Accountability: Threat or Target?

Heavy-handed measures to improve student performance breed dissention, mistrust and embarrassment by Rosemarye T. Taylor and Robert D. Williams

The Chamber of Commerce in our large metropolitan community sponsored a 2½-day retreat on how to improve the public schools. About 50 CEOs from area businesses and one educator attended the event where most of the presentations focused on the sad state of leadership and management of the local school districts.

The business community was urged to take a stand to improve school district management and raise student achievement. One speaker, a former superintendent with a national reputation, described his accountability system that involved removing any principal whose test scores did not improve at a rate he deemed satisfactory. He was proud that nearly half of his district's principals had retired, resigned or been fired at the end of his first year as superintendent.

The single educator in the audience, a deputy superintendent in a large, urban school district, was shocked when the business leaders gave a standing ovation with roaring applause to these strong-armed tactics. He wondered, "Is the bottom line to accountability removing principals (when we have a dire shortage), or is it to focus our efforts on systemic change improving the skills of teachers, administrators and students?"

During the break that followed, the educator was asked what he thought about an accountability system that resulted in the firing of building principals. As a former elementary and high school principal, he didn't hesitate with a response. "I'm a middle-aged man with two children in college and another on the way. I'd say my test scores would go up rapidly. Although I may not be proud of the strategies I'd have to use, they would go up!"

As teachers and administrators see colleagues lose their jobs because of lagging test scores in their schools, they most likely echo this educator's admission: Student test scores would go up at any cost.

Tough Tactics

Unfortunately, many states and districts are using accountability as a threat rather than as a process for setting targets for student achievement.

According to Quality Counts 2001, 27 states, including California, Texas, New York and North Carolina, grade or rank schools as a way to try to force improvements to student achievement. While test scores have increased in Texas, academicians and school-based educators question whether learning truly has improved or whether strategies for raising scores have just gotten better. In these states, doubters are quietly wondering whether educators are assigning more students to special education classes to avoid reporting low scores.

School districts in Georgia, another state working hard to raise student achievement, are pressuring teachers and principals to implement an in-depth teacher assessment system that includes a performance portfolio. A frustrated elementary principal recently confessed, "My teachers have worried and worked so hard on these portfolios and they really don't matter. I think about how much of their time and my time this has taken away from doing something that could really make a difference."

Educators are putting into action ideas that are time-consuming and divert energies from what is most important- student learning. They are also subjected to public embarrassment, all in the name of accountability.

In the past, Florida students' test results were released first to the school districts, then to the news media. Today, they are released simultaneously, but the media usually receives the data before the districts, forcing school leaders to respond to critical questions from reporters before they have had a chance to review the results. No educators who have worked hard to improve student achievement want to learn about their school's ranking from a newspaper reporter.

Principals who take their jobs seriously grow weary of the pressure and negative messages that bombard them. One excellent principal who was leading a low-performing school in an urban area accepted a position in a neighboring suburban district when given the opportunity to escape the untenable pressures of accountability and student achievement test scores.

A Team Approach

Although principals may believe that the instructional programs and strategies they are implementing are improving the school culture and student learning, they may be toiling under the perception that they should be looking for a quick fix.

The best principals work on long-term cultural goals while at the same time developing test improvement strategies that can work in the short term.

Why not consider a process of accountability that improves learning by setting student achievement targets and creating a system in which all stakeholders- including those in the community- are part of a team? Commitment to the accountability system is as vital for community members as it is for school board members, superintendents, teachers and principals.

The accountability system should affect the conditions of learning rather than simply mandating higher test scores. Many factors shape learning, including funding, personnel recruitment and retention, facilities, transportation, procurement of learning materials and technology. By holding accountable the people who are responsible for these aspects of learning, school districts free principals to focus on student achievement and teacher growth.

Elected officials, including school board members, can help schools by reducing pressure to participate in projects unrelated directly to the curriculum. Businesses see schools as ready vehicles for launching advertising and public relations campaigns through student competitions such as essay contests and fundraisers. At first glance, these competitions offer interesting incentives for students to apply their writing or interpersonal skills, yet these activities often detract from learning by absorbing teacher and student time.

Superintendents and central-office administrators can support learning by establishing performance goals that target improved student achievement and then by supporting administrators as they develop creative ways to implement research-based strategies toward meeting that goal.

For instance, they might choose to reduce class size in the early grades and ensure students receive their instruction from a certified teacher rather than a paraprofessional. Or they might hire a reading specialist to provide staff development and in-class support for teachers. Some middle-level and high school elective programs might be dropped in favor of employing reading and mathematics specialists to work with the most needy students.

Climate Controls

The tenor of the discussions about improving student achievement should not resonate with desperation or fear but with collegiality. The principal alone is not accountable. The principal's supervisor and district staff members also are responsible for reaching the target goals of improving student achievement.

A climate of teamwork and collaboration plays an important role in school and district effectiveness. After one superintendent moved to another district, the school board, remaining district administrators and new superintendent admitted that her heavy-handed approach to accountability had left the principals stressed and the district's teachers with low morale. Under her heavy-handed approach, principals were reluctant to admit mistakes or ask for assistance out of distrust created in a high-stakes accountability environment.

When the superintendent left, morale improved and the principals felt more comfortable voicing their concerns and needs related to the accountability goals. The district's teachers and administrators, supported by the superintendent, now are serving students in ways that they believe are ethical and professional.

In Flagler County, Fla., principals are asked to align with the district's core values to develop achievement goals and instructional strategies for which they are held accountable. District staff members are committed to customizing staff development to meet the unique needs at each school.

District employees, content specialists and other administrators can be held accountable for helping ensure the success of the principals. Once the school sets its student achievement goals, district personnel help the school meet the target in whatever way the school determines is best for its students. This could mean providing additional staff development or resource materials or eliminating outdated courses or personnel.

District-driven projects and traditional roles may be eliminated or changed when tested against the measure of "how does this practice or service improve the learning conditions in our schools today?" For example, as schools and districts transition from traditional shop courses to technology-driven programs, many will discover they have teachers with narrow certifications and classes whose limited enrollment no longer warrants a full-time teacher.

Audits will support schools and districts' desire to eliminate obsolete programs that have continued because, as the invested staff are inclined to say, they "have always been a part of our program."

Just as board members, community members and central-office staff must work together to support learning, so must the principal and the school staff. Principals who are accountable develop strategies for working as a team rather than using fear tactics or raising stress levels by announcing that test scores will improve or else.

Principals should feel free to examine such strategies as alternative use of time. Alternative schedules can enhance the amount of time teachers give to the highest priorities in a school, like reading, writing and mathematics. In addition to supporting active learning, block scheduling also decreases passing time, providing for more time for instruction.

Some schools integrate language arts with social studies and mathematics with science to provide more focused time and higher-level applications for both language arts and mathematics. Middle schools and high schools challenged with low student achievement work to balance the need for electives with the need for more time for reading and mathematics, often reducing elective course offerings or elective course time to increase time for the measured priorities.

Principals may want to ask: What are the educationally efficient uses of time in a school? What are the time wasters? Is the most time spent on the most important things for students to learn? Do students who achieve lower in math and reading have more time for learning math and reading?

Honest responses to these questions may lead principals and their staffs to redesign their use of time in order to help reach the student achievement targets for which they are held accountable.

Effective principals are instructional leaders who use their knowledge and skills in daily interactions with teachers and who provide their teachers with professional development to improve classroom instruction. Teachers are encouraged to use whatever strategies they deem effective to reach the designated target of student achievement.

Clear Targets

School board members come and go, principals and superintendents move on. Changes in high-profile leadership posts can lead to ambiguity unless the district has an articulated vision for improving student achievement and the structure to support it.

Every district and school should have systems of alignment that ensure that curriculum, teaching materials, assessment and staff development are linked. Teachers need to know that what they are teaching is what will be tested and that they will be provided the resources to teach what the students need to know and be able to do.

Alignment should be vertical, from pre-kindergarten through high school. For example, when teachers review pre-K-12 curriculum strands, they should see clearly the part they play in the entire education process, not just in teaching isolated content for their particular grade level.

When this curriculum alignment is communicated to parents and students, they, too, will better understand the education process, the grade-level expectations and the importance of working with the schools toward improved student achievement.

Horizontal alignment across schools also is important for creating a sense of teamwork. What curricular and instructional characteristics are consistent from middle school to middle school across a district? Which ones are different and why? Does a philosophy of what makes a good reading or math program permeate all the district's elementary schools or does each school set its own?

Horizontal alignment assures the community that all students will receive the same high quality of education in every school throughout a district. It helps dispel the rhetoric of have and have-not schools and supports the perception that the school district is working as a team. Horizontal alignment allows teachers and administrators across the district to share effective ideas, materials and resources.

Unfortunately, some accountability practices create unhealthy, competitive climates among schools, thereby discouraging sharing among teachers and administrators. In the past, when a district had arranged for a renowned speaker or consultant to work with teachers or administrators, that district, in the spirit of professional collegiality, would invite educators from neighboring districts to participate. Extreme competition among districts has all but eliminated that practice.

For many years we invited private school teachers and neighboring districts' teachers to a summer institute for our district's middle and high school teachers. Today, that doesn't happen. Even the competition between school communities within a large district is such that sharing expertise is frowned upon.

Creating Winners

No principal wants to see his or her school ranked at the bottom. No parent wants his or her child to attend a school that has been graded F or even D by the state education agency.

But using accountability as a threat rather than a process destroys trust in schools and districts. Fear of failure prevents the healthy organizational development that comes from collegial sharing, thinking, planning, growing and collaborating Anyone who has seen colleagues trying to improve student achievement under the threat of demotion knows how counterproductive such measures can be.

Professional educators know that the lives of the young people in our schools are affected in many ways, only a few of which can be measured by achievement test scores. If fear of failure is inherent in the accountability system, we may reduce learning to skill drill practice and take public education back 30 years.

As educators, we will be proud when accountability is used not to create losers but to determine reasonable targets for improving student achievement and is accompanied by well-considered and financially supported plans.

Creating winners is a worthy goal. Put the club down, drive a stake in the ground and develop a plan to support learning. Develop a team of all stakeholders with a clear focus on what is important. Be prepared to eliminate unproductive, unaligned practices and reassign resources. Realign the curriculum, instruction, staff development and materials so that all principals, teachers and students are assured of reaching the target and being a winner.

Rosemarye Taylor is an assistant professor of educational leadership at University of Central Florida, P.O. Box 161250, Orlando, Fla. 32816. E-mail: rtaylor@mail.ucf.edu. Robert Williams is superintendent of the Flagler County School District in Bunnell, Fla.