Mark Dynarski wrote a terrific article about the absurdity of focusing accountability on teachers, the front-line workers. I have repeatedly said that accountability starts at the top, not the bottom. In fact, Dynarski is echoing the philosophy of  W. Edwards Deming. To learn more about Deming, read Andrea Gabor’s book, The Man Who Invented Quality, especially chapter nine, where Gabor explains why Deming strongly opposed merit bonuses. Gabor has a new book coming out in June, After the Education Wars, where she views today’s education battles through a Deming perspective. Teamwork and collaboration, not competition, rewards and punishment.

You will enjoy Dynarski’s article.

It begins:

”Most education reform efforts focus on what teachers are doing — professional development, new curricula, bonuses and incentives to raise scores, and so on. All are based on the belief that teachers can teach more effectively if their skills can be improved, their tools can be better, and their efforts can be more energetic.

“Teachers are the largest group of staff within the K-12 system, and their skills matter for its performance. But they do not manage or direct the system. Do organizations wanting to improve expect that they can get it done by upskilling only their line-level staff? If Walmart were losing money, would it conclude that management was doing a great job but the floor staff needed professional development? The more natural focus would be on decisions and actions of executives, managers, and senior administrators.


“The du jour focus in education reform (currently personalized learning, differentiation, and hybrid learning are topical) typically presumes teachers have an appetite and willingness to change their classroom practices. But teachers are both highly experienced and work in highly constrained settings.

“An average K-12 teacher has been teaching for about 14 years.[1] A typical school year is 180 days, a typical school day is 6.5 hours—so average teachers have taught more than 16,000 hours. During those hours they have worked with hundreds of children. If they teach in middle schools or high schools, it may be thousands of children. From those many hours, teachers have amassed pedagogical practices they believe work for their students. These practices may be effective or flawed or plain wrong, but the point is that teachers might not be easily separated from their practices.

“And these teachers face a lot of constraints in classrooms. Teachers are assigned to grade levels, their students are assigned to classrooms, their textbooks and supplies, including software and computers, are chosen for them, and the entire school or district is lockstep in a schedule that dictates how much time is spent on each subject. Teachers control how much time they invest outside the classroom in exploring new teaching approaches or learning about what others are doing that might work for them too. But any ideas they find in this kind of self-study still need to fit within the constraints. A teacher who reads about an interesting approach for, say, teaching fractions, has to contend with a textbook and test materials that might focus on a different approach to teaching fractions.


“A group as large as teachers (there are about 3.1 million public school teachers) will include some who are more effective and some who are less effective, and ample evidence exists that teachers differ in their effectiveness.[2] With the exception of how many years a teacher has taught, however, what separates highly effective teachers from less effective teachers has proven to be a tough nut to crack, and, relatedly, far less evidence exists about how to move teachers from the lower side of the effectiveness curve to the higher side…

”The findings suggest top-down and bottom-up approaches to improve teaching are unlikely to do much. Yet the last ten years have seen tremendous growth in teacher and principal evaluation systems that rely on test scores and observations to rate teachers. If sending teachers to professional-development workshops or paying them real money to improve does not yield results, it’s at best unclear why expending significant amounts to measure and observe their performance will yield results.

“The systems focus their measurement and analytic machinery on teachers, who have the least ability to improve what they do. Senior leaders make decisions that affect every aspect of life for teachers in schools. Senior leaders hire teachers, using criteria they’ve chosen. They give tenure to teachers using criteria they’ve chosen or agreed to. Senior leaders assign teachers to grade levels, give them textbooks and curricula, buy and set up their technology, lay out their schedules, create disciplinary policies they need to follow, and choose programs for how they will work with students learning English, and students with disabilities, and students with reading difficulties, and students who are homeless. And senior leaders decide to change these –they adopt new curricula, set up new testing programs, roll out new technology, change schedules for subjects, modify discipline policies.”

How about an accountability system that starts with Congress, the U.S. Department of Education, the Governor, the State Legislature, you know, the folks who write the laws and mandates?