ac*count*a*ble |əˈkountəbəl|
adjective
1 (of a person, organization, or institution) required or expected to justify actions or decisions; responsible : government must be accountable to its citizens | parents could be held accountable for their children's actions

That is the definition from my Apple Dictionary for a word that gets tossed around a lot in education.  My professor, Dean, just posted his thoughts on the word the other day.  And it has been coming up a lot around the light of recent events.  Back in 2010, the Saskatoon Public School Division announced a policy for its high schools that mandated late assignments and plagiarism be "reported in student evaluations, but not reflected in academic assessments" (CBC News, September 2010).  Here is CBC's short video reporting the story:
Needless to say, people had a lot negative opinions about the new policy.  One comment that stood out to me was written by the alias, raceguy:

        "The whole approach to this dumbing down of the system by officials in Sakatoon [sic] is absurd. Should
        we not be looking at opportunities to drive our students to success and excellence by improving the
        education progams [sic]. 
        The fact that there are no provincial or national standards to measure students academic achievements
        is even more of a concern. I personally would have loved to know how my children were stacking up
        against students from other communities in Saskatchewan while they were in high school.
        Oh, sorry that would mean making teachers and the school system accountable to someone. Good grief,
        don't want to pick on the good teachers but isn't it time to hold some of these useless educators
        responsible for their actions?"

This type of attitude is exactly the one that Dean mentioned, that lowers teachers from their role of professional to that of a factory worker, administering tests.  Education is a topic everyone has an opinion about, and rightfully so.  It is something that everyone participates in to some extent.  I just wish that people would gather all of the facts before making a statement like the one above, requesting accountability through standardized testing.  I invite anyone who thinks that ranking teachers by test scores is a good idea, to read about how this worked out for teachers in New York.

Along the same story, in a CBC Radio interview* (September 2010), Saskatchewan's Premier made it very clear that he was opposed to Saskatoon's assessment strategy.  He gave an example of one of his own children losing marks for turning some things in late and how he appreciated the repercussions because he thought it had taught his child a lesson about life in the real world.  I would imagine that Brad Wall provides a stable and supportive home environment, yet if his children struggle to get their homework done sometimes, how about the children who are responsible for providing the care of younger siblings?  Or the students who live on their own and work to support themselves?  I have had many professors extend or negotiate the deadlines on assignments because students had approached them about conflicting schedules.  Life happens and teachers need to be flexible to allow for that.

But maybe instead of the directive coming from the administration that teachers are no longer to hand out zeros for late or plagiarized assignments, that they instead mandate teachers to be flexible with deadlines on a needs basis and use less punitive approaches to punishment when problems do arise; turn a mistake like plagiarism into an opportunity for growth and learning instead of assigning a zero without explanation.  In the radio interview, Mr. Wall agreed that teachers need to make special considerations for students they know are struggling and admitted that teachers are the ones who are working alongside the students and would therefore know what is best for them.  But instead of allowing teachers to make that call, he feels that more standardized approaches are necessary for consistency.

There are no standardized students or standardized classrooms.  Teachers do not come in a standardized package like houses in new subdivisions.  Why would standardized tests be the answer?  This again comes down to what Dean said about teachers being reduced to factory workers instead of the professionals we once were.  I worry that we are headed in the direction of the United States, where schools and their teachers are ranked according to obscure test results.  It will be a sad day for education if that is the case.  Our children deserve better than that.

*I did not have permission to share the radio interview, otherwise I would have posted it here for you all to listen.  If I am able to get permission, I will post it for your listening pleasure!
 
 
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My twitter feed has been buzzing for the last week about an Edmonton teacher who assigned a zero, despite his school's No Zeros Policy.  My classmates have been blogging, the news has been reporting, and now my brain is struggling to sort through this information to get my thoughts organized into words.  I guess I will start by admitting I had only been reading little snippets of other people's opinions up until today.  This can be attributed to the overwhelming number of responses that came pouring out of the floodgates after the media released the story last Thursday. The first blog I sat down and read from start to finish, other than my classmates', was School Isn’t Like a Job byJohn Scammell.  The title of his post comes from the shared opinions of many community members about the role education plays in the lives of children and youth.

My first question was, "is school a job?"  I can quit my job at any point I become dissatisfied with the work I am doing, and have some choices about the fields of work I enter into.  I can choose whether or not I accept a promotion and can base my decision on things like remuneration, hours of the job, whether or not I think I will like my new boss or if I think I can work well with my new coworkers.  When I compare these to the choices I had in school, none of them come to mind until maybe University.  Children are expected to attend school until they are at least 16 years old in Saskatchewan, regardless of their interest, and have no choice about areas of study until high school, at which point there are only a few up for negotiation.  Each year students are shuffled on to the next grade and are assigned a teacher and a group of students they are expected to work alongside for the next 10 months - little to no exceptions there either.  So in that sense, no, school is not a job because it is not a choice and the pay is non-existent.

John writes that some people believe that the grade is the pay check, but goes on to discredit this theory because in the real world, pay is based on a number of variables including hours worked and productivity.  School isn't like a job in that sense either.  Marks are based on what students are able to show in terms of outcomes, not how much time they spent acquiring that knowledge or the number of worksheets or projects they produced.  How does this relate to zeros?  Well, a large portion of the population believes that assigning zeros for work not completed sets students up to take responsibility in the real world where if they fail to do the work at a job, they get fired.  Essentially a zero is the educational equivalent of losing your job.  John summed up his views on this false comparison:

        "A bright kid who does no work (I assume people are talking about homework here) and still writes and
        passes my tests will pass my class. He has to. He has shown me he can do the math.
        A weak, hard-working student who does every single thing I assign, but fails the tests will fail my class. He
        has to. He has shown me he can’t do the math.
        Any student, weak or strong, who doesn’t write my tests cannot be assessed. I make him do the course
        again. I have to. He hasn’t shown me whether or not he can do the math, so I can’t pass him.
        The bottom line is that I can’t assess work. Doing work just isn’t in my curriculum. Knowing math is. That’s
        all I can assess."

This is where Mr Scammell lost me.  Is making a student repeat a course not essentially the same thing as assigning a zero?  My equation of a fail to a zero is actually incorrect and the difference I found explained by Cherra-Lynne Olthof, a middle-years teacher from Alberta, here.  On the topic of zeros, she wrote:

        "I give out something called an Insufficient.  People have told me this is a fancy way of saying 0 but it really
        isn’t.  When I write INS on an outcome what I’m saying is, 'I have no idea if your child can do this or not.  I
        have no evidence with which to make this judgement.'  That is much different then giving out a 0 which says,
        'Your child knows 0% of the content of this subject.'"

My lack of understanding on the difference comes from my inexperience in the field.  I didn't know that "INS" was an option, and maybe that's because it isn't one in Saskatchewan.  I honestly have no idea.  Maybe one of my Saskatchewan teacher-friends can help enlighten me on that one.  The other part is that I am not specializing in the area of high school education.  I am studying to be a primary educator where the ownership of responsibility is still slowly being transferred.  However, after reading and listening to multiple perspectives on the issue including the initial news story, opinions from respected educational bloggers, and the comments that ensued from both, the issue seems to be viewed as one of two things:

                    1) Should formative assessments be assigned a mandatory grade?
                                                            AND
                    2) Who is to blame when students don't do their assignments?

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To answer the first question - no.  Formative assessments are ultimately used by the teacher for the teacher to help guide future learning experiences based on what the students are and are not picking up.  They are not an indication of a student's ability because the learning is not yet complete.  If a student decides not to check in with his/her teacher, essentially they are the ones who will suffer in the long run.  And not because some teacher is going to give them a zero, but because they will have no way to gauge their learning or have the opportunity to receive clarification as needed.  This may or may not be reflected in their final grade, but having the opportunity to show what they know is all that matters.  Reporting is all about outcomes and indicators which is based on a final product, not about the steps along the way.  Of course teachers should assess more than one time per year, but if a student chooses to only complete the final assessment, the added stress to perform is on them.

The answer to number two is related to number one, and is less about blame and more about concern.  If a student is not completing a teacher's assignments for some reason, that reason should become the concern of the teacher.  Teaching is intended to be a reflective practice that is always changing to meet the needs of the ever changing students.  Sometimes lessons that were expected to wow, end up bombing.  It happens!  The important thing is that teachers reflect on what went wrong so that changes can be made if the lesson is attempted again.  The same goes for assignments and assessments.  The biggest indicators of student engagement at the high school level are attendance and completion of course work.  While it may be difficult to accept part of the responsibility for lack of student participation, it is important because the education belongs to the student - not to the teacher.  It really doesn't matter what the teacher thinks qualifies as an awesome lesson - it matters what the students think.

In the end, I don't believe that handing out zeros benefits those who receive them most.  If the argument is around teaching responsibility, students who do not complete the assigned coursework are less likely to pass any type of assessments the teacher needs to make an informed decision about what the student knows.  If a teacher is unable to assess a student with sufficient evidence, the student will have to retake the course.  No one said that they were passing students with zero proof of learning!  If the argument is around fairness, education is meant to be fair, not equal.  Fairness is not giving everybody the same thing, it is about giving everybody what they need.  If a student feels that they don't need to participate in certain learning activities, then that is a decision they are allowed to make, pending an understanding that their decision may impact their future mark because of a lack of comprehension.  That to me is teaching a student responsibility and consequences without the use of a threat or punishment of a zero.  Seems more effective to me.