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Lydia Dobyns Headshot

Stop the Education "Blame Game": Let's Get Real About Accountability

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I've yet to meet an adult involved in education who does not espouse anything other than "I'm here for the children." Regardless of the intentions, saying that student success is top priority, and taking action to assure student success, yield entirely different results.

To achieve true student success, it's time to bring communities together, create real accountability systems and align funding to student outcomes. (STRIVE is a great organization working as community conveners to facilitate exactly this type of Cradle to Career success.)

How do we measure educational success? And how many of us actually believe that attaining a high school diploma today is sufficient for a young person to earn a living wage? Thought so. So while we focus on eliminating drop-out factories, perhaps our ultimate aspiration ought to be transforming high school to better prepare students with the knowledge and skills essential to provide them with viable post-secondary options.

Preparing students for college and career is so much bigger than teacher training programs. The entire ecosystem of schools and districts has to change. Teachers and administrators, and the learning environments they create, are instrumental in helping to produce innovators (see Tony Wagner's new book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World ). But teachers and administrators can not do the job alone.

Let's stop the rush to single out individual adults -- particularly and primarily teachers -- and blame them for years of failing to serve students well. There are ineffective teachers and principals whose poor performance needs to be remedied, and if unable to improve, they need to be terminated or assigned to jobs where they can be effective. However, I am convinced that merely replacing school principals and/or teachers will not lead to the systemic change desperately needed. For real innovation to be achieved, communities must adopt REAL accountability measures. Have we gotten too comfortable with placing blame on teachers and principals and thinking that ridding the schools of "bad apples" means "we" took the only decisive action necessary? Throw the bums out is not a way to innovate.

New York City has established a "school accountability" system in which principals are held accountable for bottom-line numbers -- test scores, graduation rates, and in high school, how many credits their students accumulate. Achieve success with those numbers, and a school gets a good "grade." Fail to make the mark, and a principal might be transferred to another school or, at worst, the school is closed. This system is controversial, and while there have been notable improvements in city schools in recent years, there are flaws in the system and critics abound. Speculation is mounting about what reform will continue when Mayor Bloomberg's term ends. Is this type of system good for our schools? Does this contribute positively to students' success?

In what other ways can we offer real options for positive student outcomes? Why do we think we can hand out iPads to teachers without creating a clear instructional strategies tied to effective effective learning and expect students to succeed? Teachers have an array of resources at their disposal, but may not have the skill set to tap into them or the latitude to change teaching practices while following step-by-step instructional guides. Rather than placing blame, we need to provide proven professional development if we want our teachers to succeed.

As Charles Duhigg, business reporter for the NY Times, says in his recent book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, "The science of habit-forming can be used not only to sell products, but also to transform people or entire companies." To do this, Duhigg says: You have to target a particularly significant behavior he calls a "keystone habit." "If you can change a keystone habit, you unlock all these other patterns in someone's life or in an organization." Duhigg adds, "One of the characteristics of a keystone habit is that it creates a culture. That's why it seems to have such a profound influence on other patterns in our lives."

Changing some of our keystone habits -- namely, assigning blame because it's the easiest path, rather than committing to system change and establishing community accountability systems, is the critical first step toward ensuring we have success in improving education for every student. If we want our teachers to succeed, we need to stop blaming them and offer new habits. Transforming our schools will demand real resources and real reform built on a commitment to change some of our behaviors.