23. Teacher Accountability is Both Essential and Multi-Layered

When everyone is held responsible, no one is responsible.

Our legal system, and organizations in which trust is critical, rely on narrowing the focus to one person. Using a line, or line and staff mentality.

In a line managerial structure, the person at the top of the hierarchical pyramid is considered responsible. That assumption is tempered in a line and staff arrangement, as it is easier to assign blame to someone down the personnel ladder.

We live in a litigious society in which culpability is front and center. A perceived or real failure requires fault-finding. Most organizations are line and staff. So, there is usually an attempt by those holding higher office to blame subordinates for mistakes or incompetence.

American school districts use the line and staff approach for both managerial and academic program oversight. While that approach may work on the managerial side, it is a mistake when supervising and evaluating teachers.

Heaping disdain and criticisms on teachers whose students do poorly on high stakes tests is a travesty. Especially when the system itself is unable or unwilling to provide enough collateral support.

Teachers need the support of other teachers to help them improve everything from classroom management/discipline, to enlightening students academically, to stimulating their intellectual and emotional growth.

Top-down fault-finding is never an incentive for teachers to improve. Strong guide-on-the-side assistance works, especially if the curriculum is locally developed and targeted to specific learning objectives.

Accountability is not solidified and verified through a single test score. Nor even the opinion of a principal or supervisor. Real accountability is measured in terms of how well one teacher or teaching team succeeds in bringing students to some level of content mastery.

Barbara Morgan was not introduced to that idea in her teacher preparation. Mary Chapman was.

Both were idealistic, smart, and ready to serve students. Their differences were teacher training, college graduation dates, subject area concentrations, and when they were hired by the district.

Barbara joined the district in a watershed year and was included in the founding of its new learning infrastructure. Mary joined later and brought with her skills that made the new model work.

Like two people building a ship. One understands much about the superstructure. The other is more expert in the machinery that makes the vessel work.

Both are accountable for making sure the ship floats and moves through the waves.

Barbara and Mary’s Story – Part 1

We became friends and professional colleagues at Sheridan Middle School. Our families are socially close. We participate in many of the same community activities. We often discuss our pre-service and in-service preparation for how we teach now.

Undergraduate teacher education should not waste time on district academic governance processes. Creating decision-making and action-taking governance systems is important.

But it is best taught elsewhere. In a graduate program or district workshops.

The importance of creating a governance model is critical to both the day-to-day and enduring success of any system. But the operational machinery — with its many moving parts — is just as essential. 

The district’s academic program bylaws became the foundation for everything in terms of how, who and why. The Curriculum Council answered the questions of what, when and where through creation of a long-range plan (LRP).

As the Council discussed the long-range plan, we spent hours talking about its ramifications. The long-range plan was necessary.

Making substantive changes to a curriculum requires time, especially when collaborative techniques are used.

Deciding what the “core” curriculum should be was a first step. If based on traditional configurations it would include mathematics, language arts, science, and social studies.

Some districts change that core through using interdisciplinary techniques, combining disciplines such as language arts and social studies. Other districts combine a traditional discipline with what is now considered tangential but important, science and technology.  

Making these decisions would have a significant long-term impact. And affect how a curriculum was written and used.

While it is exciting to be innovative, the domino effect can be overwhelming. For example, changing the core curriculum to interdisciplinary arrangements affects resource selection, teacher skillsets, community expectations, and alignment with state standards.

The district is still having to weave its way through bureaucratic compliance issues. The Council has already approved alignment with standards as an endpoint in curriculum development, discarding the previous practice of “unpacking” them first.

While high stakes testing is losing its grip on the nation, the practice is still being perpetuated. And high stakes tests focus on traditional curricular configurations, mitigating against the use of interdisciplinary programs.

We often discussed these issues in the teachers’ workroom while other teachers listened. The Council wanted us to include these topics in departmental/grade level meetings, as well as sessions of the building leadership team. Those activities were variations on the professional learning community (PLC) culture that started many years ago.

Most teachers we talked with agreed the district should, for the time being, stay conservative in setting up the long-range plan. Like the Curriculum Council, teachers liked the idea of attacking one core discipline a year.

Two years for language arts since it has so many facets, the learning of reading and writing skills in lower grades, and the study of literature and composition in the upper grades.

But which subject should we start with? Both mathematics and language arts were top choices. But language arts prevailed. As a member of the Council and a language arts teacher, Barbara could chair what became the K-12 Language Arts Subject Area Committee.

Although I taught science, Barbara was trained in how to write a results-based curriculum and design compatible lesson plans. She was the perfect inhouse resource.   

We often reflected on what might happen in the years ahead. Although we played significantly different roles in the new learning infrastructure, we both felt exhilaration and responsibility. We were part of creating a better kind of schooling.

One in which we and our colleagues would be held accountable for years to come.

 ©2021 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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