Addressing Fear of Accountability in Education

fear of accountability
(Image credit: Pixabay)

October marks several significant events. It is a month when fall is celebrated with festivals, pumpkins, spooky events, and open houses. It is also when educators and school leaders begin to feel a little settled with routine. They can dig deeper into teaching and instruction than teaching classroom management and establishing school culture. 

This month also marks the beginning of the federal fiscal year, aligning to publishing district accountability standings. Accountability in and of itself can be a scary word to some, but it does help us measure progress in how we can fully educate the students we serve as a district and state. However, progress isn’t accomplished by every district or state. This is even more so as we live in the endemic of COVID. 

Accountability isn’t new to education. Horace Mann was the secretary of the Massachusetts state board of education in the 1830s and a staunch advocate for creating a publicly funded school system that would enable all children to attend for free and to be taught literacy, morals, and citizenship. He referred to this universal schooling plan as ‘common schools,’ and pushed that we needed to know that all students were equally prepared to be citizens as a nation. This created a great controversy during this time because one set of people didn’t want to pay for public schooling, and another didn’t believe that “universal” would mean all races of students. 

Over time the number of students enrolled (opens in new tab) grew from about 55% of children aged 5 to 14 to 78% by 1870. The public overcame their fear of the unknown and began embracing the concept of public school. 

It wasn’t until 1965 that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, along with other significant federal legislation, began to define expectations and outline the accountability of public school systems. Today, the legislation is in its third iteration, the Every Student Succeeds Act. This legislation dictates to states receiving federal funding what they must do to receive the money. Many states rely on federal funding to offset the cost of educating their youth. Accountability is a large part of this legislation.

Overcoming Fear of Accountability 

Over the coming weeks, states will begin to post their results on public websites as ESSA requires. Parents and community members will begin to read these results without fully understanding the science and statistics behind the numbers. Many will call schools and teachers demanding answers, some will withdraw students from the schools, and others will petition governors for change. Fear will swell in communities that have lower-performing schools. Realtors will wonder if they can sell the houses in that school’s zone, business owners will wonder what impact it will have on their community, and community leaders will be fending off negative stories. 

If there is one thing to be learned from the history of education, it is that we are cyclical. Everything that was will come again. The ‘Common School’ movement was repeated in the early 21st century during the ‘Common Core’ movement, with similar results. Eventually, everyone settled into what they could be comfortable with. 

A similar cycle is repeating as a result of the pandemic. Much change occurred in our schools and we had a few years where accountability was waived.  

Schools should be the cornerstone of a community, and the school's success should be the community's responsibility, not just the families being served or the faculties being employed. Everyone within a community should care enough about their school to overcome failure because when this happens, we will have nothing to fear about our public schools. 

Dr. Ray's career includes designing technology within the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and directing technology research through Vanderbilt University School of Medicine Science Outreach programs. As a district administrator for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, she led the award-winning design, implementation, and evaluation of instructional technology programs, including instructional design for online and blended learning environments, redesigning physical learning environments, redefining school libraries, and establishing the first virtual high school to award the diploma. She leads K20Connect (opens in new tab) and other passion projects supporting K20 education around the world.