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Obama Calls for a New Era of Mutual Responsibility


In his speech on election night, President-elect Obama said

I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way its been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years - block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.

Our schools will be remade this same way, classroom by classroom. We are fifty-four years beyond the ruling by the Supreme Court, Brown vs. Board of Education, which struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine that had sanctioned school segregation across the land. The National Guard was sent to Little Rock, Arkansas, fifty years ago, to protect nine African American students brave enough to integrate a previously all-white high school.

Ten years later, when I was ten years old, I was a participant in the Berkeley public school’s voluntary school integration program, which mixed students from different neighborhoods across the city. A decade further, as a college student, I worked with my peers to push for greater opportunities for students of color. The better part of decade later I started my career teaching in the Oakland public schools.

But we still have a long way to go. We have a vague aspiration, as a nation, to provide equal educational opportunities to all of our children. I do not think I need to document the many ways our schools still fall short. From the achievement gap, to the dropout rate, to the outrageous number of young people we incarcerate, to the appalling turnover rate among our teaching staff, there are plenty of indicators that tell us we are far from where we ought to be.

The approach taken by the Bush administration with No Child Left Behind has had a paradoxical effect. In a strange way, unfairly focusing so much responsibility and blame on teachers actually has left us feeling LESS accountable. After all, if goals are set impossibly high, we simply shrug our shoulders and accept that there is no way to succeed. Instead of motivating us to reach higher, we wind up becoming cynical and demoralized, less able to accept responsibility for our results.

President-elect Obama has described a fresh approach. Speaking to the National Education Association last July, he said:

I am tired of hearing teachers blamed for our problems. I want to lead a new era of mutual responsibility in education. One where we all come together, parents and educators and the NEA and the leaders in Washington, citizens all across America united for the sake of our children’s success.

Obama has also spoken forcefully about the need for parents to make sure their children are doing their homework. And he has made it clear that expanding early education is a high priority that will not be sacrificed even when the budgets get hammered.

This is a completely different accountability structure. For the first time in a long time, it feels as if teachers are not in this struggle alone.

What will this new era of mutual responsibility look like? We know we have a big set of responsibilities as teachers. We are aware that an effective teacher can have a huge impact on the success of her students. We know that when teachers collaborate, support one another and share their expertise, we can create powerful learning communities at our schools. We know that student achievement grows when we assess learning and provide focused, timely feedback. We know our students do much better when their families are actively involved in the process. A greater engagement between school and community means we put a priority on demonstrating student learning, through public displays of academic excellence.

Our schools need to be reorganized to create space in a teacher’s day to expand these professional activities. We cannot simply add these responsibilities to a ten-hour workday. If we value collaboration, there must be time and compensation provided for it. We should also be willing to consider redesigned pay systems to provide incentives for teachers to expand leadership roles, to gain new skills, and to teach in underserved areas.

Mutual responsibility also means our communities expand their engagement in the educational process. More volunteers can step forward to help our students learn to read and write, and explore the arts in ways that reflect the values and aspirations of our communities. Businesses can actively engage with our high schools, to provide role models and internships to show our students the real-world value of their educational opportunities.

President-elect Obama’s election-night speech last week was sober. He warned,

This victory alone is not the change we seek - it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you.
So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other.

That sounds like a good deal to me.

So what do YOU think of President-elect Obama's approach? What might "mutual accountability" look like to you in your community?


Sorry I haven't checked in for so long, but had to thank you for this one. I too am encouraged by Obama's call for mutual accountability and more of a community-wide approach to education. It points us in the right direction, and harkens both back to an era when school was more embedded in the community and forward to an era when there will be even less separation (physically or pedagogically) between the two.

Right on, Anthony! I feel that even more-so than additional compensation (which would be lovely), teachers need time. There is so much I would like to do, but I often feel like I am treading water trying to do everything that is required of me in a day of work. There's no time left at the end of the day for innovation or collaboration--not if I want to get some exercise, eat some dinner, and spend an hour or two with my husband before bed. And I don't even have kids of my own. No idea how I'll make it then.

We need a way to hold parents acountable for their children. I'm not sure what it would look like, but if the school can prove they've done all they can academically, and can prove all the times they tried to get the parents to help, then that child's score shouldn't be counted for AYP. Something like that. We have kids who don't do classwork or homework, are absent 20 days a year, their parents refuse the free after-school tutoring, but then my name goes on that state test that he scores below-basic on. That's just not right.

You raise an interesting point. I think that if we took away the punitive aspects of AYP, and made the goals more achievable and more complex, then we might have a better chance of succeeding, and the process might feel less demoralizing. For example, perhaps the goals for a site might include getting parents engaged in their children's education. The school could hold parent involvement nights, and get credit for their results. Yes, we need to continue to track student achievement results, but if we value parent involvement, why not set goals around that as well?

The basic meaning of accountability is that we are responsible for our work and our results. But our students themselves are responsible as well, as are their parents and the community at large, to support our efforts. And when we move into this era of mutual responsibility, the emphasis should shift away from punishments when we miss AYP, and towards creative strategies to bring our partners into the process.

Anthony said: "when we move into this era of mutual responsibility, the emphasis should shift away from punishments when we miss AYP, and towards creative strategies to bring our partners into the process."

Wasn't that pretty much the status under ESEA prior to NCLB? Mutual responsibility has been built into Title I since the beginning--it just doesn't get implemented. NCLB kicked it up a notch by providing parents some escape clauses and options for intervention. These aren't good solutions. But the barriers to innovation exist more in contracts and structures that protect both adults and folks with greater resources than in the lack of prescribed partnership.

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