Redefining Teacher Accountability

An Essential but Misguided Concept

Accountability is a word certain to draw a rift between teachers and the people who employ and appraise them. Generally speaking, education administrators, policy makers and those who employ teachers need to know how well teachers are performing and whether the students are getting the education they need/expect, while teachers mostly feel that the teaching–learning process and the diversity and heterogenous nature of their classes are complex enough that any such assessment can never really give the full story. Teachers on the whole feel that a bad score on an end-of-year exam cannot automatically be interpreted as bad teaching, but those in charge tend to make exactly that interpretation.

While I agree with the sentiment held by teachers as described above, namely that test scores can never be reduced so simplistically to a direct indication of bad teaching, my reason for agreeing is far more based on my general distrust of those kinds of tests in the first place. In fact, the concept of accountability has always seemed to have quite obvious value to me. As somebody who both teaches in a number of scenarios, including schools and corporate settings, and manages teachers, I have never rejected the notion of accountability, and it somewhat troubles me that others do.

Not What nor Why but How

I believe accountability is a good concept, and it seems quite obvious to me why we would want to consider it. The only problem is how it is monitored.

I’d like to restate here a point I have already made above but that I do not want to be missed or swept aside. The way that accountability is usually monitored currently in most parts of the world is by ranking schools and their teachers by the scores that their students achieve in standardised tests, and this is not a good thing.

First of all, as I have written in more than one post before, I do not endorse the kinds of standardised tests that are applied throughout much of the world as an effective means to measure student achievement, much less to monitor teachers by proxy. A score on a standardised test shows us only an extremely narrow sliver of the students true ability, and even within that tiny window, says nothing about specific strengths or weaknesses nor the effort that it took to get there nor the progress that has been made relative to the student’s starting ability.

So, if we know that little about the student, what can we really know about the teacher? It tells us nothing of the relationship and interplay between the teacher and the student. It gives no indication of the methods applied by the teacher, the extra time that he may have taken to help the student through struggles, or the backdrop that the teaching–learning activities took place against.

Of course, the coldest, most mathematically motivated of administrators and policy makers might want to say that a good teacher can take any student and get results, but what that really means is that teachers are expected to go to whatever lengths necessary to drag students up the ranks of standardised testing, regardless of whether that actually helps the student learn or not. The stark fact is that teaching in such a way as to get struggling students passable scores is probably to bypass real valuable learning on the student’s part. They will graduate with minimally acceptable scores but very little in the way of useful knowledge or applicable skills.

What should we be measuring instead?

It should go without saying that a good teacher is one who’s students learn well from and make notable progress. However, it is apparently important to clarify what I mean by the words “learn” and “progress”, because it seems that many education systems have forgotten these simple terms.

To learn, in its most measurable sense rather than perhaps a neurological explanation, is quite simply to leave an experience more capable than when you first encountered it. This is why I talk about learning experiences, learning encounters and learning opportunities in much of my writing; because we learn from moments and interactions—we learn by doing things and observing things.

Progress is the accumulation of learning over a given period of time or the learning accrued so far at a certain point. The important thing to note here, of course, is that two people starting from different places and making the same amount of relative progress will end up in different places. Again, this might seem obvious, but apparently it isn’t.

It should be quite clear by now that the kinds of tests used by many school systems fail to truly measure these two essential process. First, they tend to measure how much knowledge has been memorised, often free of any kind of valuable or relatable context, rather than increases in true, practical ability; and secondly they pay no consideration to the notion that different students might not be coming from exactly the same background with the same background knowledge, learning abilities and support systems.

Accountability is essential, but if we’re going to be holding our teachers responsible for our students’ achievements, then we need to be better at measuring our students’ achievements in the first place. And even then, that’s only to speak of the academic factors, i.e. what has the student learned. Of course, in any conversation about teachers that does not involve discussion of accountability, people are very quick to point out that they expect much more from teachers than simply transferring rote knowledge. Parents, heads, administrators, etc. also expect teachers to be good role models, to strengthen the students’ characters and instil in them morals.

When parents are asked what they want from their children’s schooling, more often than not they cite admittance to a good college or a good job as their primary interests. However, by the time such goals have either been realised or have failed, the teacher has already long since received her appraisal based on whatever test scores were achieved.

None of this is considered when it comes to accountability, though. Test scores are entered into tables and teachers are disciplined or awarded accordingly.

Reform for All

The word ‘reform’ is banded around all the time by governments and institutions. In the end though, what it usually means is a restructuring or hierarchies or a redirection of spending. Few material changes are ever made, and rarely do any of these changes truly take into consideration what is most relevant to the real needs of students.

Not only would a true reform reassess the curriculum and the testing systems, but it would also include new and improved ways of monitoring accountability amongst the teachers. Both student testing and teacher accountability would look very different under my recommendation.

Teacher quality should be assessed on a number of factors, perhaps the least importance of which being the sole academic factor that is currently used. Off the top of my head, I can think of four distinct areas I would want to monitor in my consideration of a teacher’s quality: Curricula Progress, Extra-curricular Development, Student Satisfaction and Student Success Post Graduation. Here, I’ll briefly elaborate on each factor.

1. Curricular Progress

Of the four factors, this one is the most analogous to how accountability is monitored currently, but with some essential differences. Firstly, it would not be based solely on how much academic knowledge the students amass, but on the skills and abilities they develop. Secondly, it would look not only at final results of tests taken at the end of the learning period, but would instead consider the student’s starting point and what he achieves along the way.

2. Extra-curricular Development

I don’t pretend that all of these factors are going to be easy to measure. Indeed if we are to implement something of this nature, we’ll have to sit down and think very carefully about the right mechanisms, and I might write more specifically about my own ideas to this end in the future. Extra-curricular development refers to all of the learning that goes on that is not defined by the curriculum.

This is primarily then the secondary learning objectives I have written about several times before and the things mentioned above that teachers are expected to instil in their students. I agree that things like morality, interpersonal skills and respect are important, and ideally we could check up to see if our teachers are providing good models of these.

3. Student Satisfaction

Students are very rarely asked to assess their teachers or their school or the quality of their education from any perspective. The reason for this is perhaps that so few students actually enjoy their time at school, that any results would be far too heavily biased anyway. However, while that is probably true, it doesn’t have to be. If students hate school, the it likely has more to do with the teachers or the institution than any inherent character flaw on the students’ part.

If education were better in the first place, then we’d see more value in asking students to evaluate their experiences. People consistently talk about how education is for the kids, but honestly, it doesn’t often seem like it. If schools really cared about the students, then they’d spend a lot more time listening to the teachers who are student favourites not to mention listening to the students themselves.

4. Student Success Post-graduation

While it is true that a great number of the world’s leading thinkers and innovators did notoriously badly at school or even vocally decry the value of schooling altogether, it is also true that many great and successful people give significant thanks to the contribution that their teachers made to their achievements in life. If we are to hold our teachers accountable for anything, surely it should be the opportunities they provide their students with by preparing them well for the post-graduation world.

I understand that this would be difficult to do, not least because of time frames. However, perhaps this wouldn’t have to be something on an end-of-year checklist, but rather more like an open door so that if any feedback makes its way to the school at any time that a student attributes his successes in life to a particular teacher, then that teacher will be commended in some way.

It is also important to note that success here should not be limited to meaning wealth and social station but anything that is in line with the student’s own goals and desires. Essentially, if a student achieves a life goal, whether professionally, socially or even personally, and feels that he was able to achieve that goal because of lessons taught to him by a certain teacher, then that should somehow be recognised. Yes, I know this is vague; but surely it’s an idea worth talking about?

Accountability is a Necessary Concept

As a teacher myself and as a manager of teachers, whenever something doesn’t work in class or a student or group of students is struggling to make progress, my first response is to look at the teacher. If that is me, I spend a good amount of time evaluating each lesson, be that immediately after teaching or at the end of the day when I finally have some spare time. If it is one of my teachers, then I will guide them through self-evaluation with some prompting questions.

Most of the time, there is something that the teacher can do to make a lesson more effective. However, many teachers do not intuitively see this. Many teachers automatically bemoan the poor behaviour or lack of motivation or bad attitudes of their students and many are also astonishingly quick to label students as last causes, sometimes giving up on improving behaviour just weeks into a course.

It is for this reason that accountability is a necessary concept. Teachers need to be observed and given feedback regularly to ensure that they are giving their students the best possible education, and where this not happening, corrective measures need to be put in place, whether that’s something constructive such as specialised training or a last resort like disciplinary action. If we care about our students at all, then we want our teachers to be the best they can be. But for that to really mean anything at all, we have to make sure that we are holding them accountable for the right things!

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