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 When school accountability measures lean towards the punitive, resentment and anger ensues, but not much improvement. (Canva photo)

Allow educators to answer for their off-target efforts, so we all learn from mistakes.

My niece, a highly regarded, out-of-state teacher, visited recently, and we had a rich afternoon conversation that flowed into a long dinner. But whenever I used the word “accountability,” she dismissed it with disgust as “punishment” and “oh, boy, more punishment.” I love this young woman, but things did get a little tense.

Conflating accountability and punishment threatens to tank good efforts by imposing the terrible mistakes of the past. Punishment tries to control behavior with sanctions, which is to say, some method of hurt. It’s quick and convenient, mainly serving to give the punisher the satisfaction of having “done” something. It doesn’t much improve behavior over time, but does spark resentment, anger, etc. Punitive “reform” initiatives operate on the premise that we can goad teachers into success. They can do better if they only tried harder.

I’m particularly concerned about the otherwise excellent Right to Read Act, whose “accountability” measures lean towards the punitive. For example, it threatens non-compliant teacher preparation programs with “penalties up to and including having the provider’s approval status revoked.”  Not a great way to build buy-in.

I lay educators’ loathing of data and accountability squarely at the feet of the 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.

On the one hand, NCLB did a great favor to education by forcing, and funding, states to build robust data systems. Researchers, the public and school communities could finally get fine-grained information about their schools, including the ugly data confirming everyone’s suspicions about under-served populations.

Horribly, however, NCLB mandated using that same useful data to bludgeon educators for getting poor achievement results. The law demanded that each district and school achieve “Annual Yearly Progress (AYP)” towards 100% proficiency in 12 years. That was statistically irresponsible and indeed, impossible. Title 1 schools, a.k.a. “poor-kids” schools, took it in the neck. Their deficits meant they had to make the largest annual leaps and upon failing, suffer scary consequences like having their funding withdrawn, being “reconstituted” or simply closed.

Under NCLB’s punitive measures, the nation erupted with testing scandals, which only made things worse. Angry educators fought back by wasting gobs of time on useless “test prep.” Parents who could run for cover left the traditional public schools which became more severely segregated than they had been in the 1950s.  (COVID was the nail in that coffin.) National test scores stayed flat or declined, so all that effort, investment and suffering failed at its primary purpose. NCLB taught us nothing about specific educational problems because no one had to give account.

Accountability, on the other hand, is listening. It asks “why?” “What’s happening?” It’s an opportunity. Being called on the carpet makes us all squirm, even if we’re in the right. But it also gives us time and space to give context to our questionable actions, our off-target work product, our weak test results or other funky education-related data. The punish-first model brutally shuts up the school-based people closest to the problems. Instead, give them voice. Do it in a format that can be public. What do they think is interfering with progress? How can we help them move forward if we don’t know?

If held truly accountable, schools might also resolve some ignored issues before needing to step on the carpet. For example, historically, some schools have accepted high absenteeism because it lowers class size and sloughs the disengaged, disruptive kids who attend sparsely. Get to the bottom of that data. Mere excuses are pathetic, so consequences should follow. But ask first.


Rhode Island’s Right to Read law says if schools haven’t trained all of their teachers in science-based reading by the 2025-26 school year, the Department of Education (RIDE) will put them on probation – which means what? The school or district must send letters to the parents about the lack of training, leaving families to hold them accountable somehow. But the public and parents mostly need to know what’s in the way of success. Staff resistance? An inability to organize training, coaching, curricula? Labor contract inflexibility? Poor school climate? A moldy “sick” building?  Chronically distressed students? What? Ask first and don’t go bumming out the staff with threats from the get-go. We did that already, and it was bad.

In all fairness, parents and the public don’t have the time or tools to do the data digging themselves. They do need to see raw test scores and summary judgements, like Rhode Island’s star system (however flawed currently). But having heard from the staff, perhaps the summary data could be accompanied by an icon indicating any extenuating circumstances.  Years ago, a small district believed a fatal car crash involving students during testing time had wreaked havoc with the kids’ test scores. If RIDE believes them, give them that icon. For temporary use, of course.

Data is just data until someone comes along and turns it into useful information.  Data are only red flags demanding: “Dig here.” We’ve needed this sort of investigative, reparations-oriented accountability for decades – to build the knowledge that will equip us to get better at helping the kids.

After all, helping kids is what my niece believes she’s doing by rejecting accountability, testing and data. I think she just happens to be wrong.

First published: RI Current News, February 28, 2024

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