Authentic Accountability: The Education Profession at a Crossroads

by Mike Schmoker
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XIX, Number 1, April 2007, Developing a Staff of Learners

In some ways the education profession is still in its infancy. Certainly, we've made real progress. The profession has generated invaluable research about effective practices. When implemented—even by novice teachers—these practices virtually guarantee achievement gains. This research demonstrates that instruction has more impact on learning than any other factor (Reeves, 2006; Marzano, 2004; Sanders, 1994). If we chose to respond to this knowledge as true professionals, the impact on student learning would be front-page news.

But we haven't responded yet. Some researchers contend that we remain the "not-quite profession" (Elmore, 2000, p. 5). Carl Glickman explains:

By definition, a profession is the work of persons who possess a body of knowledge, skills and practices that must be continually tested and upgraded with colleagues. . . . The challenge is to use more fully what we have learned from this knowledge base. (pp. 4–6)

Why haven't we used this invaluable professional knowledge base more fully? The reason is that, unlike other advanced professions, we have never established a true culture of accountability. In such a culture, professionals themselves would ensure, through various means, that their members stay within the bounds of best (or at least acceptable) standards and practice. The membership would hold itself accountable for results.

Consider medicine. Before 1910, medicine was a profession in name only. The field was characterized by a freelance, chaotic culture that allowed doctors to embrace or ignore practices based on preference or whim. All that changed in 1910, when Abraham Flexner published a report on the abysmal state of medical training and practice. The report led to immediate, stunning improvements, the result of authentic accountability mechanisms implemented and embraced by the entire medical community. Historians have argued that Flexner's report saved more lives and reduced more suffering than any other event in human history.

Freedom Isn't Free

Educators, in their way, are also in the life-saving business; their actions and behavior make or break the lives and potential of tens of millions of students each year. But alas, most teachers and leaders are not truly, professionally accountable for their behavior. They are still surprisingly free to engage in practices manifestly at odds with the most widely known elements of effective teaching and supervision.

This is not an exaggeration; it is confirmed by every close study of actual classroom practice, going back to John Goodlad's reports from the thousands of classrooms his teams visited. In the words of Harvard's Tony Wagner, all such studies reveal that "most of us [teachers] are mediocre at what we do" (Wagner, 2004, p. 40). They confirm Richard Elmore's observation that "exemplary practices never take root in more than a small proportion of classrooms and schools" (Elmore, 2000, p. 6). As many educators know, "Effective teaching is quite different from the teaching that is typically found in most classrooms" (Odden & Kelley, 2002, pp. 18–19).

Is this an overstatement? Consider the following examples:

  • In every kind of school, daily lessons usually lack a clear focus on a selected standard or outcome—an absolute precondition for the lesson to succeed (Learning 24/7, 2005). In most schools, what teachers actually teach varies wildly from any kind of agreed-upon curriculum with calamitous consequences; Marzano and others found this factor to be, arguably, the single most important factor on which learning pivots (Berliner, 1984; Marzano, 2003; Rosenholtz, 1991). Without a "guaranteed and viable curriculum," any effort to improve learning levels is crippled from the start (Marzano, 2003).
  • In the crucial area of literacy instruction, decades of studies reveal that purposeful reading and writing activities are alarmingly rare, supplanted by activities with no connection whatsoever to students' ability to read critically or write effectively (Powell, Farrar, & Cohen, 1985; Marino, 1988; Calkins et al., 1998; Allington, 2001). While meaningful reading, writing, and higher-order activities go begging, students waste countless hours filling out worksheets, performing skits, or making collages and mobiles. These take the place of systematic, effective instruction on how to master the elements of effective writing, how to use a rubric or an exemplar to guide their effort. This is a direct result of the fact that principals simply do not monitor the quality or substance of instruction.
  • While professionals in every other field routinely work in self-managing teams, teachers rarely work in team-based professional learning communities to build and improve lessons, units, and assessments on the basis of assessment data (Wagner, 2004; Black & Wiliam, 1998; Schmoker, 2006). This means that there are no empirically based corrective mechanisms for studying and improving practice and performance where it counts—in schools and classrooms.
  • Finally, low-quality, haphazardly selected worksheets continue to occupy an alarming portion of class time despite the fact that children learn best from interacting with materials, concepts, and problems and with each other in activities that strengthen thinking and reading skills and problem-solving (Church, 2006; Allington, 2001; Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, & Wilkinson, 1985). The typical teacher in America continues to make extensive use of low-quality worksheets with absolute impunity. In the vast majority of schools, no one—no leader or administrator or department head—discusses, discourages, or confronts this widespread practice, which can have devastating consequences, especially for poor or underachieving students (Allington, 2001).
Photo of three teachers talking.

Good People; Bad System

It isn't that we don't know better. And it isn't that we don't care. Nor is this the result of a shortage of good or talented teachers. The problem is that the current system does not monitor instruction or take steps to ensure that teachers adhere to basic professional practices. The evidence points to the fact that the great majority of our ineffective teachers could be far more effective, but the system does not equip them to be effective: It does not monitor their practice or provide feedback that allows them to improve their practice.

Professional development is needed. Leaders, including department heads and teacher leaders, need to be trained in how to conduct quick, monthly, unannounced classroom walkthroughs—as many as 15 classes in an hour. Especially in the early going, the focus here should be less on individual teachers, more on identifying school-wide patterns of strengths and weaknesses in daily lessons. Questions such as the following should be asked: In how many classrooms was an agreed-upon standard being taught—and was the standard crystal clear to students? Are lessons in line with the most basic elements of good instruction? Are the all-important "checks for understanding" built into lessons? Is higher-order thinking being taught where appropriate? Are rubrics and exemplars being used and thoroughly explained, so that students can adequately "self-assess" their work? Importantly, leaders must also be trained in how to share data on these patterns of strengths and weaknesses at faculty meetings—and then how to clarify goals and expectations for improvement—which they will monitor through subsequent walkthroughs. It's that simple.

Such training and procedures would create a system that forces us to appreciate the profound opportunity inherent in the following unsung but indisputable facts:

  1. Good daily lessons and units, if they align reasonably well with a coherent, agreed-upon curriculum, pay off hugely and immediately, especially with low-achieving students (Black & Wiliam, 1998; Schmoker, 2006). Cumulatively, they will dramatically reduce the achievement gap, in some cases eliminating it (Rivkin, Hanushek, & Kain, 2002; Marzano, 2003). A mere 3 years of effective teaching adds, on average, 35–50 percentile points to a student's achievement level—enough to account for high school failure or college graduation (Sanders, 1994).
  2. Conversely, poor practices—inferior lessons, units, and assessments—have an immediate and enduring impact on students, especially the poor and disadvantaged; they literally prevent learning and intellectual development. They perpetuate the achievement gap.

Poor practices have an immediate and enduring impact on students.

The current system needs to repeat and clarify and expound on these simple facts, with examples of real kids from real schools, until we "get it." We need to make the palpable consequences of daily instruction clear and observable to every educator. If we did, the odds are good that practice would improve. If we were routinely provided with evidence of how shabby, poorly planned lessons and worksheets were harming children, teachers and leaders would begin to recoil at such practices.

But alas, the current system lacks the courage to do this. It lets us blame outside or social circumstances; it doesn't force us to confront the brutal facts in the way that medicine did in 1910. It doesn't force us to develop what is the foundation of accountability: a keen, deeply felt sense of responsibility or accountability for the impact which our daily teaching—and that of our colleagues—has on kids' lives and learning.

As James Stigler writes, to build a "true profession of teaching," we must be accountable, and we must "take responsibility for steady and lasting improvement" (2004, p. 15).

The Way Up: Authentic, Internal Accountability

This is a practical and correctable matter. As Pedro Noguera writes, schools still tolerate astonishing levels of malpractice because they've never developed a system of "quality control"—a near-synonym for "accountability" (2004, p. 30). In schools, what appears to be quality control really isn't. We've known for some time that so-called "instructional supervision," including teacher evaluation, has almost no impact on the quality of daily instruction (Marshall, 2005). The same goes for leadership evaluation, which has never—let's be honest here—held administrators accountable for ensuring or even monitoring instructional quality (Reeves, 2002; Elmore, 2000; Evans, 1996). You can't have quality without quality control (i.e, monitoring and accountability).

For those who think there is more accountability now than ever—who look to the high-profile presence of state and federal regulations in our recent lives—take pause. Richard Elmore doubts that such external accountability will ever amount to much absent a strong ethos of internal accountability (Elmore, 2006).

In a true profession, external rules and requirements only codify and support what is embraced internally among the professionals themselves. In a mature profession, there is an abiding, collective sense that one's work must reasonably conform to the best standards and practices out of respect to one's clients, colleagues, and profession. For all our rightful celebration of tolerance these days, internal accountability demands a certain intolerance if you will: a need for professional educators to cultivate what Roland Barth (2002) calls "moral outrage at ineffective practices" wherever they occur. As Robert Evans (1996) exhorts us, we need to embrace an internally established professional ethos that is willing, as a matter of professional pride, to "raise appropriate guilt and anxiety" when those among us choose to ignore sound, professional practices.

But don't despair. This major shift toward internal accountability and true professionalism could be achieved by disarmingly simple means: shedding our addiction to broad initiatives and embracing the most fundamental elements of our profession—instructional lessons and units.

The Big Shift to Lessons, Units, and Assessments

For the moment, forget annual test results. Forget the perennial parade of programs and initiatives and improvement plans. Let's instead focus our staff development efforts on ensuring that teachers, in teams, learn to design individual and highly effective lessons or units. As true professionals, they would adopt and adapt—largely on their own—the knowledge they already possess about teaching and learning.

In this simple scheme, teams of teachers would first establish which standards they will teach in each course. They would divide these by quarter and then administer a common assessment on these same standards, also by quarter. As we saw above, this would have a gargantuan impact on learning.

These same teams would pool the best of their already existing knowledge to generate effective lessons and units, always improving them on the basis of assessment results. They would refine lessons and units by analyzing assessment results and publicly celebrating and sharing every lesson and unit that succeeds.

These simple activities, if given the emphasis they deserve, would constitute a new culture. Success here would rely less on training and more on commonsense concerns such as these: On which items did the greatest number of students fail? Why? Which skills might have been taught more effectively? Were our explanations or illustrations understandable? Did we make the criteria for success on this assignment clear enough to students? Did we provide good examples or exemplars to students?

Discussions on such questions would become a professional expectation, reinforced by the fact that every successful lesson or unit would be celebrated and analyzed for what made it effective. In this way, we would immediately and profoundly improve the quality of public education—one lesson at a time.

We Can Do This

Such efforts as just described represent the most effective form of professional development and need not be extravagant. If time devoted to meetings is spent wisely, even a couple of regularly scheduled, highly focused, 45-minute meetings per month could make a world of difference.

Every new teacher would know and be expected to participate in such team-based empirical processes from his or her first day of teaching. Every preservice class, every professional development workshop would link all new learning to these essential processes; every teacher interview would emphasize their importance and demand commitment to them as a condition for hiring. And every faculty and central office meeting would include references to these simple processes along with success stories of results—the "small wins" achieved on any single lesson, unit, project, or written assignment. It would be no different than the discussions among doctors about a successful treatment or surgical technique. Such results-oriented team meetings constitute the very highest form of professional development.

This focus on individual lessons and units doesn't diminish the growing acknowledgement that more broad-based assessments—i.e., common, quarterly assessments—are a critical part of the new infrastructure of accountability. These are vital tools in helping us mindfully select and organize a schedule for teaching the most essential standards. Moreover, compared to annual assessments, such interim assessments create more frequent occasions for us to stop and consider the relationship between the previous quarter's efforts and the results achieved, which we can then use as the basis for improving future lessons and units.

As Black and Wiliam (1998) have argued, we've embraced large-scale programmatic change for decades with almost no impact while ignoring the actualities and impact of daily instruction and assessment. If teachers aren't in the habit of more carefully constructing, evaluating, and adjusting lessons and units against assessment results, and if they don't consciously align these lessons with an agreed-upon set of high-quality standards, we're dead in the water.

Becoming a Profession

Making this shift—just as medicine did in 1910—is absolutely within our reach. It's as simple and doable as anything we've ever attempted. We have an army of professionals who can help us. State department officials, central office and building leaders, department heads, staff developers, teacher leaders, and college professors can clarify, remind, and reinforce these simple actions and structures on every occasion. Some retooling may be in order as we move away from "presentations" and toward self-managing teams, a model that requires teams of teachers to immediately translate their learning into effective lessons, units, and assessments during and after every team meeting or presentation.

It is worth repeating that the next critical, if still overlooked step, is to share, celebrate, and learn from as many successful lessons and units as possible. These small wins are the real stepping stones toward major improvement (Fullan, 2001). From such efforts, we will realize swift, stunning gains in achievement—and a new professionalism will emerge.

Mike Schmoker is a speaker and writer living in Flagstaff, Arizona. His most recent book is Results NOW: How We Can Achieve Unprecedented Improvements in Teaching and Learning (ASCD, 2006).


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