The Accountability Obsession

It is difficult to have a conversation about education that does not involve accountability. People need to be accountable for their actions, their words, their results, their work, their behavior. These are all logical ideas, and at their root they boil down to this: all people should do their work to the best of their ability.

I would never argue with this principle. In fact, it is one of the tenets that governs all of the work I do. In education today, however, we have used accountability as a means to control and condemn. In my opinion, it has replaced the purpose so many of us went into the field to pursue: building relationships and providing opportunities to grow individuals into positive members of society.

Let me give an example for context. Recently, I taught third grade in a school with a very diverse population, both culturally and socioeconomically. The school was part of a large district, and its population was very different from the majority of the other schools within that district. I often did things a little differently than other teachers, partially because I had an extensive background in accelerating students’ reading levels, partially because I had a background in special education, and partially because many of the district-adopted methods were not working for my students.

My students and families achieved very positive results–25-30 points of math MAP growth, 1.5-2 years of reading growth, heavily improved engagement, and significantly reduced behavioral challenges. Despite my success, I was often left out of professional discussions, excluded from opportunities to share my practice with staff, and reminded of my “level of empowerment” within the district structure.

One conversation in particular stands out to me. After a district walk-through, I was approached by a literacy coach in my school. This person had not observed a lesson in my classroom at any point during the school year, with the exception of the district walk-through. She had never come to me to have a conversation about my practice or asked questions about my methodology. She had not stopped to look at the student work I posted outside of my classroom and on my bulletin board on a regular basis or at the student names, written on cut-out stars, that were put up on the wall to honor their achievement of an academic goal.

I was sitting at my small group instruction table, my elbows resting on a pile of weekly running records, writing samples, and notes. The coach said to me: “I don’t believe you give your kids any opportunities because I don’t see evidence of it in their thoughtful logs (the reading notebooks the district used).”

This is where accountability, which is a positive and necessary thing, becomes control. The judgment this coach was making about me, and the scant evidence she’d used to make it, had nothing to do with whether or not I was actually doing my job. It was about whether or not I had proved that I’d done my job to her, in the way that she wanted it proven, on the one day–within the one half hour, in fact–that she came to see it proven.

That conversation is not unique to that coach, unfortunately, and I truly believe her to be a kind person who was just doing the job she was told to do.

That is why education’s obsession with accountability is so concerning to me. We are so worried about checking that others are proving their worth to us–that they are doing what they are “supposed to be doing”–that we completely look past the incredible value of the actual person and the impact they are making. We determine if people are “good teachers” by a written lesson plan, a submitted form, or compliance with programs, rather than by the relationships they build with students and colleagues.

There have been times in my career when I have spent more time proving that I am doing my job, filling out multiple forms and templates for multiple people in multiple leadership positions, than I have reflecting on my instruction with students and how it could be better. I do not think I am alone in this experience. It is my sincere hope that we can find a way to move past our need for control, which is a much better word for what I see happening than accountability, and open our minds to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, connecting with those around us in authentically supportive ways will improve performance more than threatening them will.

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