The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form by American Teacher, November, 1970. [Note: You might think at first, "How relevant can a 30 year old essay be?" But sometimes ... the more things change, the more they stay the same.]

Accountability As A Negative Reinforcer
by Barry McGhan

Americans have long held a reputation for being able to solve many of their problems through technology. However, it has only been in the last two or three years that there has been a jump in interest in technological concepts among educators. The accompanying jargon (input/output, feedback, systems analysis, reprogramming, performance capabilities, etc.) evokes wonderful images of efficient, resourceful solutions to problems. Certain educational Innovations such as performance objectives, differentiated staffing, computer-assisted instruction, programmed materials, and teacher accountability all smack of this technological viewpoint and give one the "can-do" feeling that the solutions to the grave problems facing education are at hand. One almost has to wonder, given our technological accomplishments elsewhere, what took us so long to begin to apply our technological know-how to the battered and tottering public-school system.

Perhaps some of these new ideas distress you, even though you're not too conservative to be willing to change your ways. You might feel, for instance, that children can't be educated as mechanically as can openers are manufactured. Or, you might want to cry out against the fact that stressing efficiency and bureaucratization adds to the formalism of schools. Perhaps you think that the use of technological terminology and concepts may allow educators to think of students as objects to be processed. However, the public's concern for effective education seems to be mounting, and the temptation to use techniques that have proved worthwhile in business and industry will be hard to resist. No doubt some benefits to education will come from all this, which is all right, as long as the mischief created causes no long-lasting damage.

The concept of accountability, for example, needs careful consideration. At first blush, the notion that teachers should be held accountable for their jobs seems perfectly straightforward and reasonable. What could be more sensible than to expect teachers to do their best, and to make appropriate changes in their jobs as their success is assessed?

Judging by recent articles in the NEA's Today's Education of May, 1970, and a guest editorial by NEA President Helen Bain in the April, 1970, Phi Delta Kappan, some of the leaders of that organization feel that the notion of accountability is sound. Mrs. Bain, for instance, thinks that teachers should accept it, if they are given complete self-governance over their profession. Although this sounds a little like a gambit in a chess match, it does seem reasonable that accountability could be accepted if teachers had the power to do things the way they think is best. The important question is, is the concept of accountability sound enough to be accepted, even if the price is right?

To begin with, there are several problems with implementation of the concept. As things stand right now, the term seems to mean that teachers should be accountable for their jobs to the public. But, it seems that there should be some sort of mutual accountability so that the public cannot accuse teachers of failing to do their jobs, while at the same time it fails to provide adequate funds, thereby causing many of the teachers' problems. To be fair, this concept of mutuality should be extended to a kind of interlocking accountability which includes teachers, students, administrators, paraprofessionals, school boards, parents, and the public at large. This would require enforceable guarantees that each group meet its responsibilities to each of the others, and would tend to eliminate such possibilities as administrators trying to make teachers the scapegoats for education's inadequacies.

Another problem with accountability is that of choosing the criteria for successful teaching which are necessary to hold a teacher accountable. So far, most discussion in this vein has settled on student achievement as the chief measure of teaching success. But the relationship between student achievement and teaching is not conclusive. Educational research indicates that we don't know how to bring about some kinds of cognitive and affective learning, and the research is unable to show significant differences between teaching methods. [If we think of the teaching/learning act as a black box in which something happens, then we can talk of teaching methods and materials as input, and the changes In students' behavior as output(1). The state of the art of education today is this: there is no discernible difference in the effect of various inputs; there is no discernible relation between specific inputs and specific outputs; it is difficult to assure that specific outputs can be obtained at any given time with any particular individuals(2).

Even if we can eventually establish norms for the teaching/learning act, the question of worthwhile deviations arises, because some teachers will be successful in ways which vary widely from the norms. Also, students may learn worthwhile things in school which are not measured, and it would be wrong to ignore a teacher's possible contributions to students' growth apart from the formal curriculum.

A third fault is related to the problem of motivation. As a whiskery old saying goes, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." This adage seems to capture the spirit of one of the principles of education. Namely, that no matter how much effort is expended by the teacher, students will not learn unless they have an inner motivation to learn. If this is true, then of the two individuals engaged in the teaching/learning act, the student has the more important role for the act to be successful: thus, teacher accountability places the emphasis on the wrong person. This does not mean that we should ignore the quality of a teacher's performance, but if we expect to get anyplace, we must keep that concern in perspective with regard to our concern for the student's motivation and performance.

Another fault (and all the more important because it is intrinsic) is that accountability carries the connotation of retribution. If we say that "someone is accountable" we usually mean that "he must suffer the consequences of his actions." We hardly ever mean the more positive "he will profit from the consequences of his actions." One wonders what the social and psychological ramifications might be if teachers have to carry out their jobs in a retributive atmosphere. For example, would such a work pattern encourage teachers to teach in a manner protective of their own best interests rather than a manner suited to the best interests of their students? In response to this criticism someone could say, "Industry takes this approach, and look how successful it is in accomplishing its goals." The assumption that what's good for industry is good for education is an easy one to make, but it seems unjustified. There is no necessary relationship between manufacturing and education. For one thing, it's possible that industry might be better off with another work pattern. And, for another thing, while the psychological atmosphere generated by such a competitive, pressurized work pattern can't be passed on to the products of a manufacturing process, such an unhealthy atmosphere could be passed on to children.

If the present notion of accountability becomes generally applied to teachers, we must face the possibility that it will work as a system of punishments, and may run afoul of the same pitfalls that social scientists have discovered in other systems of punishment. Furthermore, if we as educators accept the system, we will be admitting that punishing the incompetent teacher is more important than helping him to grow into a more competent professional.

The concept of accountability is a twist on the general topic of teacher evaluation, which has been a thorny problem for a long time. The application of this and other technological concepts to education may be beneficial. But the technologists have to be guided by educators who have a thorough knowledge of, and appreciation for, the social, psychological, and philosophical--the human--values of teaching and learning.


(1) Technological concepts can be used as models to aid thinking. Our earlier complaint against them was on the basis that they seemed to be used to describe how education ought to work.
(2) The following writers all discuss different aspects of the problem of assessing teacher performance:

  • Dubin, Robert and Taveggia, Thomas. The Teaching-Learning Paradox. Center for the Advanced Study of Education. University of Oregon: Eugene, Oregon. 1968.

  • Muselia, Donald. "Improving Teacher Evaluation." The Journal of Teacher Education. Spring, 1970.
  • Popham. James. "The Performance Test: A New Approach to the Assessment of Teaching Proficiency." The Journal of Teacher Education. Summer, 1968.
  • Saadeh, Ibrahim 0. "Teacher Effectiveness of Classroom Efficiency: A New Direction in the Evaluation of Teaching." The Journal of Teacher Education. Spring, 1970.



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