Accountability, etc.

In my last post, I wrote about good reasons for teachers to document their students’ work. However, there’s another side of this. Many of my teacher friends in the USA complain about the level of documentation they are forced to do for the sake of “accountability.” On its face, it seems great. People should be accountable for their actions, and that includes teachers. I’ve certainly met a few teachers who really, really shouldn’t have been teaching. The only reason they kept their jobs seemed to be because they were never held accountable for their failures in teaching or the terrible things they did.

Accountability is important, and I don’t want that to get lost in what I’m going to say next. An obsession with accountability can have terrible consequences for teaching. I have seen schools with so much of an emphasis on accountability that teachers don’t have time to prepare for classes because they are so busy having to document everything they do. I was in one school where teachers had to write up every accommodation they made on every assignment for every student with an IEP (Individualized Education Program—this is a lengthly document for students with any learning difficulties to have teachers modify their lessons to accommodate the students’ needs) which at this school, was 1/3 of my students. I was not a special education teacher.

I get it. Parents want to make sure I’m doing what I am supposed to to help their children, as they should. The whole hierarchy of bureaucracy enforces this, and so detailed documentation of everything is demanded. The problem is that this level of documentation is really, really time consuming. When it is prioritized, as it often is, it eats away a teacher’s time to plan and prepare for their classes. I can’t develop my lesson or reflect on my teaching if I have to write pages of documentation right now. There aren’t enough hours in the day to plan, teach, and document every single thing.

Despite being very pro-accountability, I find myself of the opinion that teachers really don’t need another extraneous thing to do. This heavy focus on documenting everything, while it sounds great on paper, turns out to be a detriment to the actual teaching. This however, is at odds with my skeptical mindset, which says that more evidence is better.

So, I will posit a question (that I suspect will go unanswered, seeing how few people read, much less comment, on my posts here): What should take precedence? Accountability with (probably) lower lesson quality, or more difficulty in determining whether teachers are actually doing what they are supposed to?

Previous post

Looking back and forward, recess riches, 10 Commandments costs, and more: Required Readings, 01.01.16

Next post

No-nonsense nurturing, rural schools, lying law schools, not-so-brainy games, and more: Required Readings, 01.11.16



Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.


  1. January 4, 2016 at 5:34 pm —

    I read your posts and the only reason I rarely comment is because you ask difficult questions. This may sound trite, but it looks to me like the answer lies somewhere in the middle – minor accommodations and routine tasks should go with minimal documentation (i.e. a couple of sentences for the sole purpose of leaving a paper trail), while heavy documentation should be reserved only for major projects.

    Then again, I had been very fortunate to meet mostly educated, well-meaning teachers who love their work and who worked in places that encouraged teachers to be individuals, not cogs in a machine, so I may have an unrealistically rosy view of the profession.

  2. February 2, 2016 at 1:50 am —

    First, Jay, let me say I always enjoy your posts, you’re a rarity on Teh Innerwebs in that you always have something thoughtful to say, & are not at all the usual waste of time.

    I used to be an instructor & tutor in math & science at the college & high-school levels, and luckily since it was all private my accountability was limited to individual discussions with students & parents, with no forms or IEPs to worry about – i.e. The Golden Age.

    Now I’m a nurse, and like most places the documentation demands are ridiculous. In health care the documentation is used to prove adherence to standard-of-care for liability & reimbursement purposes; I suppose in education the place of an ambulance-chasing lawyer is taken by the aggrieved parent whose precious little snowflake isn’t being treated as the special case he or she so unquestionably is.

    But really in both cases what the documentation does is shield the middle- and upper-management types from the consequences of their policies. If an ill-considered ‘innovation’ (god how I hate that word) doesn’t generate the expected result, and all the T’s are crossed and all the I’s (pardon the apostrophes, I never know how to pluralize letters) are dotted in the documentation, well then clearly the problem is with the teacher/nurse. The new policy had a published paper behind it with a sample size of 25, can’t be the policy, so you can”t blame the assistant deputy associate Dean, it must be the teacher.

    Sorry about the cynicism, but I can’t help but think there’s a sort of internal due-diligence going on where the top priority is job preservation at the upper levels, and if teachers or nurses get thrown under the bus well that’s the cost of doing business.

    In nursing, what’s happening is that Nurse Assistants are taking on more & more routine tasks, while we spend more & more time at the keyboard. In the case of teachers, where even the basics can require skill & experience, every teacher should have an assistant trained to do the routine, check-the-box documentation as well as grading tests/quizzes – we can dream, can’t we?

    • February 3, 2016 at 8:46 pm —

      I would like to clarify that I am pro-IEP, because it means that disadvantaged students don’t just get ignored by a system that should there to help them. My problem is in the added layers of “accountability” that get piled onto that. Making accommodations is great, but then having to write up detailed reports about everything is just too much.

      I do agree that the documentation often shields management more than teachers, and when there’s a problem we often wind up first on the chopping block. At least, that’s been my experience.

      In my more recent visits to hospitals in the US, I have definitely noticed nurses spending a lot more time with computers than with patients. I for one would much rather have nurses spend their time doing real parts of the job than do typing. I’ve also heard complaints from medical staff about the computer systems that hospitals use and how incredibly inefficient they are. That’s another thing I think we have in common.

  3. February 4, 2016 at 4:55 am —

    I agree that IEPs are essential for many students. My nephew has one for anxiety/coping issues & his teachers have been real troopers about it, though sometimes I wonder how severe his anxiety really is & how much is histrionics. Since that’s a Symptom rather than a Sign, there’s no way to tell.

    The software issue is slowly resolving itself; there are about a half-dozen major firms now (the number seems to change on a monthly basis as companies are bought, sold, and spun off) that make well-though-out, comprehensive systems that actually mesh with day-to-day operations. In the past we had custom built software that was designed by management consultants rather than clinicians, and as you can imagine they were disasters. One system I used at one point would only work under the Windows 2000 operating system, so no upgrades were allowed. That was in 2011.

    Again, keep up the good work, Jay!

Leave a reply