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Assessment as a Collective Professional Responsibility

This post is by Lorna Earl.

What if accountability was about high quality learning and well-being for all students? And, what if professionals in each school felt responsible for fostering that learning and well-being?

Accountability has become the watchword of education; everyone agrees it is good, with little agreement about how it works or what it looks like. Millions of dollars have been spent on policy measures connected to monitoring, large-scale assessment, indicator systems, and measures of school improvement, in the name of accountability.

I will argue that these measures may be necessary, but they are far from sufficient if the intention is promoting genuine accountability for students' learning and well-being. I advocate for a definition of accountability that is much more personal and driven less by policy directives. The kind of accountability that is embedded in personal relationships where someone has a responsibility to account for, explain, or justify their actions to those who are entitled to it; accountability that is based in moral purpose.

John Dewey first described the moral purpose of education as the desire to create a better and more equitable society. Michael Fullan, in a number of his writings about educational change and leadership, has reinforced the notion of moral purpose. He maintains that it is the role of schools to make a positive difference in their students' lives, and that change must be motivated by a desire to improve the life chances of young people. This moral purpose of schooling gives teachers and school leaders a very special accountability role - one that is deeply personal and rooted in professional responsibility to be as good as they can be and in strong, respectful relationships between educators, students, and families.

We know that quality of teaching is the single most powerful factor in student learning. And it is an area over which schools have control. Teachers and school leaders work with students and guide their learning; structure and control assessment, evaluation, and promotion in school; determine eligibility for programs and activities; and foster students' sense of personal accomplishment and feelings of self-worth. They have a collective professional responsibility to ensure that schools are delivering on their moral purpose of making a positive difference in students' lives.

How? First through constant, unrelenting attention to quality and equity in teaching. If teachers and school leaders are responsible to the students that they teach and their parents, then they must be adaptive experts, where professional learning is routine core business of teachers and school leaders, in service of the high quality and high equity schooling for students every day. It is a professional responsibility to ensure that their professional knowledge base is current, accurate, and comprehensive, and reflected in the teaching and learning that occurs in classrooms, in ways that foster deep learning for all students. Second, through respectful and open conversations with the direct recipients of the service of schools - parents and students. Conversations that result in mutual understanding and shared decision-making; not as an event once a term, but as an ongoing dialogue about teaching, learning and how to encourage, promote, and foster student success.

Accountability, considered this way, is hard work that focuses very directly on professional learning as an essential element for teachers and school leaders and emphasizes the relationships that matter. It implies that educators are passionate learners themselves to move the educational change agenda forward in ways that can benefit students and that they are direct advocates for genuine student learning. This kind of accountability demands high level professionalism from all teachers and school leaders as they take the time and commit the resources to engage in personal professional learning and to have regular communications with their students and their parents about things that matter for student learning and well-being.


Lorna Earl is a retired associate professor from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, the president of Lorna Earl and Associates, and a part-time professor at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand.

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