Accountability: What’s Your View?

CloudsThe plane jerked prior to its ascension, I knew at that time, I would see Raleigh, NC differently than I typically do. As a native of Raleigh, I consider myself better than proficient in navigating the city. Whatever the mission, I can find the closest or most efficient route through or around the city and…MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! However, from the window of an ascending plane, I no longer recognize the city. I see highways, buildings, cars and trees but I can no longer decipher which hotel is which, which highway is which, which neighborhood is which or any other landmark I frequently use in my travels. I know when I initially look out the airplane window, I am in Raleigh; when the plane takes off, a few minutes later, and I am not sure where I am exactly.

The further the plane ascends into the heavens; the less I know about where I am. In this age of accountability, many educators probably feel just as lost as I do when trying to decipher what I think I know from the window of an airplane. In other professions, accountability is about systems, processes, checks, balances and making sure things are done in the appropriate manner for the intended outcome. In our profession, we have come to know accountability as testing and test scores, the intended outcome being that students achieve at optimal levels. The educational conversation regarding accountability is completely different from the accountability that drives operations and success for other organizations. The intended outcome should not be the test score; the score is the tool to help arrive at the outcome. The intended outcome is that students are equipped to achieve in the classroom and in their lives.

One of my accountability mentors shares frequently, “Behind every number is a child.” In the classroom, we are in our neighborhoods, traveling and navigating the streets we know. As a classroom teacher, I did not worry about scores. I knew if I walked into my classroom, and did what was best for my students, the score would come. I analyzed data; every assessment I created and every formative the district mandated. All of this told me what I needed to do for my students:

  • Did I miss teaching some foundational skills to “Susie?” or
  • Do I need to modify assignments for “Johnny?” or
  • What’s going on with “Danny,” because this is not his usual performance?

The data I used was not personal regarding the quality of my teaching; it was personal regarding the needs of my students. It was how I used the numbers that impacted student achievement.

When traveling by plane, the buckle of the wheels lifting and jolt of the plane as the fuel reaches the engine lets you know you are on your way to your destination; however the view from a few thousand feet is different from on the ground. You aren’t navigating your own neighborhood, but you still know you are in the city. In the city there is still hope that you can recognize something and operate in a sense of familiarity with regard to arriving at your destination. In the principalship, you know students. You may not know all of them by their number, but you know them by their cohort, their targets for success and you carry that at the forefront of everything you do. You push students and teachers towards this target; providing teachers the support(s) needed and students access to opportunities. As a principal and a district level curriculum specialist, I analyzed data. It was personal, in the sense of what does this group of students need and what do I need to do or provide to equip principals and teachers to provide it. Data drove instructional techniques, professional development, scheduling, teacher placement and additional opportunities for students and teachers.

When you are traveling by plane, and searching for familiarity, once you reach the clouds there is nothing you can do but sit back in your seat, trust the flight plans, and trust the pilot(s) to get you to your destination. While you know there is a plan that keeps you steadily in the air, you do not know what all is happening up under the mask of clouds or even in the cockpit. You may think and map out what you will do when you plant both feet on the ground; but until that time, it’s all about what was put into getting you in the air and staying there until you land at your destination. At the district level, accountability is similar to the bird’s eye view. Every number has a name, but they pass on fleeting sheets of paper, that transform into composite scores and specially formulated results indicative of schools’ performance. While you no longer touch every child directly, you analyze the data to develop the strategic initiatives aligning the data to the instruction and to the compilation of educational experiences that will support schools and lead to student acquisition of learning. As a district level administrator, I ensure that all accountability tools are in place, creating understanding around what these tools mean, and develop the map (for a neighborhood and city I no longer navigate) in which we follow to lead our students to their destiny.

Reality is…no matter what the view, when I step on the plane, I do so with the belief that I will get where I am going and doing so is not solely dependent on me alone. Growth in this field of education provides the understanding that accountability is not a finger pointing game; it is a manner of collaboration toward the expected outcomes. In our educator silos, we can easily operate from the lens of doing what we must do to do help students be successful; however the reality is whether teacher, principal or district administrator, we all play a significant role and have a significant view in ensuring student success.

VISION. Identifying what is expected of the students we serve. This is not only regarding their test scores, but also regarding their lives. Who are we teaching them to be? Every school has the responsibility to produce responsible, contributing and functional citizens. This is not a call for educators to be parents; this is a call for educators to be educators! Teaching the curriculum is about teaching life. Teaching life prepares students for the assessment and much further beyond. Who are we preparing our students to be?

VALUE. “Behind every number there is a child.” Giving that number value and meaning focused on the student or needs of a group of students is key in helping children succeed. Those digits provide great access to the stories of our students. • Why they learn or not? • How they learn best? • Is there something systematic that keeps students within a subgroup from accessing the curriculum?

VOLITION. I often share with educators that we are called to be diagnostic and prescriptive. Once we identify the issues using the data, what are we going to prescribe to assist students with learning the content? The choices that are made knowing the stories behind numbers should be aligned to the learners needs and to the vision.

These things cannot be done single-handedly from the streets in the neighborhood, navigating the city, from a 5,000-foot view or even from the clouds. It is a collaboration, determination and trust that we, as educators, place in each other that allows us to push students toward achievement for their future health and well being. That’s accountability!

Author Henry J. Lewis defines accountability as “Clear commitments that- in the eyes of others- have been kept.” In education, accountability is the systemic process of collaboration in which we meet learner needs and ensure their access to the curriculum. The tools and the appropriate use of the tools, clear and understood expectations and directions or plans on how to achieve outcomes are what we are accountable for.

It is not the score; it is what we do with the score that will make the difference. In this conversation about accountability in education, what “views” will you add? Please share your thoughts.

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