Teacher accountability gone horribly wrong

Adapted from an older, much longer post for your convenience. You can read the original, or look at the findings discussed here.

In providing prescriptions for school reform Richard Ingersoll, former teacher and current Professor of Education and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, recognizes that “[t]eachers are important, and they do have an effect on students, and hence it is appropriate to hold them accountable” (Ingersoll, 2003, p. 235). In fact, he argues that “the public has a right, and indeed obligation to be concerned with the performance of teachers” (Ingersoll, 2003, p. 235–emphasis added).

I don’t disagree.

Much like my personal beliefs, Ingersoll’s beliefs that teachers are important and ought to be held accountable do not support current movements to hold teachers more accountable by introducing performance-based pay (such as the value-added method which rates teachers according to their student’s gains on standardized tests), firing low-quality teachers, or [insert any other ridiculous teacher grading system reform here].

Ingersoll finds that the accountability reforms geared at addressing the problems associated with teacher performance have 3 obvious problems that make them both unappealing and ineffective:

1) They are inaccurate because reformers lack proper experience and fail to consult those they seek to reform;

2) They are unfair because they don’t recognize “the extent to which the teaching workforce is a source of human, social, and even financial capital in schools” (p. 236); and,

3) Such accountability reforms often don’t work as “[t]oo much organizational control can deny teachers the very control and flexibility necessary to do their job effectively and can undermine the motivation of those doing the job” (Ingersoll, 2003, p. 236).

Recognizing the complex nature of education and the influences of school environment, family, community, etc. on student performance, Ingersoll explains that “[i]f top-down policies hold teachers accountable for activities they do not control, they may harm the very thing they seek to improve–teacher performance” (Ingersoll, 2003, p. 237). Consequently, to effectively improve the quality of our teachers and schools, Ingersoll believes “we need to improve the quality of the teaching job” (Ingersoll, 2003, p. 249). For him, the lesson from his data, analyses, and past reform experiences is clear: “[I]f reform is to be effective, actual decision-making power must be shared” (Ingersoll, 2003, p. 246).

I strongly agree with Ingersoll’s statement that “[a]ccountability and power must go hand in hand; increases in one must be accompanied by increases in the other” (Ingersoll, 2003, p. 244–emphasis added). In this sense, if we wish to hold teachers more accountable, we must give them more power over their practice, as  “it does not make sense to hold somebody accountable for something they don’t control, nor does it make sense to give someone control over something for which they are not held accountable” (Ingersoll, 2003, pp. 244-245). To these ends, we should support and push for reform movements that strive to balance accountability and power, and use data and findings such as those presented in his book to create policies that accurately reflect the realities of teaching and school organization.

Data and evaluation are not inherently bad.

However the current data that we use to measure teacher quality and/or “effectiveness” is BAD DATA. We’re using poorly developed measures that are completely inadequate for their current use. Not only is it foolish to think that a student-based achievement test accurately captures the various aspects of teaching quality, but if you want to use a student test to measure teacher quality, then when you design that test teacher effectiveness has to be the objective you have in mind. I promise you the process for designing such a test would be very different from the process that is currently used to design state-wide, mandatory, student achievement tests that are then purposely, yet definitely mistakenly, applied as measures of teacher quality and effectiveness. Additionally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how imperative it is that we find some way to account for the plethora of outside factors–factors that one cannot control from the classroom–that impact student achievement and teacher effectiveness in our evaluations.

The current reforms associated with the teacher accountability movement do not strive to balance accountability and power, and they do not accurately reflect the realities of teaching and school organization. On top of this, they employ the use of bad measures and therefore unfairly rate and then punish or reward teachers. I am hopeful that in the future we can strive to balance accountability and power in our policies, and use data and findings such as those presented in Ingersoll’s book to create policies that accurately reflect the realities of teaching and school organization.

Once we develop a means to obtain good, reliable, valid data that can be used to measure teacher quality in a way that is fair and makes sense, I will fully support data-driven decisions in this arena. (I will not ever support public dissemination and shaming of teachers based on the results; if the ratings and data are to be used for anything it should be to help these underperforming teachers improve).

As it stands we are painfully far from having such data. Instead of pushing states to rapidly design new teacher evaluation systems (thanks RTTT and NCLB waivers), we ought to proceed with caution. Think about what we want to know. Think about how best to measure what we ought to know. Think about the various confounding factors in measuring teacher quality and effectiveness. Honestly, we ought to start from scratch and get teachers, psychometricians, and other experts involved together, as a team. Empower these people and give them the means to develop a fair evaluation system. Then wait and see what happens.

I would rather wait a decade-plus to develop a good tool for teacher evaluation than see use of a poorly designed, inadequate tool propagated. And you can quote me on that.


Ingersoll, R.M. (2003). Who Controls Teachers’ Work? Power and Accountability in America’s Schools. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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3 thoughts on “Teacher accountability gone horribly wrong

  1. Pingback: Standardize This | Educational Aspirations

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