Community Voices From the Principal's Office How do local school leaders define accountability?

Posted: March 18, 2001

Setting goals and following through

In any school, the principal, who is the instructional leader, and all the adults in the building - from cafeteria aide to assistant principal - have the power to teach accountability to each other, to students and to parents. Accountability ultimately means taking responsibility, and now I am seeing more students demanding to be responsible. I attribute that to a school community that is child-centered and that operates in teams that depend on each other for success.

At Strawberry Mansion Middle/High School, our students, led by staff, are focused on developing the willingness and the ability to assume responsibility. This means they are looking to see what needs to be done and then doing something about it. They are setting goals and following through. They are learning essential skills that must be practiced for success not only in school but in life.

The teaching methods we use, called "constructivist teaching," are designed to develop these competencies, as well as master academic material. We, the educators, are accountable to demonstrate daily that we understand not only the subjects we teach, but also that all students learn differently. We educators are accountable to be prepared to reach each student by whatever means necessary. We understand that students should hold us accountable to use multiple techniques. That is the best way to assure them the opportunity to prove they have learned what we teach. Our special victories come when we don't let them fail - no matter what personal challenges of poverty, family crises, or neighborhood blight confront them.

That is why at Strawberry Mansion we have had a special focus on innovative measures that show promise for helping ninth graders succeed. Why ninth graders? Because a recent study has found that more than 50 percent of students who drop out leave in ninth grade. Thus, both Strawberry Mansion and Edison High School have fully implemented a nationally known, research-based instructional program with a ninth-grade component aimed at student attendance, achievement scores and drop-out rate.

Thanks to the Talent Development program, a partnership between the School District of Philadelphia and Johns Hopkins University of Baltimore, more ninth graders are staying in school and experiencing more success. Parents should hold me and my fellow principals accountable for using such innovative programs in schools - and they should know many are doing just that.

For too long, accountability in education has been a dirty word. I am pleased to say that as we have given the tools to students to be accountable for themselves, they have shown more willingness to assume responsibility not only for their academic progress but also for challenging teachers to be more creative, or "constructivist" in the classroom. I am proud that both students and staff have demonstrated their mutual willingness to be accountable - and that they understand accountability leads to success. Mansion students and staff are winners because of it.

Charles Highsmith

Principal

Strawberry Mansion

Middle/High School

Philadelphia

Concept is rooted in integrity

Many people think accountability is about how schools measure up to uniform curriculum standards and standardized test scores. And it may very well be, if you believe that accountability is merely quantitative.

While numbers are valuable, I believe that accountability is neither simply numerical nor formulaic. It is, instead, qualitative. It is rooted in integrity.

Accountability describes a state of mind, a global orientation, and the relationship one has with family, friends, colleagues and neighbors. It describes mutuality and the ethics inherent in reciprocity. Accountability describes a group or an individual's response to others in a community.

There are many examples of accountability in a school:

A set of expectations characterize the relationship between the school and the home; families expect that the school will provide a secure environment and a solid education, and the school expects that parents will support school policy and procedure; when both parties meet expectations, each is accountable.

In exchange for fully and faithfully discharging their duties as teachers, the faculty expects that schools will provide commensurate salary, professional development opportunities, a hospitable workplace, and appropriate educational tools; when both parties meet these expectations, each is accountable.

When individuals respond to community standards with sustained consistency, they are accountable.

Members of a school community who respect the logic of deadlines, the details of contracts, the importance of a courteous reply are accountable.

Athletes who practice self-discipline, punctuality, diligence and effort toward team goals, are accountable.

When students remain committed to a project through its completion, they are accountable.

Those who make a right decision must enjoy the benefits of their decision, and similarly, those whose decisions invite undesirable consequences must remain accountable to the results. Responsibility to the decision and to the subsequent effects of the decision is accountability.

When members of a school community take seriously the full range of their role of accountability to each other, therein lies the integrity.

Rose Hagan

Head of Friends Select School

Values and respect for each person

Accountability is defined as accepting responsibility for one's self and for the welfare of others. It also means that we see our own actions as important, affecting others in ways seen and unseen.

I have worked in Catholic schools in four different dioceses throughout the United States and have seen a common thread in all of them: caring teachers who accept the challenge of educating students, students who accept responsibility for their actions, and parents who choose to support the school in their role of teaching accountability to their children.

Catholic schools exist to educate students in their faith, teach the values of the Gospel, and integrate these values into all the secular sciences. They teach accountability in the context of biblical values and respect for the human person.

Teachers are accountable to their profession, their students and to each other. They assist young people to acquire life skills, moral values and a sense of responsibility. Their spirit of community strengthens their school and improves the curriculum they teach and the extracurricular activities they supervise. Teachers improve themselves by maintaining professional credentials required by law. The most effective teachers exceed these standards by seeking higher degrees and additional courses in an attempt to be the best in their profession.

Students are taught accountability in Catholic schools and are asked to demonstrate it in their daily lives. A strong code of conduct that emphasizes discipline tempered by fairness teaches the student respect for self and for others. Catholic school students are taught that all people are good because they are God's children. The students are taught community service according to the biblical notion that we are gifted and must give to others without expecting return: "The measure you measure with will be measured back to you."

Parents bear the primary responsibility to educate their children. They entrust their children to Catholic schools to fulfill this obligation and to teach them accountability. Working with the teachers, they support the school's efforts to pass on values that are important in this life and that lead toward eternal life.

Accountability seems to be vanishing in contemporary society. Many in public life fail to demonstrate this value. Contemporary morality teaches few moral absolutes and young people are not often held accountable for their choices and actions. It is the role of the school, and especially the Catholic school, in concert with parents, to teach accountability.

Students who are accountable are mature, responsible, self-disciplined individuals who see themselves as God's children, and will be held to a strict accounting by that God. The greatest commandment teaches us to love your neighbor as yourself. There is no higher standard for accountability.

Rev. Robert G. Mulligan

Father Judge High School

Principal@fjquest.com

Tried-and-true ways that produce results

Effective schooling in the 21st century demands accountability. A solid basic elementary education and an expansive secondary education are critical to restore the faith of the people of our region in the public schools.

However, most of the current means promulgated by government to affect accountability miss the mark, waste valuable classroom time and resources, and are shockingly anti-intellectual.

The use of standardized testing as the paramount means of measurement to determine the success or failure of our public schools will never improve schooling. As President Bush asked, "Doesn't 'teaching to the test' mean study reading and math?" It is a simple question with a simple answer that is downright wrong.

Teaching to the test is a full-time occupation in American schools today, but the tests are not divinely inspired. Rather, they come from some of America's biggest publishing houses. These are the same people who charge $60 to $100 per textbook. The same megacorporations that have created a new plethora of books, tapes and masters dedicated to test preparation. A cottage industry of test-prep entrepreneurs and consultants has sprung up around the country.

Accountability is good business, but never forget that every penny that goes into test-prep is taken away from sound, basic instruction.

Our political leaders have chosen the easiest answer. But does it make sense that America's schools have suddenly become unable to teach reading, writing and arithmetic?

We will spend five days giving the Pennsylvania Assessment and the SAT-9 this month. These tests will be snapshots of fill-in-the-dots thinking, but they won't answer why, as in "Why does Johnny not know?"

If we really were serious about accountability, we would promote a tried-and-true form of accountability.

We would let supervisors be supervisors. In the corporate world, accountability is a part of every workday, but government-run institutions run scared from this commonsense approach: Hire a trusted, experienced supervisor who has the authority to determine the quality of the work habits and work product of each employee.

Simple good teaching is not a mystery; it is the result of a set of known acts, such as classroom management, planning, decorum, role modeling, etc.

Measuring the end results of any human endeavor is full of uncontrollable variables, but measuring the performance of an individual is possible.

Until we are willing to make this hard choice, we will be doing nothing but hand-wringing and spin-doctoring.

Joseph Proietta

Head of Community Academy

of Philadelphia

proietta@earthlink.net

Parents, teachers, students: Your turn

In terms of education, how do you define "accountability"? Give an example of how your school has promoted accountability, or a time when it fell short.

Send essays of 200 to 300 words, including a phone number for verification, by April 2 to Voices/Accountability, The Inquirer, Box 41705, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101. Send faxes to 215-854-4483 or send e-mail to inquirer.letters@phillynews.com.

All submissions become the property of The Inquirer and may be republished in any form or medium.

Questions? Call Kevin Ferris, readers' editor, at 215-854-4543.

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