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Topic: Rethinking Teacher Accountability
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Rethinking Teacher Accountability
Posted: Feb 23, 1999 2:50 PM
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[Note: The following is transmitted with the permission of Mr. Zoch.]
Rethinking Teacher Accountability

Paul A. Zoch, Public School Teacher, Houston, TX

It is an article of faith among reformers and critics of public education
in the US that the key to improving our schools is holding educators
accountable for students' success; their success will be gauged by their
performance on standardized tests. When the students learn, according to
the plan, the educators will be rewarded, and when students fail, the
educators will lose their jobs, presumably to someone else who can get the
job done.

That way of thinking, however well intentioned and logical it may seem,
does not promise much hope for improving our substandard education system.
By focusing on teachers as the focus and source of students' success, it
implies that the most important thing in the learning process is what
teachers do, as if the students play a subordinate or even unimportant role
in their learning. It wrongly assumes that teachers and administrators
have an all-encompassing control over students' minds and thoughts, and
thus relieves students of responsibility for doing anything and everything
they must in order to succeed. Thus it inadvertently hurts the very
students that it seeks to help, for it tells them very clearly that the
secret of their success is found outside of themselves, in someone else's
actions (e.g., the teacher's), rather than in their own actions and
behavior; consequently the students learn the invaluable lesson that
someone else is responsible for their success or failure in life and,
tragically enough, they never learn what they are truly capable of
accomplishing through hard work. It further alienates the already
beleaguered teachers, by holding them responsible for things far beyond
their control, namely students' minds and thoughts; teachers then become
cynical and burnt-out, because they are expected to do the impossible:
making recalcitrant, lazy, apathetic students smart. Society suffers
because it does not gain educated citizens willing to take responsibility
for their lives and actions. Ironically enough, the only benefit gained
from that way of thinking goes to the monstrous, bloated network of
colleges of Education and school administrators.

To see why the strict accountability plan will not work as envisioned, let
us first recognize this one basic fact of learning: one learns through
experience. What we know and feel is the result of our past experiences;
when we learn, we always and inevitably relate new information to those
past experiences in order to understand it. Learning can therefore be
difficult and toilsome, as the learning process demands changes in the
individual, and making those changes can be difficult. One must reconcile
new information with the old, and doing so will demand changes in how we
view reality, for the new information might, for example, invalidate
knowledge that we previously valued, or it might clash with previous
beliefs, or it might be so untenable in the old mental schema that only
with the greatest exertion can we gain understanding. Nonetheless, learn
we must, if we wish to improve and progress, and to learn, we must work
through the sometimes discomforting changes.

The most important thing in the learning process is therefore the student
or learner and his will to understand, NOT the teacher and his desire that
the student learn, for the student is the only one with access to his
memories and control over the detailed knowledge of how he views reality.
The teacher does NOT know the myriad past experiences of each student, the
teacher CANNOT know those past experiences and how they intertwine and
interact to produce the student's personality and view of reality. The
teacher has no power to customize the knowledge for each student; each
student has the profound duty and responsibility to gain understanding,
while the teacher can only help the student understand.

Let's use a comparison from sports. I wish to learn how to shoot a
free-throw in basketball. The coach can help by analyzing my actions,
making suggestions for improvement, and cheering me on; still, I must learn
to coordinate my muscles to apply the exact amount of force and trajectory
to throw the ball into the basket. The coach cannot make my brain and
muscles understand; I must go through the tedious experience to gain that
understanding. Or an example from medicine is apt: I wish to lose weight
and become healthy. My doctor can only urge me on and give advice; my body
must experience the unsatisfied pangs of hunger, the dull pain of long
unused muscles flexing and strengthening, and my body must sweat and hurt
as I burn off fat. No pain, no gain, as the athletes say, a saying just as
appropriate in educational matters, but regarded as reactionary ranting by
Educationists. A student's learning of academic subjects is not much
different; learning demands changes in our view of reality and in our
mental construct, and that change comes ONLY through experience. Students
gain that experience when they study, pay attention in class, subordinate
emotions to intellectual development and, most of all, STRIVE to understand.

Although Educationists know that one learns by doing, they and the members
of the public are bound by Education's Romantic and sentimental view of
childhood, as well as by its customary anti-intellectualism. Schools,
according to many Americans, should be places of joy, spontaneity, and
vivacity, where children go to be delighted by learning. Learning should
be fun, they say. Consequently we cannot expect students to toil and
struggle at school; we must pity those poor children in China, Japan,
Korea, and Germany who must study and toil and struggle to understand. If
anyone must toil at school, let it be theTEACHERS, who must provide
learning games and fun activities that will enable children to learn
effortlessly, automatically, and joyfully.

Thus the focus in US education shifts from the students, who are seen as
helpless and apathetic, to the teachers, who are professionals paid to do a
job. The students' success or failure is seen as emanating not from the
students' actions in relation to the subject matter (i.e., reconciling new
information with the old), but from the teacher and his use of a teaching
method that enables students to learn painlessly and even joyfully. Since
we cannot expect STUDENTS to do what is necessary to learn, the TEACHERS
bear the responsibility of achieving success for the students. Of course
it is absurd, as absurd as believing that the athlete sitting on the bench
will get in shape if the coach runs the laps and wind-sprints, or the
patient will become healthy if the doctor quits smoking and eating junk

Yet such an absurd scenario does in fact exist in public schools across the
US: students are sitting back in their desks, arms crossed, waiting for
their teachers to MAKE THEM SMART. The students are seen as having no
responsibility or role in whether or not they learn. If they do not wish
to come to school, it becomes the teacher's responsibility to design
lessons that make them want to come. If the students do not wish to pay
attention in class, the teacher must design lessons that grab their
attention. If the students do not behave during class, it is the teacher's
fault, for GOOD lessons prevent discipline problems. If the students are
not motivated to learn, the teacher must motivate them. If the students
have emotional problems, the teacher must design lessons with affective
goals. If the students do not understand the subject, the teacher has
failed to teach to their learning styles. Although the students have the
most control over their thoughts and actions, they are not expected to do
much in order to learn; the teachers must do what is necessary for the
students to learn. Because the students' intellectual and emotional
problems lie far outside of the teachers' area of control, they never get

Since the teacher's methods and actions are thought to determine whether or
not students learn, society has entrusted the colleges of Education with
finding the magical teaching methods that will enable students to learn
easily, joyfully, and automatically. Finding that pedagogical Excalibur
requires legions of researchers in Education, financed by generous tax
dollars, to find how to accomplish the impossible, i.e., having students
learn without experiencing any struggle. (The latest cure-all is computers
and the internet.) Thus when calling for accountability of teachers and
administrators, WITHOUT also expecting our students to study as diligently
as their Asian counterparts do, the critics and reformers of US public
education inadvertently promote the growth and power of the Education

How can we improve our education system? We must first recognize the fact
that learning requires a great deal of effort and personal responsibility
on the part of the students, and then expect our young people to do what
they must in order to learn. That is, after all, what succeeds in the
schools of Japan and China. "The Japanese believe that hard work,
diligence, and perseverance yield success in education as well as in other
aspects of lifeŠThe amount of time and effort spent in study are believed
to be more important than intelligence in determining educational outcomes.
Most Japanese parents and educators are unshakably optimistic that
virtually all children have the potential to master the challenging
academic curriculum, provided they work hard and long enough."* In the US,
people believe that students learn because of good teachers, and fail to
learn because of bad teachers; we teachers are expected to work nothing
short of miracles, and then are excoriated for our failure to accomplish
the impossible. Our colleagues in Japan, on the other hand, are not
burdened by expectations of the impossible: "Good teachers are considered
those who carefully and conscientiously cover the material outlined in the
course of study."** Since the Japanese teachers do not bear the additional
burden of motivating and disciplining the students-the students are
expected by society, parents, and schools to do what they must in order to
succeed-the teachers enjoy the luxury of being able to devote all their
energies to teaching the subject in depth. US teachers, however, must
employ various tricks and games to capture the students' interest; thus
valuable class-time, even at the high school level, is typically squandered
on superficial, childish gimmicks, thus insuring that few students plumb
intellectual depths or create complex knowledge.

The Educationists will not embrace that commonsensical view of education.
The Progressive legacy, being the founding charter of modern Education, has
too strong a grip on their beliefs; they do not wish to see students
toiling and struggling-i.e., changing--in school; that belongs in backward
societies and is akin to child abuse. They sincerely believe that it is
cruel to make the young struggle to learn, and fervently trust that
Education, aided by its scientific research, will eventually find the
magical teaching methods that will enable students to learn joyfully and
effortlessly. The Educationists have good intentions, but the effects are
sinister: their educational philosophy continually fails, yet they
themselves capitalize on its inevitable and continuous failure as they
receive research grants to identify and solve the problems in our education

We seem to think that education is so important we cannot expect the young
to accomplish it. We want doctorates and professionals in charge, who will
get the job done, so the young can enjoy their youth, free of demands and
responsibilities; it appears that we do not want them to grow up. Yet we
will make a great advance towards reform if we recognize that ultimately,
given teachers who "carefully and conscientiously cover the material
outlined in the course of study," the individual who most determines
whether or not a 12 year old learns is only in the 6th grade. If we want
our students to succeed in school and in life, we must expect them to learn
to do what is necessary to succeed.

* Robert Leastma, William J. Bennett, et al. , Japanese Education Today
D.C.: Office of Educational Research and Improvement, ED 275 620,
1987), p. 12.
** ibid, p. 50.
Paul A. Zoch is an eleventh-year teacher in a public high school in
Houston, Texas. His book Ancient Rome: An Introductory History was
recently published by the University of Oklahoma Press.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618)453-4244
Phone: (618)453-4241 (office)

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