The 'accountability' myth

Student success requires involved parents and caring communities, not just good teachers

March 26, 2010|By Howell S. Baum

President Barack Obama and others who want to hold teachers "accountable" for students' learning base their case on two false assumptions. One is that any good teacher can cause any student to learn a great deal. The other is that the only reason any teacher fails to do so is that he or she is lazy.

Ordinary, concerned parents make much more sophisticated assumptions about their own children's education. They know children's learning depends on a combination of influences, including what teachers do in classrooms and what parents do at home. For example, these parents urge their children to do homework and help them with it, take their children to museums and soccer games, and encourage their children to make college plans. These parents also read books, talk about what they read and have books in the house, giving the impression that reading is normal. In addition, many of these parents went to college, and they have economically and, often, intellectually and emotionally rewarding work.

By example, these parents indicate that attending college is normal, they model people who are successful as a result of going to college, and they know about getting ahead in school and careers. Such unremarkable acts teach children that education can be enjoyable, schooling pays off, and success is likely. Parents and teachers expect these children to be ready for teachers' efforts. Sometimes, parents even believe that their children learn regardless of what teachers do.

In fact, most parents and teachers know that children's education depends on not just classroom teaching but also parents' actions and the ways communities and the economy support families. There is no precise or meaningful way to measure the different influences of different actors and institutions, and there is no reason to single out any one influence and put the full burden of children's education on it. Teachers make a difference, and it is reasonable to expect schools to have good teachers who care about students, expect them to succeed, and have the knowledge and skill to teach them well. However, any honest, realistic discussion about children's education would recognize the multiplicity of factors that affect children's learning and would ask what it is reasonable to expect from each. Teachers have not done themselves a service by claiming to be able to do it all. They can't. To take a simple example, children who live in troubled families or violent neighborhoods may not be ready to learn and may be distracted from schooling.

But, further, assigning all or most responsibility for children's education to teachers lets parents and everyone else off the hook. For example, parents need good jobs not only to support their children financially but also to represent success for them and to exercise the authority that comes from their success to encourage their children to study, work hard and aim high. In order for parents to have good jobs, the economy has to be robust. Private or public employers must provide decent jobs so that parents can be good parents. Serious talk about education would hold economic policymakers accountable for doing everything they can to make sure that parents have the jobs children depend on.

The No Child Left Behind Act assumes a fantasy land where parents' employment and authority don't matter and where teachers can significantly improve any child's knowledge and skills, regardless of the conditions the child lives in. Any honest teacher will say that some students are easier to teach than others and that he or she can teach some students more easily than others. Good teachers succeed in various ways with many, though not necessarily all, students.

Some teachers are not as good as children need them to be, but No Child Left Behind treats all teachers as if the only reason their children might not learn is that the teachers didn't try as hard as they could.

Teaching is difficult work, and some children are particularly challenging. There are no recipes for teaching all children; if there were, schools would be doing better. The reality is that educators need to discover new ways of working with more challenging children. Teachers, principals and schools can benefit from knowledgeable support. Those who push teacher "accountability" do not offer support to teachers working with challenging students. Instead, they only want to punish teachers -- by removing them or turning them over to new managers who will somehow get them to do what they could not. Punishment instead of support does not help children learn; there is no evidence that it can improve teaching.

Those who beat the drum of teacher "accountability" want an easy place to dump blame for a problem for which many people and institutions share responsibility. Simple-minded assumptions about how teachers teach and children learn give false assurance that education is an easy problem to solve. Worst of all, these assumptions get in the way of honest talk about how many of us can take responsibility and improve children's education.

Howell S. Baum, a professor in the Urban Studies and Planning Program at the University of Maryland, College Park, is author of "Brown in Baltimore: School Desegregation and the Limits of Liberalism." His e-mail is

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