Accountability – I do not think it means what you think it means

If you’ve ever seen the movie The Princess Bride, you’ll know that the character Vizzini keeps referring to various situations in the movie as being “inconceivable.” You’ll also know that eventually Inigio Montoya responds to Vizzini’s cries of “inconceivable” with the second best line in the movie: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I am reminded of this conversation every time I hear the word accountability used in relation education.

If we could just find that magical mathematical formula of what effective teaching is through testing the kids, the teachers, the schools, the caretaker’s cat against benchmarks then we’d be set. From those numbers we’ll be able to find out who the super teachers and super schools are, what they do to get results and then replicate it on a grand scale. In short we would be able to teacher-proof our education system.

Is that a good thing?

I’m pretty happy to wager a Big Mac that there is nobody out there who is talking about lowering standards. But the problem is that we want our schools to be a bit like McDonalds all identical, all good. I can see the appeal. There’s some comfort in knowing that if I rock up to a McDonalds in Beijing or New York that my Big Mac is going to taste like the one I can order at the Maccers on Queen Street. More importantly nobody is going to argue that school is the place we send kids to learn. Right now there are some children out there who aren’t engaged and this is causing problems both for the kids themselves and also for the wider community. So our schools need to do more to help those kids in particular but also others to succeed.

The problem is that we’ve defined success in education as passing assessments to demonstrate literacy and numeracy. Don’t get me wrong being able to read, write and be able to do maths are important not just economically but also for the functioning of our democracy. But there is a deeper purpose to education which we often forget when we focus on test scores.

Broadly speaking the purpose of education is to help students discover and cultivate their passions so that they can lead happy lives.

We don’t just read and write because it is good for the economy and society that we are literate. We do so because there is something innate in our humanity that we wish to understand and be understood.  Likewise we humans have an innate attraction to pattern structure, and symmetry that maths helps  us refine.  Gambling, soduku,  rubick’s cube are based on maths but we don’t think of it is as such because we’ve mistaken computation for maths.

I don’t think for one minute think that literacy and maths are the only ways humans seek to make sense of the world. It saddens me greatly that science, social science, the arts are getting the squeeze put on them in order to focusing in on the good old 3Rs. But this is what happens when only certain parts of the curriculum are deemed worthy enough to be  ‘accountable.’  We start to forget about the other learning areas which  means we also marginalize the children in our schools who might have particular talents or interests in those disciplines.

On a more broader scale standards do not reflect a student’s ability to think creatively, persist in the face of adversity, work collaboratively with peers or use problem solving skills. If we think in terms of those skills, National Standards are not able to adequately assess them. It’s not just educators who know the value of these so-called soft skills yet they are deemed superfluous when a student is evaluated by national standards.

So when Dom Post tells primary teachers to suck it up when we voice concern about what the accountability measures might mean in schools as cover up  our ‘poor performance’ I get scared. Not because I think my performance is poor at 2 weeks on job but I’m scared more broadly about a set of assumptions that are being made to measure performance and the effect this will have on our kids.

I’m scared that the National Standards that are being used to measure accountability aren’t particularly accurate right now yet we assuming that they are.

I’m scared future classrooms will be focused more on students making the standards rather than learning.

I’m scared for the students who have an interest in the arts, science or social science will miss out on developing their passions because they aren’t deemed important enough by our policy makers to measure.

I’m scared for that the gifted and talented kids learning needs will be ignored because they are functioning well above standard and the focus on improving gains for all might marginalize this group of learners.

I’m scared for the kids with severe learning difficulties will never have their efforts and progress over the year acknowledged because they are below standard.

I’m scared that I might be labeling english language learners below standard because their thinking got lost in translation.

I’m scared that by reducing teaching and learning down to passing a series of assessments we will lose sight of the reason why we educate children in the first place.

Despite my rantings I do believe that standardized tests have a place in education. They can provide useful diagnostic information about a child’s learning needs when they are used appropriately. However just like blood pressure is only a small measure of a person’s health and can not give an overall picture of a person’s well being standards should not be the sum of all a student’s academic parts let alone the focus for the entire education system.

That word you keep using, accountabilty, I don’t think it means learning.

13 thoughts on “Accountability – I do not think it means what you think it means

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  1. Excellent post. Just excellent. I am scared right along with you. But I will not move from the path of delivering opportunity rather than curriculum and remaining accountable to the people that matter – my pupils and their futures. I would advise us all to stay focused on the only things that matter in this – the governments will come and go, the tirade of abuse will just change shape from time to time, but the kids will still come to school to seek knowledge. And it’s our responsibility to them to be the best that we can be. Nothing else really scares me as much as us losing that.


    1. Hi Kimberley,
      I agree be out best offence is to do our jobs well! But nevertheless there are some things flying around at the moment that make me feel uncomfortable.



  2. Accountability is an unwieldly concept in any sufficiently complex field, if you ask me.

    I wonder if you’ve seen this piece about education in Finland? It deals with accountability in the two ways you’ve identified: students to standards, and teachers to student achievement. This passage has been stuck in my mind since I read it:

    “As for accountability of teachers and administrators, Sahlberg shrugs. “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish,” he later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.””


        1. Hi Brendon,
          Thanks for the link. I agree the key concept of accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted is rather salient.



  3. Thanks for such a great post Stephanie! I love your closing statement and it’s the second day in row that I have been part of a conversation, albeit virtually today, where such testing was compared to the irrelevance of using one’s blood pressure to determine the entire state of our health at any one time! Love it.


    1. Hi Debbie,
      I think it is important that we start our conversations from, what is it we want our kids to get from being educated in the broadest sense of the word.



  4. I totally agree with you. It’s one of the reasons I have decided to switch my children to another school that focuses on the child and lets them explore their passions. Yes, maths can be taught through art etc.

    I really believe it is the child we must start with and the curriculum document needs to work around the child. How do they learn best? What are their interests? There’s a real danger in continually judging children as being “at” close to” or whatever National Standards grading system a school is using that “the child” will just get lost along with their natural love of learning. I imagine many parents get so fed up they do not even bother going to parent teacher interviews. I as a parent and a teacher want to know mine/ or a parents child is enjoying school, has work they are proud of and they are progressing as they should. Not where they are at on some graph. However, in saying that I have to work within the system. Thankfully at this stage I’m a relief teacher and hopefully some positive changes will be made soon before I take on my own class :-).


  5. I enjoyed your post, Stephanie, and agree with your sentiments. It is stomach churning to read such superficial analysis on the factors which impact on a child’s achievement at school and in life. The social groups who are best served by National Standards are also the ones who hold the most power, so it is no surprise that policy such as this is not based on the principles of social justice.
    Historically, there have been other periods, such as the 1970’s, when National Standards were promoted as the way to ‘fix’ the problem of low literacy and numeracy rates in school-leavers. Economic conditions in the 1970s were similar to they are now, with high youth unemployment and unfavourable international trading conditions, and which skills were considered essential was hotly contested by employers and teachers.
    The recurring standards debate highlights that the concept of a ‘standard’ is socially constructed. Which skills, knowledge and understandings are measured, who sets the standard, and how they are measured is influenced by the wider social, cultural, political and economic context of mainstream society. This is a controversial issue because definitions of standards are based on personal ideologies about the function of education in society- whether it is for the collective good of the nation, or to maximise the potential of each individual.
    It makes me feel better to know that educators have ridden this storm before, and whilst uncomfortable, the debate is essential for redefining everyone’s conception of what skills, knowledge and understandings are needed to fully participate in society.


    1. Hi Massey student
      I agree that often with the economy is looking shaky there’s a push to blame it on the education system. I just finished reading now I’m five and I go to school.



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