Accountability should be built on trust
It’s back-to-school time, with all the excitement that comes with new beginnings. Sadly, test dread is waiting in the wings.
In the name of accountability and to force educational improvement, state-mandated testing is used to shame and punish children, teachers and whole school districts.
The system assumes the worst about teachers, and it misuses tests to make judgments and high-stakes decisions. It dampens the natural love of learning. Punishment and fear creep into classrooms that should be comfortable, safe spaces.
Each summer for the last 15, I have directed the Reaching Heights Summer Music Camp, a one-week instrumental music camp that serves about 85 musicians between the ages of 10 and 15.
Camp gives me an authentic connection to key questions in education: what is learning, who are our students, what do they need, how do you engage diverse learners, what is success? I think our camp’s approach to accountability exemplifies an effective alternative to the dreadful state report card and high-stakes tests.
Camp is a blast. It’s demanding and exhausting. We rely on 20 high school students and 20 music professionals to build personal connections with our kids—connections that unlock the kids’ motivation to try new things and push them to discover what they can do.
By the end of a week of camp, our campers are more confident, more willing to take risks, more cooperative and more secure. They smile and skip and move energetically from one activity to the next. They relax, improve as musicians and discover the power of sustained effort. Most practice more, and their sound improves. Over time, our campers keep playing their instruments.
For us, accountability focuses on making sure we accomplish what we set out to do. About a month after camp, I meet with the leadership team to debrief our week. The team includes the music director and three or four other music teachers. The conversation keeps me excited about camp: Did we recruit children who have had limited enrichment opportunities, include learners with diverse needs, create a safe social environment, nurture relationships, challenge campers to stretch, and provide enough support to reach our expectations? What went well? What made us proud? Did we achieve our goals?
Through reflection and discussion, team members search for ways to improve. They want every camper to find success, they take responsibility for achieving this goal and they always propose solutions to problems.
We do not measure how well our campers can play a note or read music. We are building a foundation and motivating the young musicians to persist and hone their skills. There is no predetermined moment when a musician should master a skill. For us, nurturing love of music, encouraging practice and building the confidence to strive for excellence is what matters. A test can’t measure any of these elements of learning.
In contrast to Ohio’s test-and-punish accountability system, we start with trust and respect for our musical team. We commit to releasing the best in our staff and our campers. We trust that every member of our team is invested in giving children a good experience, and we respect their capacity and desire to deliver what kids need. We depend on them to design and deliver meaningful learning experiences. The need for improvement is assumed and it is achieved through a shared desire to fully use the talents of each member of our camp community.
I’ve learned that when you ask people to do their best and give them responsibility for bringing about improvement, it leads people to do their best! Shame and punishment only undermine trust and kill investment in improvement.
Ohio’s report card is up for review. I’ve learned from music camp that setting broad goals that encourage a love of learning, asking the right questions about meeting those goals, and expecting the best of all participants can lead to an environment that engages its students and staff in learning. That’s what I think accountability should do.
Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.