Why Instructional Leaders Must Stop Propagating Fear of Accountability

Teachers are the backbone of the education profession, and we need talented, committed people to work with our students. So I was dismayed to hear Global Teacher Prize winner Nancie Atwell advising creative, smart young people to avoid the teaching profession.

From a CNN interview:

“Public school teachers are so constrained right now by the common core standards and the tests that are developed to monitor what teachers are doing with them,” she said. “If you’re a creative, smart young person, I don’t think this is the time to go into teaching unless an independent school would suit you.”

I believe strongly in teacher professionalism as the foundation of public education (and most other forms of education, for that matter).

So it pains me to hear that teachers are being pressured to teach in ways they know are bad for students, e.g. spending excessive time on test prep, teaching short passages instead of whole books (because that’s what is on the test), and committing all kinds of educational malpractice in the name of “achievement” (test scores).

Here’s the thing: I don’t blame the Common Core State Standards. I don’t blame PARCC or SBAC.

We’ve had standards and standardized tests for as long as I’ve been an educator, and the new standards and tests are the best we’ve ever had. They’re clearer, better-designed, and more rigorous. But the fact that they’re being used across the country is giving people a common focal point for their fear and discontent.

Because CCSS and the new tests are new and more rigorous, educators and parents are panicking about lower scores, and responding to this panic in ways that are deeply damaging to the profession—and, more to the point, harmful to students.

Since there’s no single organization responsible for educating the public about CCSS, PARCC, or SBAC, it’s understandable that the public would have a certain amount of trepidation about major changes in what students are taught and how they’re assessed.

But as instructional leaders, we don’t have the same excuse. We know the standards, we know the tests, and we know they’re better. We know the accountability measures in place aren’t as bad as they’re perceived to be.

And yet we’re still overreacting to perceived pressures, forcing teachers and students to pay the price for our ignorance and fear, and allowing the public to persist in false beliefs.

A Reality Check

What’s the legislative reality on accountability?

The money Race to the Top offered to states prompted a great deal of poorly designed state legislation on teacher and principal evaluations. We’re experiencing the consequences of that poor legislation now, with administrators and teachers being evaluated on student test scores that they—demonstrably—have little influence over.

The accountability regime in place in the US dates back to the original No Child Left Behind Act, which was the 2001 reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary & Secondary Education Act. It requires drastic intervention for the lowest-performing schools, and I think we can agree that sometimes that’s necessary.

Some of the most draconian and ill-conceived features of this accountability regime have been scaled back, and there is actually very little top-down punitive accountability in place today, at least at the state and federal levels.

But there’s fear. Oh, is there ever fear.

And as instructional leaders, it’s our job to stop propagating this fear.

No public school teacher has ever been fired for low standardized test scores. Seriously. If I’m wrong, post a comment with a link.

Only a handful of schools in the entire country—most of which had persistent management and staffing problems for years, if not decades—have been closed or reconstituted under NCLB.

Yet the fear of these possibilities is driving all kinds of educational malpractice:

  • Spending weeks and months on test prep
  • Avoiding high-quality, authentic learning activities—like reading great books—in favor of test-prep materials
  • Telling teachers what they should be doing, instead of asking our best teachers what best practice looks like, and making it the norm

It’s on this last point that I’m most convinced we need to make a shift as instructional leaders: we need to listen to our best teachers.

Turning Scaffolds Into Cages

We’re seeing so many ill-conceived responses to accountability precisely because administrators don’t know what to do. We don’t know how to teach students in ways that will help them meet dramatically more rigorous standards, so we force teachers to do things that we hope will work.

Most of the time, though, we pressure teachers into doing whatever turns bad instruction into mediocre instruction. We focus on our “scaffolding” strategies that we know are helpful for new teachers, to solve the most basic challenges.

If someone is completely overwhelmed as a teacher, we can give them some supports like lesson scripts that will keep them afloat.

But those same supports and strategies won’t take us from good to great—and they’ll take many teachers from great to mediocre.

Is a 20-year veteran who’s a master teacher going to do better with scripted lessons? I hope not. (If so, well, that’s a humbling reality check of its own.)

Let me share a better vision from my own experience as an instructional leader.

How “Scripted Curriculum” Is Supposed To Work

Some of the best teachers I’ve ever worked with were masters at Writing Workshop, following Lucy Calkins’ curriculum from Teachers College at Columbia University.

Lucy’s materials are highly scripted. They tell you exactly what to say, how long to make your lesson, what to look for in students’ work, and what to say to guide students to improve their writing.

And yet, teaching writing is an incredibly challenging professional skill. We can’t crank out minimum-wage teacher-bots and expect them to pull it off. Even for smart, well-educated teachers, teaching writing workshop hard.

Lucy and her team at Teachers College have figured it out. They’ve developed a system that works for all students, and they’ve shared it with tens of thousands of teachers around the globe.

But this system—this “scripted” curriculum—doesn’t replace teachers’ professional expertise or judgment. Like a scaffold, it supports them in developing their expertise, until they no longer need the scaffold.

Master teachers of Writing Workshop tend to say similar things. Their lessons look and sound similar. But they exercise tremendous autonomy and professional judgment; if kids need something that isn’t in the curriculum, they get it.

In Writing Workshop, teachers are quickly challenged to write their own units, once they’ve mastered the skill—which most do, thanks to the powerful scaffolding they receive.

The mistake we make as administrators is to turn the scaffold into a cage. Even worse, we don’t provide the scaffolds teachers need to develop new skills, and simply box them into cage after cage.

We make this mistake because we don’t listen to our best teachers.

Effective Instructional Leaders Listen to Teachers

If you want to be a more effective instructional leader—if you want to have a school where students learn, where teachers enjoy their work, and where great things are happening—listen to your best teachers.

And a strange thing will happen: they won’t suggest terrible ideas like teaching test-prep passages instead of whole books. They won’t turn scaffolds into cages. They won’t commit educational malpractice in the name of accountability pressure.

And if you think there’s something better out there, some new practice that will transform your school, don’t go buy it and tell your teachers to get on board. Send your best teachers to evaluate it, pilot it if they’re interested, and make the decision with you.

Your Story

If you’re a teacher, administrator, or other educator, I’d like to hear from you what’s happening in the field. I’d like to hear your story.

Where is accountability pressure leading us astray? How could we respond better?

Leave a comment below, with a pseudonym if you’d like (please use a real email address, which won’t be made public).

I’m convinced that we can do better, and we already know how. We just need to listen.

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About Justin Baeder

Justin Baeder helps school administrators increase their productivity through the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network. Learn More »

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