Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

Teachers, Welcome Back to School

Publication Date: 2004-08-18

Here is a reminder of what we teachers are about.

NOTE: As president of the Black Oak Mine Teachers Association, CTA/NEA, every year I give a speech at the back-to-school breakfast for district
employees. This year's speech was a combination of "What I did last summer" and a book report.

Its theme was what real accountability looks like.

I love summer vacation. It's a time to build our reserves of energy, both physical and mental, and it's a time for a different sort of learning.

This year my family visited a place called Glass Beach in Fort Bragg [California]. The seashore is carpeted with rounded bits of glass amber, green and white, with rare bits of cobalt blue or ruby. Here and there fragments of pottery polished by the sea, still bearing traces of their original patterns. We spent hours sorting through the pebbles. Have any of you ever been there?

The next day I bought a book The History of Glass Beach. It was a small book, paperbound, and only cost seven dollars. It was very informative.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about it was that it was written as a school project by a fourth grader.

My family traveled on to Eureka, where we visited the Blue Ox Millworks. This is a place where 19th century technology sawmill, woodshop, printing
press and more has been preserved and is demonstrated for visitors. It's also the place where governments and foundations that own historic buildings go when they need to restore or recreate a balustrade, a cornice, a corbel, or a piece of Victorian gingerbread. People building
multi-million dollar homes occasionally ask Blue Ox to create something they can't buy anywhere else. Remarkably, most of the work is done by high school students. Blue Ox is their school.

I didn't have to journey so far to see outstanding student work. When we visit the State Fair, my wife and I linger for hours in the Industrial Arts exhibits, where more than once we've seen the work of Golden Sierra High School students. Students from our schools have done real science in the Watershed Education Project and have built houses for Habitat for Humanity. You all could list many more projects at all grade levels. They illustrate the true meaning of accountability, as distinguished from the
narrow and distorted version of accountability now embodied in state and federal laws.

Three Questions:

For what should schools be accountable? First of all, for the physical and emotional well-being of students. For student learning. For equity and access, providing fair opportunities for all to learn challenging material. For improvement. And for teacher learning. A skilled teacher is
the most significant factor in student learning, so schools must be accountable for fostering professional growth and enabling teachers to
improve their own performance.

To whom should schools be accountable? A recent article in the Phi Delta Kappan suggests that current accountability systems have the emphasis all wrong, making state and federal governments the locus of power and decision making. Schools should be accountable first of all to their students, parents and local communities. I would add that each of us as
teachers is accountable to our colleagues, because each of us depends on all the rest.

What would a balanced accountbility model look like? Our schools would be measured by the work of our student artists, authors, craftsmen and
scientists. Instead of treating them as interesting but somewhat beside the point of API scores and AYP, these accomplishments would be recognized as exactly the point.

A balanced accountability model utilizes multiple measures in a variety of formats including writing, open responses and performance-based tasks. We need assessments that are integrated with instruction. We need assessments that are accessible to students with diverse learning styles, exceptionalities, and cultural backgrounds.

In the short term, the state and local governments will continue to emphasize one-size-fits-all standardized testing. We can work through our unions, our professional associations and the political process to change that. But we should never, not for a moment, allow their errors to change our recognition of what's truly important.

My vacation was great, but I expect this school year to be just as great. It is an inspiration to work with all of you. In conclusion, I nearly said "Who needs vacation when you have colleagues?"

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.