Monday, April 1, 2019

Accountability Beyond the Bubble

Accountability has always been an educational buzzword, and the modern reformy era has put accountability on a high, if somewhat cockeyed pedestal. Testing? Not testing? Running test scores through models soaked in magic VAM sauce? Regular school visits, inspections and audits? Administrators and school boards that actually pay attention? A big fat stack of state and federal regulations and reports thereon? So many fun things are on the table these days.

But as with many reformy subjects, what's really being discussed is accountability for large, urban districts. Those districts face a unique set of challenges, all of which boil down to these districts just being too damn big.

That gets us models like "Filling out a bunch of paperwork that may or may not have any connection to reality" (spoiler alert-- it's "not") or "Creating and administering instruments that purport to measure something that is alleged to be a proxy for the thing we really want to measure" (spoiler alert-- it doesn't). This gets us highly politicized grandstanding as well as representative bodies that may or may not truly represent poor and powerless neighborhoods-- the very neighborhoods that need schools that have strong and responsive support.

There's a good accountability model you can find out here in rural spaces and small towns. It's the living in the community you serve model.

I taught in a small town for almost forty years; in fact, I taught at the same school from which I graduated. I live in the town, a smallish place with a steady drain on our population, but not many new folks moving into town. I cannot take a step without encountering a former classmate, student, student's parent, or student's offspring.

This has always meant a special level of accountability. If I assigned something that folks disagreed with, I could hear about it at church, in the grocery store, at a restaurant. My life in the classroom followed me immediately into the community. And I had steady long-term feedback; I knew that certain assignments were effective because students were talking to me about them ten years later. I knew that if I did it in my classroom, I should be prepared to explain it out in the world.

This is not always a comfortable model; a divorced male teacher can generate lots of stories in a small town, and when you're the president of a striking union, there is zero insulation between you and the taxpaying public. Not everyone can handle it; lots of teachers make it a point to live outside of the community where they won't have to run into students and faculty. I think that's a mistake. Many of our administrators over the past few decades have lived outside the district and it is bad for school-community relations.

A friend once told me that in management school he was told that company officials should live at least fifty miles away from the facility they supervise, so that they can make purely business decisions without thinking of their workers as, you know, real people. That strikes me as completely wrong for schools (well, businesses, too, but that's another conversation). A school should be tied to the community it serves; administrators and teachers should be familiar names and faces, just like local elected officials and community pillars. If your position is that you just want to do your job and go home, you are not someone I prefer to have teach my child. I want someone who's invested. There is no better guarantee of accountability than invested. After all-- that's the whole point of attaching high stakes to things like tests, so that teachers will feel invested in test scores. But an investment in numbers that's been forced on you is nothing like an investment in human beings and community that you make voluntarily because, well, you are a human being and you live in a community.

And if you're thinking this model is impossible for schools in big urban areas, look at this piece from a school administrator who, among other things, had her staff take regular walks through the neighborhood.

Yes, there are levels of accountability that this model might not manage. It won't fix everything and won't stop all the bad actors. But do not underestimate the power of having to stand face to face with the people whose lives your decisions effect, especially if these are people with whom you already share relationships and connections of community.

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