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Conversations and Accountability

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I can not tell you how much I have enjoyed reading the many comments to my last post. I so appreciate your words of encouragement and I am especially grateful to hear form those of you in similar situations. It has taken me longer to write this week as I mull over a verbal response I had to my last post. I was asked, if I acknowledged there is a need for accountability than how do you not label schools?

I remember the day my principal shared the just released test results with our faculty. The results were not what we had hoped to hear. I watched the faces of the other teachers during the discussion that followed. Their expressions ranged from frustrated, disheartened, to almost angry. My principal said very little except nothing would change if the teachers were not willing to change. I have heard teachers from other schools in an alike situation tell about how the news of low test scores actually united the faculty. I have not seen this in my school except at grade levels. This is probably due to the fact that our K-8 school is housed in two buildings that are not connected. These buildings are in walking distance, but not situated in a way that allows the teachers to have contact on a daily basis. This makes ongoing conversions very difficult.

I wonder about these conversations. My former school had a green sofa in the in the hall and this is where the teachers in this building hung out after school. We had some really great conversations and most of them genuinely pertained to our teaching. One of my sons called me one day to see why I was staying at school so late and I told him, “It was green sofa time”. I am looking for a “green sofa” for my new school because we need to have these continuing conversations.

Here are some questions of concern. Can we as a profession talk about our weaknesses without finger pointing? If your school is not making the needed progress, do we hold each other accountable or just ourselves? Are teachers really ready to accept accountability? If so, what does this accountability look like without labeling schools? I so often wish the format and the standards for accountability had come from educators instead of policymakers.

Please continue to send in your comments. It would be great to share your thoughts on professional conversations and our current standards of accountability.

15 Comments

So the numbers are in...my school is failing... I the "lowly" classroom teacher have very few options...where do I go from here...most teachers choose to transfer...I want to stay and fight but it gets harder everyday.

I am a relatively new teacher (4 years) and a "second career person" with a business background. When I decided to become a teacher I went back to school, and completed student teaching, in an effort to arm myself with the necessary tools for success. BOY, I WAS NOT AS PREPARED AS I THOUGHT!

Yet even though I am new to teaching I recognize that my school is failing because of apathy, excuses, lack of consistent discipline and low expectations. The several teachers who are working hard trying to improve our school are met with resistance at every turn:

Fellow teachers don't want to take a stand or hurt the feelings of others who are not doing their jobs.

The administration states that the problems are not really that bad and the student's lack of effort and misbehavior is cultural. GET REAL...GET INTO THE CLASSROOM!

The BOE and superintendent are working to raise the standards for all students. However they are looking for "quick fixes"-jumping on every new educational bandwagon. In addition, they are trying to use one type of "medication" to cure all diseases in our school district. THIS WILL
NOT WORK! Individual schools are communities with very different needs.

Wake up people....there is a problem....more than half the students who entered ninth grade in my feeder high school did not graduate last year.
If the schools in my district were a business we would be filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

I am angry, appalled and willing to fight for change. But remember I am the lowly classroom teacher...so where do I go from here?

I disagree that teachers are willfully apathetic (maybe a few). I believe they are more "worn out" due to the lack of proper support. Over the last five years I have been able to observe a peer teacher as she progressed from her first to fifth year of teaching. As all teachers do with their hearts of gold, she came in with tons of energy and wonderful, innovative ideas. Over the years of working at our 'failing' school, I have painfully watched these attributes be drained from her. Does she care any less? No!!!! But as many must do, she has shifted into survival mode.

There is no one teacher, grade level,
administrator, family, superintendent, or board that is to blame. We all do what we do in order to survive. Take a teacher who exits the building the minute she is allowed to go. Is she uncaring? Not dedicated? Selfish? An obstacle to improvement? Or does she have a family to take care of? Take an administrator who never leaves her office. Is she shirking off her responsiblities? Unaware of issues? Ambivalent? Or overwhelmed with paperwork and/or discipline problems?

Yes, I believe that we can talk about our weaknesses without finger pointing. The truth is there can be many reasons for failure. We can point out each every failure and assign blame, OR we could choose to first look at what techniques and/or procedures are successful, understand why, and then build upon these. Everyone at every level has needs...not just the students. We must communicate and address these issues first. The climate of a school or district may then begin to change...slowly. Not to worry though, it will soon snowball. We'll get a lot further supporting one another in our struggles rather than pointing a finger of blame.

Lastly, I leave this thought of hope.

"Never doubt that small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it's the only thing that ever has."

Margaret Mead

Good Afternoon, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this article along with the comments. Although I teach at a "failing" high school, I have come to learn "failing" is a relative term. When the learners come to you (your school)at what level are their skills and abilities? The question becomes are your efforts or have your efforts diminshed the gap the learner has entered your school with?

Regarding the questions of concern. Normally, I have found that seldom, if ever, can educators discuss weaknesses without finger pointing. As a school or group of educators committed to change, the questions become how do we hold one another publically accountable? How do develop measures for public accountability within the group or school? Oftentimes we are unwilling to look another educator in the eye and state "You are not holding up your end of the agreement." More important than that, what resources are we (department, school, district) providng that will assist the the teacher who has resorted to the survival mode. What can be done to reenergize or reignite their creativity? How does one eradicate the school of the survival culture or mindset?

I believe the issue or the question which must be decided is what are we willing to commit to as a staff?

I would like to leave with the following quote:
"The risk for our children in school is not a risk associated with their intelligence. Our failures have nothing to do with IQ, nothing to do with poverty, nothing to do with race, nothing to do with language, nothting to do with style, nothing to do with with the need to discover new pedagogy, nothing to do with the children's families...We have only one problem: do we truly will to see each and every child in this nation develop to the peak of his or her capacities?" Asa G. Hilliard III (1991)

Change comes within each teacher who seeks higher achievment. It also comes from within each administrator that has a vision of a Professional Learning Community (PLC). Begin slowly with trust of self,proven techniques and your skilled collegues with whom you already feel abond of trust and vision. When that peron (or those people are identified) you are already twice as strong. After you have had a period of reflection, you can see what the relevant authors have to say about continious quality improvement within a school that needs an uplifting of spirit, planning and achievment.Perhaps see Robert Marzano, George Wood, or Lee Bolman and Terrance E. Deal works for help and stimulation.
Most administrators would concur that such a shift is a two-to-four year deliberate plan.

I have enjoyed reading your entries. I appreciate your honesty in dealing with some tough issues. I, too, went from 2 "A" schools to a then "D" school - we were a "C" last year. This is a great school - with already established teachers who love the students and love learning. I have to give credit to all the teachers, staff, and administrative personnel over the past ten years because they have truly built a school where there is mutual respect and high character expectations as well as high academic goals.
Even with that established - there is so much more to think about at a low-income school with second language-learners, and with an image as a poor, "not-the-best" school in the area.
First - the faculty and staff have to be united - that is a sometimes slow, long process that takes one or two enthusiastic people and the Principal to build up the staff (the book, If You Don't Feed the Teachers, They Eat the Students is a good resource) - with personal comments about his/her work - asking for advice in an area - recognizing efforts, etc.
Then, I believe you have to get the staff to care about one another - through team building - shared ideas - asking one to encourage another - establishing buddies between grade levels and non-instructional personnel - and there are lots more ideas. I believe that before you can build the school - the staff has to respect and even admire one another. The staff has to truly care about one another - then that caring filters to the kids. And you can't ever think you have "got it" and back off in a poor school because it is a constant battle and anyone that works there has to feel that there is purpose in his/her work - and that each one is truly making a difference. If you measure that by test scores - you will never succeed. If you measure it by each individual's success - then you can go on.
Then, make sure this is demonstrated throughout your school - on the hallways and in the media center - student work - teacher work - and change it often - let the kids and staff see what is happening so that all know what good things are going on in the whole school. It is hard to keep positive when you think that you are the only one working hard to help your students succeed.
Have the teachers switch classrooms for part of the day so that they see how others work. Seeing things from a different perspective is eye-opening. At the end of that day - have teachers share what he/she learned from being in the other classroom.
The whole point is to build each other up and in doing that you build the school up.
There is so much that can be said about this topic - "hard to staff" schools. In answer to the question, Can we talk about our weaknesses without finger pointing? Yes, we can, BUT only in an environment that is suportive, positive, and equally as giving. That takes relationship building first.
Keep on keeping on - there is always hope.

Remember that accountability means that you have to have control over the factors that you are going to be held accountable for.

Think about this - can you hold the grocery stockperson accountable for a frost in Florida or a drought or flood in California that results in poor produce?

I agree with Rod's comments on holding the right people accountable. How can teachers be totally responsible when students come from such varied backgrounds? Each student individually should be held accountable for reaching their own potential. Rather than holding teachers/schools as a group accountable, each student's ability and potential must be measured, then regularly tested to see if each student is reaching his/her own potential. If not, that is the time to study the cause of the failure (teacher, parent, etc.)individually, not as a group. If the student is meeting their potential, then that is the time to offer more challenging material. We did not all come into this world with the same IQ, personality, or genes. Saying that teachers are "all" at fault is like saying a complete lawfirm is "all" at fault because one lawyer loses a case. Teachers need to work together, share ideas, success stories, and ways to work with challenging students, but we also need to include the parents. Whatever happened to parents taking responsibility for their children?


“Their expressions ranged from frustrated, disheartened, to almost angry. My principal said very little except nothing would change if the teachers were not willing to change.”

Betsy, I was talking with a colleague today. He complained bitterly that his ninth graders were unprepared for school, unaware of how to act in a classroom, and unmotivated to learn or change, also that he could not get any useful response from their parents. Then, at last, the subject turned to a lesson he was planning to teach that would be observed by the principal. It was a lesson aimed at preparing the students for a state test they are going to have to take two years from now. He was going to give them the task, and a formula for writing an essay. So I asked him which skill he was going to focus on and teach--his expression could not have been more blank. We talked on and by the end he had decided to take a different approach that would give the students some specific strategies for gathering information to be used in their essays. It took a long time and a lot of questioning, prodding, nodding, suggesting and in the end it will change only that one lesson. Or, at least it will change one lesson.
Change is like that. He wants his students to move out of that comfort zone of misbehavior that hides their fears and masks their ignorance. I want him to move out of his comfort zone of blaming them and believing that it’s not worth it to work hard on his lessons because the kids will just sabotage them anyway. Both he and the students are aware that there is a problem, but neither is motivated to work on the part of the problem they have at least some control over, i.e. their own actions.
The quote I took from your blog entry strikes me as unfortunate--a missed teachable moment. Had your principal looked at the teachers’ frustrated, disheartened, almost angry faces and said, “The fact is nothing will change unless we are willing to change. So here’s what I’m going to do to change my approach…” what might have happened to those faces? Or imagine how they would be feeling if she had said, “The fact is nothing will change unless we are willing to change. So what changes do I have to make that will help you?”
You know it’s not going to be easy there. The causes of the problem are complex, because people are complex. You and your principal have to begin on the part of the problem you have the most control over—your actions, and then, as another respondent noted, you can begin to work on the teachers ready to change, bring them in. Then little by little, just as in a classroom, you bring the others in line, using every method you know.
Keep in mind that what pointing fingers and labeling actually accomplish is to ensure that change cannot happen. While identifying, prioritizing and attacking problems, changing yourself, showing that you are serious about valuing each individual’s contributions, and making it clear that you will be there for the long run, never fail to make things better.
Finally, (sorry, I know this is unconscionably long)I need to say something about "accountability." Teachers have always been accountable to every student, every parent, every colleague, every administrator and most especially, to themselves--that's enough. The word carries a kind of sneer with it, a smug disrespect yet at the same time, it is empty of meaning. We ought to refuse to use it in any conversation about education.

Joe

Last week I visited a school in rural Alabama where the children might be described as "bad produce" using Rod's grocery store analogy. About 98 percent of the children in this elementary school are minority, and more than 95% qualify for the federal lunch program. A few weeks ago, the State of Alabama announced that this school ranked 14th among the state's 600+ elementaries in reading achievement in grades K-3. Their performance in math is equally impressive. The school has been monitored by experts -- the results are real. These are children -- and teachers -- who refuse to be labelled "bad produce." It IS possible to turn around schools. Just a few years ago, this school was, like Betsy's school, labeled by the state as a failure. Under strong new leadership, they began to have a few successes, began to see what was possible, and built and built on those successes until they've become high performers. Through the use of classroom assessment, explicit instruction, and an attitude that children, not adults, come first, they are demonstrating that the "bad produce" excuse is bogus and a disservice to poor children who have as much right to learn at high levels as anyone else in our society.

In our state we call it "school improvement" and our school is in it's 2nd year. Partly because of the way they interpret our yearly testing program, and partly because we are the middle school. Why does that count as part of the reason? Our school has all the normal problems of a middle school - the 'age' of the students and the facility, the apathy of some of the teachers, and the perceived nonimportance of this stage of education. We are not teaching the babies the basics of reading and writing, not the age where parents stay involved and monitor their child's progress or lack thereof. Nor are we the age where every course counts toward graduation. We are the transitional stage, where if the student can't read at grade level, can't do basic math, or follow simple instructions, they can't function. Where half our teachers are certified as 'elementary' or 'middle school', with only 2 or 3 college courses in the subject they are teaching. We also share certain staff members with the high school and have to build our schedule around the needs of the high school, not the needs of our students. Neither fish nor fowl, we seem to be where things fall through the cracks, or at least that is what the finger pointers proclaim.

What does our school having going for it? A strong sense of identity. We have a good administration at the building level, that cares about the staff and works with us to solve problems. The majority of the teachers care about the students and the curriculum. We don't believe in social promotion and hold our students accountable for their actions and their academics. We also hold ourselves accountable for the way we teach and what we teach. I can truly say that we have made improvement every year I have been here, just not as quickly as NCLB demands. But we too, feel like we are 'failures' because we are unable to meet the expectations of the state and federal government. And unfortunately, if you feel like a failure and are treated as a failure, after a while you will begin to act like a failure. I wonder how long my school is going to be able to stay strong, when we receive so little positive reinforcement for the many things that we do so well.

Betsy,

Bravo for you. I am a newly appointed assistant principal at an elementary school. In my previous job I was an ELL Coordinator in charge of 60 schools, K-12 and thought I was going to change the world for them. As we all know (and I found out) education doesn't work that way. I work for the largest school district in Nevada. My previous supervisor was weak and her assistant was incompetent, so the superintendent brought in a third director who had never taught or worked with ELL students. It became very political and the kids were (and are) the losers. Even though my background is mostly secondary, I chose to go into elementary administration, to see if I could at least make a difference at one school. Even though I am an administrator and you are a teacher (a much more important positio than an administrator :-) our experiences parallel. On a daily basis, I can make a difference with one or two children, work with parents, encourage teachers and serve children. Thanks for being such an inspiration.

Finger pointing? Not a day goes by that I don’t read or hear in the media about the low quality of teachers in “failing” schools. Even our local newspaper, whose editor should know better, perpetuates this myth as indisputable truth. This leads to a climate where the teachers are blamed for everything that goes wrong with a school. Even some colleagues at good (read middleclass) schools believe this myth, and look down on us. They do not realize what a difficult and often heartbreaking job it is. At my school every teacher is highly qualified above and beyond the NCLB label, and has a passion for teaching and for their students.

I was a 70-hour-week businesswoman for 23 years before I became a teacher. I am in my tenth year of teaching, and believe I have a fairly objective perspective of the accountability issue. I have worked in both “good” and “failing” schools, and made a conscious decision to work at a P.I. school. I find it sad to watch my “failing” school colleagues work harder and with more focus than those in “good” schools, and yet get beaten down by everyone from politicians and news reporters to real estate agents and businessmen when AYP scores come out. It is frustrating for teachers who have applied all their knowledge (gained from years of experience, summer seminars, weekly professional growth sessions, and monthly grade level collaboration meetings) to realize that their very best was not good enough. How exasperating to hear people like Betsy's principal say that nothing will change if teachers are not willing to change.

The teachers at my school are resigned to the fact that we will never get the respect we deserve. We are here for the children, and their individual progress is our reason for staying. Betsy, I am curious to know whether you will leave the “neediest school” after your year is up. Thanks for the great blog.

I just have to throw this out there. Since teachers are being held so accountable for what's happening in our schools, wouldn't it be a dream if an administrator (hint, hint) held a meeting to ask us what we needed to get the job done? And you know how creative teachers are! The issues would not center solely on the need for additional money.

Beware though, this meeting could very easily turn into a finger pointing session if not properly managed (which might be the reason so many stay away from this can of worms). The trick would be to empower all staff members (not just teachers)to begin to tackle issues that are within the school's control.

You know, Betsy, I find it a great blessing and encouragement when I read your journal and the comments of our peers. As you mentioned, if the principals would just solicit teacher input for school improvement ideas, ineffective paradigms would change overnight. I taught Spanish in Chicago's inner city for 10 years. After working long hours with students struggling with English, visiting homes, etc, I came up with an idea for a remedial reading program which I believed had the potential to give our plummeting scores an upturn. Several teachers participated in the research. One from our little group presented the idea to the principal. He apathetically sent us to the "reading
specialist." The specialist sent us back to our classrooms with no response at all. Nothing ever came of it and the school had no remedial reading program at that time. I resigned from the district to enroll in grad studies to learn how to create programs and implement them. The school district gave me no support at all. Now I am about to graduate with a M.A. Ed. in curriculum & instruction and I have authored a remedial reading program tailored-made to address the learning needs of poverty area children. I am starting a new educational consulting business. I am totally poverty stricken myself, but I feel better as a teacher than I ever have because now I have created something that may some day benefit many elementary students that have not yet been reached. If anyone out there is interested in my research on reading deficiencies and my curriculum, please feel free to contact me. Again, I appreciate hearing from you Betsy. We have to be reminded sometimes that we're not alone out here.

Wow, to have a green sofa or the time to sit on it these days would be great and professionals taking the time to communicate. With testing upon us it seems the only talking is testing techniques and how to get 6 students to Mastery. The articles are great about your school.

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