time on pointless arguments over value-added methodologies, confidence intervals, and standardizing everything in sight? Shouldn’t accountability be redefined toward measuring a set of broader outcomes? First, we must stop thinking of accountability as a speed trap for basic incompetence in the teaching profession.

For better or worse, school districts, states, and the federal government have now invested heavily in data collection and analysis. Let’s use this data to inform instruction and tailor teaching to what our students need to know. Instead of arguing about the relative validity of statistical models, let’s recapture value from this enormous (and probably unnecessary) expense, to build assessment literacy into the expected skill set of every teacher. A practitioner who thoroughly understands the construction of useful assessments, how to analyze evidence provided by those assessments, and what instructional steps to take next is a very capable teacher indeed.

We need to pursue self-accountability in teachers; that is, the internal commitment to students that motivates creative and enthusiastic teaching, and a well-filled toolkit to accomplish those goals. We aren’t going to get that by publishing “failing” teachers’ names in the newspaper. We might come closer to self-accountability by investing, over time, in choosing promising candidates for long-term teaching, empowering them with clear purpose and autonomy in their own classrooms, and devoting more resources toward instructional proficiency and rich curricula.

This would be more than smart policy-making. It would represent the right thing to do in a democracy. We owe this to the generations of teachers who built what we now think of as our first-in-the-world knowledge economy: Teachers who stoked the wood stove and lugged water for rural schoolhouses. Teachers who taught generations of immigrants to speak English, then aspire to a college education. And the dedicated teachers who lost their jobs for principles of democratic equality.

Cross-posted at ASCD Express

About nflanagan

Nancy Flanagan is an education writer and consultant focusing on teacher leadership. She spent 30 years in a K-12 music classroom in Hartland, Mich, and was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993. She is National Board-certified, and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. She divides her time between wondering how things got so messed up and dreaming up ways to re-energize America's best idea--a free, high-quality education for every child.


6 thoughts on “Which Comes First–The Child or the Data?

  1. This is the key paragraph for me, and I’m very grateful for it, Nancy:

    “Accountability” is a word fraught with liability: obligation to bear consequences, being called to account, guilty. “Responsibility” has a different flavor and outcomes: reliable, answerable, receptive to taking action. One takes responsibility, but one is held accountable. The two concepts ultimately diverge, suggesting different human motivations and goals.

    Posted by Michael Paul Goldenberg | May 5, 2012, 10:49 pm
  2. I love it: self-accountability, which, for me, includes working to secure that accountability for us all.

    Can ed schools or alt programs or masters seeking apprentices screen for intrinsically motivated teachers as a first set? How would this look different than the admissions protocols and norms we have now?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 8, 2012, 10:20 am
    • Thanks, Chad. There have been attempts, in the history of teacher prep, to screen potential teachers for particular dispositions. NCATE was castigated in the edu-press for trying to do just that: figure out who was going into teaching for the right reasons, who had the optimal perspectives on children and learning.

      They were accused of being politically correct, and ignoring disciplinary rigor in favor of “soft” personal qualities which could not be empirically identified. Besides, lots of people think that the ideal teacher is one who responds most strongly to external accountability metrics. An internally motivated and accountable teacher may not see producing upticks in test data as Job #1.

      There are also a couple of famous cases of students who were removed from teacher-prep programs for having the wrong personal qualities–prospective teachers who were upfront about their skepticism over pedagogical theory, for example. Personally, I think it would benefit the profession to be a lot pickier about who gets admitted to teacher-prep programs–including some kind of demonstration of the candidate’s moral purpose in choosing education. But I’m guessing that would be a huge, ugly fight.

      Posted by nflanagan | May 9, 2012, 9:48 am
  3. great post! definitely agree with the others who commented that self-accountability is key!

    Posted by moderndaychris | May 10, 2012, 10:36 pm
  4. I support all efforts of ‘responsible’ and ‘accountable’ teachers to assist students, but…

    Desegregation under Brown v. Topeka was to be undertaken “with all deliberate speed”. Given the number of schools that remain segregated, it seems 58 years has been too fast. I think this to be nothing but a systemic, sociocultural race issue, an issue one’s personal accountability for actions/inactions in a local (possibly segregated) school system simply cannot address.

    Perhaps one might feel good about working to reduce the “achievement gap” — but this might simply ignore the power of the overarching framework —

    Posted by Brent Snavely | May 19, 2012, 7:29 am


  1. Pingback: Responsible, Rather Than Accountable « School Refresh - May 5, 2012

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