What should teacher accountability look like?
We know what the current system of accountability looks like, and it’s not pretty. Ever since the passage of No Child Left Behind 12 years ago, teachers have been judged, far too simplistically, based on standardized tests given to their students — tests, as Marc S. Tucker points out in a new report, Fixing Our National Accountability System, that are used to decide which teachers should get to keep their jobs and which should be fired. This system has infuriated and shamed teachers, and is a lot of the reason that teacher turnover is so high, causing even many of the best teachers to abandon the ranks.
All of which might be worth it if this form of accountability truly meant that public school students were getting a better education. But, Tucker writes, “There is no evidence that it is contributing anything to improved student performance.” Meanwhile, he adds, test-based accountability is “doing untold damage to the profession of teaching.”
Tucker is one of the grand old men of education policy. In the 1970s, he worked at the National Institute of Education, followed by a stint at the Carnegie Corp. In 1988, he founded the National Center on Education and the Economy — whose premise, he told me recently, is that, in order to meet the demands of a global economy, our educational system needs to be re-engineered for much higher performance.
Not long after founding the center, Tucker began taking a close look at countries and cities that were re-engineering successfully. What he came away with were two insights. First was a profound appreciation for the fact that most of the countries with the best educational results used the same set of techniques to get there. And, second, that the American reform methods were used nowhere else in the world.
“No other country believes that you can get to a high quality educational system simply by instituting an accountability system,” he says. “We are entirely on the wrong track.” His cri de coeur has been that Americans should look to what works, instead of clinging to what doesn’t.
The main thing that works is treating teaching as a profession, and teachers as professionals. That means that teachers are as well paid as other professionals, that they have a career ladder, that they go to elite schools where they learn their craft, and that they are among the top quartile of college graduates instead of the bottom quartile. When I suggested that American cities couldn’t afford to pay teachers the way we pay engineers or lawyers, Tucker scoffed. With rare exception, he said, the cost per pupil in the places with the best educational systems is less than the American system, even though their teachers are far better paid.
“They are not spending more money; they are spending money differently,” he said.
Tucker would not abolish tests, but he would have fewer of them. And they would have a different purpose: in the high-performing countries, the tests exist to hold the students accountable, rather than the teachers. Meanwhile, he writes, in “most of these countries, the primary form of accountability for the school and its staff is high-profile publication of the average scores for the exams for each school, often front-page news.”
When a school falls short, instead of looking to fire teachers, the high-performing countries “use the data to decide which schools will receive visits from teams of expert school inspectors. These inspectors are highly regarded educators.”
Tucker envisions the same kind of accountability for teachers as exists for, say, lawyers in a firm — where it is peers holding one another accountable rather than some outside force. People who don’t pull their own weight are asked to leave. The ethos is that people help one another to become better for the good of the firm. Those who successfully rise through the ranks are rewarded with higher pay and status.
Would the teachers’ unions go along with such a scheme? The unions would certainly have to shed some of the things they now have, such as control of work rules. But they would gain so much else: “Management would get their prerogatives back and would be held accountable for results, but the professionals, granted far more autonomy, would be also holding each other accountable for the quality of their work, as professionals everywhere do.”
As our conversation was coming to an end, Tucker told me that he was working with the state of Kentucky to implement some of the reforms he had outlined in his report. If it works there — and there is no reason it shouldn’t — perhaps we’ll finally get over our fixation with test-based accountability, and finally re-engineer our educational system the way every other successful country has.
Joe Nocera is a columnist for The New York Times.