Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Accountability Shouldn’t Stifle Teacher Creativity and Best Practices

By Amber Jimenez, American Federation of Teachers member and ELL teacher in Colville, WA

I like to take the first few weeks of summer vacation to do some serious reflection. I think about the school year and my successes and failures. This helps determine which books I read and classes I attend to help me prepare for the next school year. For the last few years, though, I have also thought seriously about teaching as a profession, how we as teachers are perceived, and how decisions and trends policy makers make affect my teaching practice.

Accountability seems to be the big buzz word these days. Starting with NCLB when I was a new teacher, districts began to take a closer look at student subgroups and became accountable for their success. As an ELL teacher I was happy to see a greater focus on my students’ progress. Yet NCLB’s focus on punishment in the end hurt my students. Because they needed more support, my elementary students lost access to the arts and even core subjects of science and social studies in the push towards reading and math. My high school students also lost out on elective opportunities because they needed to take resource and support classes to improve their test scores. My students were not well rounded and for many of them, the “fun part” of school was lost. Race to the Top wasn’t much better. States are relying on waivers from NCLB to retain funding. My new home state even recently lost its waiver. Our accountability system is up in the air.

Last school year I started in a new district in northeastern Washington. I moved from working in an inner city district to a rural district. Instead of having 80% ELLs in my district, there are now 8%. Instead of being one of dozens of ELL teachers, I am the only ELL teacher. I spent my first year getting to know my students, their classroom teachers, the administrators, and the program.

My 38 students are spread out in five different schools and at every grade level. This last year, students in elementary grades were spread out among three to five different classroom teachers per grade. For example, at kindergarten, the six ELL students had five different classroom teachers. This meant that the only practical way for me to give ELL service was through a pull-out model. So twice a week for 35 minutes, I pulled out the six ELL students for small group language intensive instruction. I met with teachers and administrators to lobby for a clustering model of ELL instruction for the upcoming school year. Instead of having the six ELL students spread out, I hoped to cluster them with one teacher. Then the two days a week that I am at the elementary school, I could push into their literacy block and help support the students by scaffolding the language and skills they need to be successful in their content classes.

Unfortunately, our district’s accountability system, in order to retain federal funds, is moving towards counting test scores into teacher pay and evaluations. The teachers in my district fear that if they take a cluster of ELLs and their pay is partly determined by test scores, the scores of those ELLs will lower their pay. Because of this, there was a big backlash against clustering. Next year my first graders are in four different classrooms and my second graders in three different classrooms. Best practices for students are being hindered because of a punishment model of accountability. In speaking with my colleagues, I have learned that this situation is not unique. Some teachers fear trying new things because they don’t want to be punished if their students aren’t making adequate progress. This hurts the students who most need the innovation – our ELLs, our students with special needs, our struggling students!

I agree that educators need to be held responsible for the success of all of our students. But policy makers also need to understand that we need resources and support to do that. When teachers choose to work with students who need more support, they should be rewarded. Students who need more resources should get them, not get punished by a lack of funding. We can’t innovate when we fear a loss of income or other reprisals. Accountability shouldn’t stifle teacher creativity. I am not sure what the answer is, but punishment has been the policy for the 14 years that I have been a teacher, and it’s not working.

This post originally appeared on the AFT’s Voices from the Classroom blog.

Image by ruurmo [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons