Teacher Quality and Accountability: A Failed Debate
“Value-added and other types of growth models are probably the most controversial issue in education today,” argues Matthew Di Carlo in his “What Value-Added Research Does And Does Not Show.” Di Carlo carefully examines, with ample evidence and a fair hand, the most recent cycle of education reform that has targeted teacher quality and accountability.
One essential point offered also by Di Carlo is that the leading voices in the reform movement during the Obama administration—Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and others—have often framed the teacher quality/accountability argument carelessly, stating directly or implying that teacher quality is the most important and sole causational element in student learning. For example, the Obama administration’s blueprint for reform states directly: “Of all the work that occurs at every level of our education system, the interaction between teacher and student is the primary determinant of student success.” However, as Di Carlo has explained:
“Now, anyone outside of the education research/policy arena who reads the sentence above might very well walk away thinking that teachers are the silver bullet, more important than everything else, perhaps everything else combined. I cannot prove it, but I suspect that many Americans actually believe that. It is false.”
Two important facts in Di Carlo’s work—(1) teacher and school quality (both of which matter) are dwarfed by out-of-school factors in terms of influences on student outcomes and (2) value-added approaches to judging teacher quality and holding teachers accountable are fraught with problems, particularly if policy ignores the weight of evidence—are essential for saving the teacher quality/accountability debate, a debate we are currently failing. Di Carlo’s excellent and informed work is not enough, however; we must next take a step or two back—steps that are essential for correcting yet more of the same in terms of education reform.
First, the teacher quality/accountability debate fails in a similar pattern found when advocates and detractors address Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools. In the KIPP debate, both advocates and critics wrestle over the measurable outcomes and characteristics of the students when comparing KIPP charters with public schools. But few rarely step back and begin with examining and critiquing the policies of the KIPP schools—practices that I feel are oppressive and classist, thus rendering moot for me any debate about the outcomes of KIPP students: The ends simply can never justify the means.
In the teacher quality/accountability debate we have failed to ask, and then answer, foundational questions that would as well render moot the subsequent argument about the efficacy of pursuing value-added approaches to teacher accountability. Those questions include:
• What are the primary forces impacting negatively student learning? We must establish the question before we implement solutions. Since teacher quality is dwarfed significantly by out-of-school factors, our first efforts at reform must address out-of-school factors, and then teacher quality. To misrepresent the weight of teacher quality on student outcomes while ignoring the dominant factors impeding student learning is negligent and likely evidence of ulterior motives by reformers who persist down that path.
• What are the ethical and practical elements of being a teacher for which that teacher can and should be held accountable? Once we properly prioritize our approaches to education reform by addressing poverty, social inequity, and the range of non-school factors that primarily stifle teacher and school effectiveness, we must address teacher quality since teachers are likely the most important—although not the only—element of any child’s formal learning. Yet, here we are again failing the debate by attempting to hold one person, the teacher, accountable for the actions of other people, students. Student outcomes are influenced by dozens and dozens of factors including forces that prevent students from learning or demonstrating their learning as well as any child’s ability simply not to try. If we genuinely value teacher quality and believe that teachers must be held accountable for their work in order to raise teacher quality, we must re-frame what teacher accountability entails.
It is at this second question that I believe we must pause and consider carefully where to turn next. In order to re-envision teacher accountability, we must first change our view of testing, of measuring narrowly learning. Instead of tests and ranking students and teachers, we need to have students perform holistically and frequently to demonstrate learning and to support teachers as agents of expert feedback to guide those student performances.
Then, we are in a position to hold teachers accountable, not for student outcomes but for those actions that teachers perform as teachers. The conditions within which teacher accountability can be an avenue toward increasing teacher quality directly and student learning indirectly should include the following:
• Teachers must be held accountable only after they are allowed their professional autonomy. Holding someone accountable for implementing mandates is not conducive to the professionalism we claim teachers should have. Without professional autonomy, no form of teacher accountability will raise the quality of teachers, but will continue to debase and de-professionalize the exact teachers we claim must be high quality.
• Autonomous teachers, then, must be held accountable for the act of teaching, not the outcomes of their students. The act of teaching that can be framed and observed, lending itself to accountability, includes three key elements: (1) invitations to learn, (2) opportunities to learn, and (3) expertise feedback provided to support student learning. These three elements of teaching are within the control of every teacher, and they all reflect each teacher’s level of expertise in both the content of the teaching and the pedagogy.
A system of accountability built on holding one person accountable for the behaviors of other people within mandates for which those being held accountable have little or no say is not a system that will promote professionalism, but is a system bent on imposing compliance and is ultimately coercive.
As long as the bureaucracy of public education remains top-down and built upon quantifying and ranking students and teachers, we will continue to create students and teachers who are dutiful workers, uninspired drones, and people who have had their humanity denied them—in a country and within a system that claim to honor democracy and human agency.
Until we step back, confront, and address the oppressive and corrosive dynamics inherent in what currently counts as teacher accountability, we will continue to fail in our quest for high-quality teachers—and as a result, we will continue to fail literally and metaphorically the children who enter our schools each day.