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Teacher accountability: why pointing fingers isn't doing us any favors

Accountability is an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility. Teacher accountability? Accepting the responsibility of student success and failure.
Here’s the issue: the United States consistently ranks low globally in educational attainment. According to the OECD PISA report, the U.S. ranks 27th in mathematics, 17th in reading and 20th in science, among 34 OECD countries.
The problem: we’re holding our teachers accountable for unreliable standardized tests scores, resulting in high teacher turnover and low global education rankings.
But it’s not too late to outline an approach. Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, has identified the problem in his Fixing National Accountability System report, and he outlines an approach for improving student, teacher and school performance across the nation.

An expert’s overview
According to Tucker, since the Obama administration, federal policy has shifted and accountability focus has fallen on individual teachers, holding them responsible for poor student success based on the performance measured by low-quality standardized tests. Teachers often resist prepping students for such tests because topics do not align with full core curriculum.
“Most basic skill tests used in the United States cost about a quarter of what accountability tests cost in top performing countries. We are getting what we pay for,” Tucker said.
We’re also testing much more frequently than top performing countries. The United States conducts standardized tests from third grade through graduation, with the exception of ninth grade. Successful countries strategically test throughout a student’s career.
Our current system
Tucker’s report outlines the current blue-collar system of accountability operating in the United States. It creates a school-model in which teachers are merely interchangeable.
According to the NCEE report and NCES teacher follow-up survey, every year, roughly 8 percent of U.S. teachers leave the profession, compared to 4.8 percent in Hong Kong and 3 percent in Singapore. Only 52 percent of the teaching force from any given year in the United States is teaching six years later.
“Using standardized tests of basic skills to determine which teachers are retained and which teachers are fired ignores all the purposes of education and reduces the teacher’s job to a caricature of what is should be,” Tucker said.
Within the blue-collar system, teachers are of all the same skill level, do not have professional expectations and therefore are not highly compensated. Top-performing countries have a drastically different outlook, the professional model, in which teachers are expected to obtain highly professional skill sets and to make complex decisions and play the largest role in determining the educational needs of students.
“In the professional model, accountability and personal advancement is mainly a function of the degree to which they see a team member making an important contribution to the work of the organization,” Tucker said.
Shifting the stereotype
The problem is larger than standardized testing -- teachers need to be valued as high status professionals with access to professional development and collaboration opportunities.
According to Tucker, Singapore and Shanghai are the best examples to look to. In these systems, teachers attend traditional professional development workshops, but focus largely on school organization and management, working with each other, not students, for a significant amount of the day. Much of this collaboration is research based and data driven, and is eventually used to measure impact for the improvement they’re seeking.
“They are working in teams to develop powerful lessons, creating new and better approaches to assessment, writing new curriculum and addressing other problems facing the school,” Tucker said.
Tucker also outlines a career ladder for teachers to help attract and retain teaching talent. Each ladder rung includes additional compensation, responsibility and autonomy. Tucker also suggests compensation should also be shifted to meet those of other entry-level professionals. 
Ensuring student success
To transition the current accountability system, Tucker outlines three focus areas to improve educational success:
  1. The system needs to invest in high-quality standardized tests that cover a full core curriculum, administered only three times throughout an entire school career.
  2. The data from the high-quality tests should be used to identify at-risk schools, deploying a team of experts to help resolve issues.
  3. Enact policies to attract the best teachers and principals to work at struggling institutions, further transforming teaching into a high status profession.
Tucker argues the current education accountability system is not only ineffective, but harmful. Restructuring the system and tweaking traditional practices can push students, teachers and the United States to create a globally competitive education model.
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