MARTHA CHENEY: Assuming responsibility for our own school roles

By Martha Cheney

I do not know Jason Wester but I intend to find him and introduce myself. His Jan. 20 column in the Journal helped me to regain some of the hope for our public schools that I have lost recently. His delineation of the difference between ”accountability’ and “responsibility” should be required reading for all decision makers.
There is no question that politicians and the general public are demanding accountability from our schools. No one can argue that an overall C minus rating and an F on K-12 achievement are acceptable. The fact that we received an A rating and ranked 10th in the nation in the area of standards, assessment and accountability only reinforces Wester’s contention that there is a limited connection between our accountability system and the actual performance in our schools. So how do we shift from our emphasis on holding others accountable to an emphasis on assuming responsibility for our own roles?
The major flaw in the emphasis on accountability is that those at the “top” of the system who are demanding accountability from those at the “bottom” are not being held accountable themselves. Legislators are responsible for making and funding laws. They should fully fund the Adequate Education Act or remove the law. Legislators are responsible for the structure of our education system. Research clearly indicates that Mississippi has too many school districts. Legislators should act on the recommendations of the Commission on School Reorganization. The problems created by electing school superintendents are obvious. Although research regarding this issue produces conflicting results there is general agreement that the negatives outweigh the positives. Legislators should enact a law requiring appointed superintendents.
The Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) is responsible for supporting the work of the districts. They should reorganize to reflect a servant/responsibility model rather than an accountability model. When new initiatives are launched they should provide the training and support needed by teachers to ensure their success. They should strengthen their efforts to reward excellence in teaching. They should encourage bottom-up leadership. There is no clearer evidence of MDE’s emphasis on a top-down, bureaucratic approach to governance than the fact that our state superintendent of education is one of the top paid superintendents in the nation while our teachers are on or near the bottom.
The educators at the district level are responsible for supporting the work of the educators in the schools. In this role they manage support services, budgets and basic functioning of the system. The bureaucracy at this level continues to grow consuming scarce resources. The primary accountability measures at this level are the test scores of the students in their various buildings. So the role of district administrators increasingly revolves around placing pressure on teachers and building administrators to improve test scores.
Building level administrators and teachers are responsible for interacting with students and parents on a daily basis. They are responsible for nurturing the growth of all their students. Since they are at the “bottom” of this accountability model they receive the most pressure and pass it on to their students. The poor teaching practices fostered by “teaching to the test” are too complex to discuss in this article. The impact on professionalism is immeasurable.
I am not sure how long it will take for us to realize that we are moving on a misdirected path. We seem determined to spend our energy creating charter schools and re-examining the retirement system. Our legislators seem willing to make it easier for parents to abandon the public schools rather than addressing the difficult issues that schools face. They appear to think that privatizing schools and giving parents choice are simple remedies for all our problems.And we continue to measure success with standardized tests. I do not know how these issues will be resolved but I do know that the greatest hope for our public schools is the support of parents who remain committed to public education and who demand excellence. We need the strong voices of parents like Jason Wester.
Martha Cheney is a retired educator. She lives near Tupelo and writes occasionally for the Opinion pages. Contact her at mcheney1@bellsouth.net.