Friday, January 29, 2021

Part 1: The A word (Accountability)

Image description: geometric figures in dark blue, brown, and light green with the words Let's talk about accountability.

Let's talk about the A word. I'm talking about accountability, friends.  I have been chewing on some ideas about this word for a long time, and have recently been able to put to words some concerns I have about this idea.  

Holding students accountable for their learning is not inherently bad.  Conflating compliance with evidence of learning (or in our case, acquisition) is not the same as holding students accountable for their learning.  And in fact, the whole idea of accountability might have some problems, at least the way it is used when applied to students.  

Accountability often comes up in discussions about student engagement.  It usually sounds like this: "How do I hold them accountable for ___?" and when teachers are more frustrated (sometimes feeling defensive, especially when we are talking about the intersection of grading, assessment practices, and equity), "but they won't do it if I don't hold them accountable/give them a grade for it."  

First, I hear you, and I feel you, and I am not in your context, and I am not here to judge.  We are all just trying to get through this crazy year, and all the crazy years.  

Second, I want to unpack a few ideas wrapped up in what teachers mean by student accountability.  

Finally, I hope to offer some fairly concrete ideas for how to reframe accountability in a comprehension based classroom.  (See Part 2.

Since this is my blog, this is real talk. This is me, unfiltered, and asking hard questions.  It's ok if you don't agree with me, but I do think it is worth asking hard questions about our classroom practice. Don't give up on me. 

What "holding students accountable" looks like (based on observations and discussions with teachers) 

  • Assigning point values to every thing done in class and collecting and grading it all, e.g. collecting and grading bell work/starters.
  • Requiring that students complete "proof of learning" such as graphic organizers (that don't prove anything, really) or filling in guided notes. 
  • Giving students assignments to complete that have little-to-no relevance for learning or acquisition, e.g. assigning busy work to be completed after free voluntary reading to prove that students did something.
  • Believing that students won't do work unless there is a grade attached.
  • Rewarding compliance (doing the work) and conflating compliance (or lack thereof) with learning.

(Please know, I have done most of these things and held these beliefs, and I am not in your context nor do I have to comply with your school's expectations. These are just examples.  #nojudgement)

Who gets held accountable in our general adult world?

Well, I am accountable for being licensed to drive and having insurance- or at least, if I was caught without those things, I would have some kind of consequence.  Often, our society talks about holding people accountable for misdeeds and violence against others.  In fact, accountability seems to be very closely related to punishment or consequences for doing harm. 

I am sure that there are a million other ways to consider accountability, so please forgive me if this is just one facet of this complicated concept.  But- as we are seeing such a disproportionate rate of students of color receiving behavior referrals1, it does seem pertinent, right? Holding a kid accountable for their behavior/compliance  often results in punishment. This punishment might be low grades, which research shows is not a motivating factor2.

Why do you do your job? What makes you accountable?

Then there is the idea of holding people accountable for doing their job.  I am expected to show up to events and workshops and classes that I have scheduled and contracted, and provide the services that I have agreed to provide.  I am held accountable by the very real consequences of losing my job.  But that's not why I show up. I show up because I chose this work, I like this work, and I am motivated to engage in this work.  

Few teachers are motivated by money (although there is *no* doubt that we should be paid fair and equitable wages, and not be shamed into working 60+ hours a week or risking our lives "for the children").  And if you are just motivated by having a job- that's ok- we all need a job! 

 So what motivates you to be accountable for your work? Is it fear? Is it the paycheck/health benefits (no judgement!)? Is it the sense that you are doing something bigger for your community? Is it that you adore the students and love what you do? Is it your love of your school community and colleagues?  Are you motivated to show up for work or are you held accountable? Are those factors in balance?  

Let's talk about the kids in the classroom

Considering a few different reasons to be held accountable and some motivations for doing what we are asked to do- as adults-is it reasonable to expect kids-to be motivated by external factors?   I mean- we are talking about kids, not fully formed adults.  And to be clear- I am speaking now very specifically about kids in a classroom context, and how they are held accountable or not for doing their job of learning in the classroom.  

Image description: geometric figures in dark blue, brown, and light green with the words External Motivation (low grades) is not effective motivation.

 This leads me to consider motivations- my own and those of students.   Giving grades to increase motivation really comes from a behaviorist framework of punishment and rewards.  This framework, also known as extrinsic motivation, has some problems.  Joe Feldman shares this critique:

[...] extrinsic motivation is not an effective motivation strategy for authentic learning. While extrinsic motivation yields benefits for menial and repetitive tasks- such as offering prizes for stuffing the most envelopes [...]extrinsic rewards and consequences have been found to be wholly ineffective to engage people in tasks that require higher-order and creative thinking [...]. (Feldman, Grading for Equity, 2019)3 

Grades as Rewards

This idea of grades as rewards- also known as a points economy- is so deeply embedded in our school culture that it is incredibly hard to reframe.  But consider: do we want students to be engaged in learning for the sake of learning? (Also, do we want them to be engaged in order to contribute to their community, to develop connections with each other and their community, and all those things we talk about when we create vision statements for learning?) Or, do we want students to be engaging in points transactions in classrooms?  Are we, as teachers, the brokers of points or guides for learning/language acquisition?  Rick Wormeli, a teacher and leader in supporting teachers in implementing equitable assessment practices, wrote this amazing response to a concern about moving to standards based grades. Take a moment and read it.  

OK, welcome back to talking about accountability.

When we talk about giving points for assignments (because otherwise students won't do the work) and rewarding the "good" behavior, we are doing harm.  Grades should not be rewards for compliance.

Image description: geometric figures in dark blue, brown, and light green and an image of a standardized test, with the words Grades are not rewards for compliance. They are indicators of progress.

We are engaging in points transactions rather than engaging learners. And, if students aren't engaged in the work, if they are not "paying attention" or "just turning in blank papers", isn't that a big neon sign pointing to the lack of connection and relevance of the learning to their lives?  Or...perhaps something else that is really important to know about the learner?  

This is a BROAD statement- but dig in with me here.  I know that teachers are social workers, food providers, emotional support providers, nurses, therapists, tech support, and all the other things that have been put on our plate.  And I know that it might feel like I am telling you that you have to do more. And it might feel overwhelming-especially this year, especially with remote and hybrid and roomies and zoomies and the global trauma that we are living through.  Give yourself some grace, but please, keep reading.  

When a teacher says to me "but I have to hold them accountable" by assigning a grade to each piece of learning, I want to ask the following questions:

1) Do you know why the student is not engaged? Have you asked them or their care givers? Have you listened to the answer? Have you used that information to support that learner within your means? (And if the answer is yes, or I have done all I can, that's ok! Read this great article: When is it ok to say you've done "enough" for a student? from Angela Watson.) 

2) Is what you are asking the students to do something that they can and wish to engage in?  Is your content relevant to their lives or at least moderately interesting? Do they feel respected as learners? Do they feel like they are capable of doing the task, and that it has a point?  Do they feel like they are part of a community? Do they believe that you care for them and see them as for who they are?  

3) How deeply are you and the students engrained in the points transaction universe?  

4) Do students think that they have a reasonable path to success in your class, despite not having the requisite points or making the choice to not do work? Can they recover? 

The Hard Work

I know. I KNOW.  I am telling you the hard stuff. I am asking you to think and dig in and reflect and perhaps admit something uncomfortable, and yes, work more, and harder.  

But this work- developing engaging curriculum, connecting withs students and building relationships, and giving students the opportunity to succeed- this is good work. It is important work.  If you can focus on this, and try to minimize (or even eliminate) the work that doesn't serve students, then you will have more time for building connections and creating curriculum that is truly engaging and relevant.  Here are some thoughts about focusing on what matters.

OK, you've made it this far. Thank you. In my next post, I will talk about reframing accountability and what this looks like in a comprehension based (acquisition driven, proficiency oriented, CI) classroom. This is getting REALLY long!  


1Riddle, T., & Sinclair, S. (2019). Racial disparities in school-based disciplinary actions are associated with county-level rates of racial bias. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America, 116(17), 8255-8260.)

2Selby & Murphy, 1992 as referenced by Tom Guskey, "Five Obstacles to Grading Reform," Educational Leadership, ASCD, November 2011

3Feldman, J. (2019). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, a Sage Publishing Company.


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