Who’s Accountable?

I recently finished Diane Ravitch’s book.  I have to say it was very compelling; not so much for what it taught me, but for the affirmation it provided.  Her views and research on accountability will give any die-hard modern “reformer” a run for their money… and their test scores.   After I finished her expose, I had the chance to hear her on the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC.  Audio is here.  She is quite impressive and I applaud her “Sisyphus-ness”.

Since then I have been reeling about accountability – what it means, how it is determined, how the term is thrown around, and how almost no one outside of our profession can tell me what it means.  Quite frankly, they often define accountability as being subject to punishments. After all, don’t we all use the term “accountability’ with kids when they did something wrong or hurtful?  Accountability has a connotation that was unintended.  So when I am asked what I think accountability is, I reply

I know that our school is on a continual mission to provide students with solid and strong curricula, determined and creative teachers, and oodles of opportunities to be creative, athletic, expand personally gratifying learning experiences, share talent, and contribute to our traditions and legacy (by the way, none of those opportunities are measurable in their success, but they are as important – if not more – than knowing calculus).  And if there are state, federal, or commercial measures of accountability in this mission, then we are liable to keep our students at least on par with the comparisons.  What matters most to me is that our students graduate on time and have the opportunity – if they wish – to attend college or a trade school because we prepared them.

I think that’s a pretty fair and direct statement.  And I am dead serious about that last line.  We push our students to take more challenging classes (i.e. CP to Honors or AP), to take the SAT seriously, and to be well prepared for the SATs.  That test, above all others, is the great equalizer for us.  It took me a while to accept this… but it is true.  Our students’ college options are dependent upon those scores.  We accept our role in this.

But once our students get to a college, what happens?  Sadly, in New Jersey, it looks like 3 in 10 drop out and only 61% of all New Jersey college students earn a Bachelor’s degree in six years.  Take a look at this (source):

So if we’re going to talk about accountability and own it (as I do), then why aren’t institutes of higher education accountable for their completion rates?  And don’t tell me that it’s up to the kids to get it done – I would be crucified if I used that line with my seniors – who will all be college students seven weeks after we graduate them.

I simply want the same level of accountability to apply to colleges (especially public colleges like Rutgers, Montclair, Ramapo, etc. who receive public tax money).  But that might be asking too much.

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus have published a book Higher Education?  I had the chance to hear them on Talk of the Nation on NPR.  They, like Ravitch does for the reform movement, point out the deficiencies in higher education and the system.   It’s worth a listen and a ponder.

It’s nice to know that I’m not all alone in my thinking or views.  Collectively, though, we may be all alone on an island.  While we’re here, we can at least debate the definition, merits, and measures of accountability.  I don’t think many others are.

Author: Michael Parent, Ed.D

Father, husband, school administrator in NJ. "Education cures poverty".

4 thoughts on “Who’s Accountable?”

  1. Last year I had the opportunity to attend a Wabash College Alumni Teacher Symposium. It was interesting to listen to the college talk about accountability. Apparently hidden in the mush of NCLB were requirements for colleges who receive federal funds in any way to show accountability data.

    Wabash houses the Center for Inquiry that is trying to develop tracking methods http://www.liberalarts.wabash.edu/ that actually look at college performance. It is interesting stuff. Needless to say the small liberal arts colleges seem to be able to point to solid increases in critical thinking skills and problem solving ability.

    I like your pointing out of the graduation rate problem in colleges. I've heard it argued that most big universities for financial reasons over admit freshmen knowing a good chunk won't survive the fall but their tuition dollars will. I find that sad.

    On another end to raise the bar means change. You and I are in the high school racket. You know how difficult change at the high school level is vs. changing a small grade school. I have to believe with the dean and department structure at the university and the President's job being 90% raising money, kissing babies, and shaking hands that the real work of academic reform in college is dicey at best.

    We went to a 1:1 this year and adapted a trimester schedule touting the need to teach 21st century skills. One of our wiser parents (and a college professor) asked how would our student who are engaged through collaborative work and technology fair in a lecture hall as a freshmen in college? It was a good question. I guess we will find out.

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  2. I honestly believe, because of the way education works in this country, these conversations are intentionally put in silos. You noted how no one outside of our field can tell us what accountability is, hard as they try, but they know it has to do something with firing teachers and principals. We never bring up the higher-ups and the third-party vendors who profit off our hard work.

    I've spoken to Ravitch in person, and she is as impressive if not as sharp. The more I read / hear from her, the more she drops bombs. I have yet to read the book, but I know once I read it, it's only going to make me agree with you.

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  3. Perhaps the root problem is that higher education is a bought commodity and still considered a luxury afforded as such. The Institutions after high school are in the free enterprise mindset where the purchaser is accountable for his choice unless the product is faulty. If the education is faulty then they should have recourse, but is it the car dealer's fault that the purchaser wrecks the car? I'm outside the academic community but my gut tells me that accountability lies with the buyer in most cases. In the case of gov't funding, accountability should be greater, but it's a shame if we are forced into over regulation by catering to the lowest common denominator. The adverse effects of regulation are often the cause of disparity between looking good on paper and actually making a worthwhile product.

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