Teacher Accountability:  Who Learns the Student?

Note: In rummaging through some files at the MACE office, I stumbled upon a little "theoretical" essay that I wrote for a class that I had with Professor Harry Williams in the doctoral program in Educational Administration at the University of Georgia. I wrote this paper in the Summer of 1981 at the age of 27. At the time, I was a Graduate Assistant in the program. I was trying to be "objective," but you can tell that at the tender age of 27, I was already firmly convinced of the fallacies and wrong theoretical basis for the entire teacher accountability movement. To put it simply: You can’t learn the child. (It’s even bad grammar!) You can only teach the child.

Another Note: Recently (September 13, 2004), I addressed the Atlanta Board of Education and Superintendent Beverly Hall. I gave the school board members copies of several laws which the Atlanta school board slaughters -- especially those dealing with teachers being assaulted and battered by the students -- as well as the chronic violations of the state statute governing teacher grievances. But, I also had copies of Atlanta’s "Core Beliefs" and "Strategic Goals." One of the system’s core beliefs is that "all children will learn." I responded in writing: "Wrong premise: All children will learn. Correct premise: All children can learn -- if they want to learn, if they are motivated to learn. Some children do not want to learn. They are not motivated to learn. They refuse to learn. They are defiant and disruptive, and they materially and substantially disrupt the learning processes of those children who want to learn. These disruptive children are ‘chronic disciplinary problem students’ (see O.C.G.A. 20-2-765), and acting as though they don’t exist only does a disservice to those children who want to learn."

Out of all of Atlanta’s "Strategic Goals," not a one even mentioned or alluded to classroom discipline -- which seems to be a foreign concept in Atlanta and other school systems. I again responded in writing: "Discipline is not even mentioned among the cute, lofty, and prissified goals. Without discipline and order, you cannot have a sound instructional program. Good teaching conditions have to exist before you can have good learning conditions. It seems like someone in Atlanta would have learned that by now. The definition of idiocy: Doing the same things over and over and getting the same results (failure)."

We’ve got too many "spineless chicken-butts" setting educational policies for public schools not only in Atlanta but also Georgia and the entire country. No one wants to state the obvious: The child (and his or her parents) are ultimately responsible for his or her learning. The teacher is responsible for the teaching, not the learning. And, if the spineless administrators (who are often afraid of the central office, the parents, and the children) refuse to provide administrative support for the teachers in matters of classroom discipline, then the teachers cannot teach because they’re too busy being prison guards, umpires, police officers, punching bags, nurses, and zoo keepers in the classrooms!

Teacher Accountability: Who Learns the Student?

[written in 1981 by John Rhodes Alston Trotter, Ed.D.,J.D.]

Should teachers be held accountable for the learning of students? Some people contend that the teacher is responsible for whether or not Johnny learns to read. Others, however, contend that the ultimate blame should fall on Johnny.

Those who hold Johnny’s teacher accountable for his learning note that expecting quality production for the investment of money is not so unusual. We take our car to a mechanic, pay him so much money to get our car running properly, and we expect the car to run properly when we leave the garage. So it is with Johnny. The American taxpayers send their children to school, pay taxes to have them educated properly, and they expect their children to read (and perform other skills) properly when they exit school. If Johnny (being of sufficient mental aptitude) cannot read when he leaves school, then the fault falls upon the school (and more particularly, the teacher).

Advocates of teacher accountability point out that the teacher is paid to perform a particular task -- to make sure that students learn what they are supposed to learn. If factory workers prove incompetent on an automobile assembly line, they are not allowed to remain there. Either their performance comes up to par or they are relieved of their responsibilities. Incompetence and the subsequent cost ineffectiveness are eliminated. So it should be with teachers. If the products (in this case, students) are defective ("unlearned"), then new workers (teachers) and possibly new foremen (principals/supervisors) should be secured. The quality of education must be accounted for.

To determine whether or not teachers (and schools as a whole) have performed sufficiently, advocates of teacher accountability proffer highly objective tests which attempt to measure the instrumental goals and objectives of a particular educational jurisdiction. These test results determine the competency of the teachers (and schools). If Johnny’s score is not up to par, then Johnny’s teacher is ultimately responsible for this. The teacher is held accountable for Johnny’s learning.

Those who oppose holding the teacher accountable for Johnny’s learning (or his "unlearning") do not operate on the same set of assumptions as do those who hold the teacher accountable. They contend that teaching and learning are more analogous to the work of a surgeon and a lawyer than that of a mechanic and a factory worker. A surgeon operates on a patient but he/she does not heal the patient. A lawyer defends his/her client but does not acquit the client. A teacher teaches Johnny but does not learn Johnny. Healing, acquitting, and learning occur under mitigable circumstances. They do not occur mechanically.

Opponents of holding Johnny’s teacher accountable for his learning contend that learning is not a necessary consequence of teaching. They argue that there is a difference between objective and outcome. Teachers should be evaluated on the basis of teaching processes, and students should be evaluated on the basis of learning. The burden of learning should be placed on the students. After all, they state, "You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink." (Note: Having graduated from law school, I can assure you that this is the way law professors are evaluated. They are evaluated on the basis of their teaching processes, not on the basis of the students’ learning, It is up to each law student to learn on his or her own initiative. In addition, with the possible exception of having me in their classes, the law professors had no disciplinary problems! Hmm.)

Opponents of teacher accountability deny that teaching is a science. Scientists deal with inanimate, moldable materials; students, they argue, are not inanimate and are not always moldable. Students are human beings and, as human beings, are not always predictable. Science operates with the predictable (with surprising exceptions, of course!).

Opponents of teacher accountability also deny that the goals of education should always be highly instrumental and easily measurable. This reduces the goals of education to a narrow focus. Some goals are and should be, they contend, broad and often difficult to operationalize. The goals of a good education, opponents argue, are not so "cut-and-dry" so as to hold teachers accountable for students’ learning.

                                                                                      September 23, 2004

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