Taking Back the Concept of Accountability


Without a doubt, one of most controversial words in education today is "accountability." While the term still retains some of the positive connotations of its origins, it cannot be argued that the term has not been tainted by its misappropriation by outside agencies for their own purposes.

In expressions such as "to take into account," "to account for oneself," and "to be held accountable," we can see the positive connotations of responsibility for one's actions and consideration of circumstances. Today's "accountability," however, carries with it the implication that someone or some group is not fulfilling its responsibility and thus needs to be taken to task. "Accountability" thus becomes a threat, a bludgeon to enforce responsibility. With particular regard to education, rather than the idea of faculty, staff, and administrators taking responsibility-external forces view educators as shirking their responsibility and so must be forced to be accountable or suffer the consequences. Far from the notion of responsibility, "accountability" has now acquired the association of punishment.

With student learning outcomes (SLO), we are in a complicated place. Yes, SLOs originated as an external mandate-but we have taken them and worked to make them something of benefit to ourselves as educators and to the success of our students. We are working to make the SLO process something of value-making the proverbial "silk purse" out of a "sow's ear." Are SLOs placing huge demands on our colleges both in terms of time and money? Definitely yes. Many of our colleges are still struggling to make SLOs a positive experience, and some still resist SLOs as an unfunded mandate. The Academic Senate concurs with the need to bring resources to bear on this activity. In addition, while the Academic Senate supports the development of SLOs through an internal process, there are pressures for the imposition of external outcomes measures, some as disassociated from the actual process of learning and education as the privately developed tests required under the Gold Standard of the Perkins Reauthorization or the standardized measurements proposed by the Spellings Commission to allow for institutional comparisons.

Another externally imposed accountability effort is the Student Bill of Rights movement. Under the ostensibly worthwhile goal of promoting broad discourse in the classroom, the Student Bill of Rights movement is actually a thinly disguised attack on the perceived liberal slant of the professoriate and what supporters of the movement see as attempts by this liberal professoriate to indoctrinate impressionable students with a biased perspective. Thus, the supporters of the movement are working to legislate what is taught in the classroom-that professors be held accountable for presenting all perspectives of an issue, whether or not those perspectives reflect the current thinking in a discipline or are supported by current research or practice.

A third example is Pick-a-Prof and its ilk. Pick-a-Prof and similar websites provide the public with the grade distributions of individual professors and a forum for comments about individual professors. When institutions have refused to provide grading information, they have been successfully sued under the freedom of information act to provide it. Again, the word "accountability" has raised its head. These web services claim that such grade information and public comment help to keep instructors accountable in their teaching and grading to the public; most of us view these web services as little more than commercial ventures that prey on many a student's desire to find an easy grader or to find a forum to vent a frustration. With all of these negative associations for the term "accountability," it is hardly surprising that faculty shy away from anything that uses this term, in any of its forms. However, as with SLOs, I think it is high time that faculty take back this term and use it as a way to convey to our students and the public the quality and rigor of what we do as educators.

Accountability is connected with data, and data provides the foundation on which decisions should be made. This is very much true in a positive and proactive process regarding student learning outcomes. If a solid process of assessing SLOs is in place, institutions should be able to generate data that informs further planning and budgeting. Rather than a process that seems to rely more on whim and popularity, planning and budgeting could be more rationally driven by research and results.

In this year of probable budget cuts, I am reminded of the last major cuts in 2002-2003. At that time, matriculation budgets were slashed almost 50%, and they have yet to recover. A colleague at the System Office commented to me that we in the system were partly to blame. Knowing the vulnerability of categorical funding, we should have been earnestly collecting data to demonstrate what we anecdotally knew was true-that matriculation funds provided key student services that supported student success in their classes and college careers. This colleague pointed out that if we had been more proactive about documenting student success through the use of matriculation funds, we might have been able to successfully argue for the preservation of those funds. I have no doubt that such comments will surface again given the threats we perceive once again to categorical funds.

The Academic Senate is working on accountability in a positive sense in several areas. Several of the major projects under the leadership of the Academic Senate are grant funded, and we are very aware that measurable outcomes are vital to securing future funding. Therefore, we carefully build in to each grant project a strong evaluation component where we can use the results to argue for continued support. Under the Statewide Career Pathways grant, the Academic Senate supports the development of articulation agreements between high schools and community colleges to smooth the transition for students in career and technical education (CTE). To date, the Academic Senate can point to the creation of over 80 articulation templates to facilitate this work, and it is this ability to provide data that prompted legislators to provide on-going funding to the project and to write the Statewide Career Pathways project into CTE legislation.

Accountability is also written into the work of the current phase of the Basic Skills Initiative. It is surely no surprise that redirection of former Basic Skills over Cap funding to basic skills is under threat in the current budget climate. While the Accountability Reporting for Community Colleges (ARCC) report provides some measures of basic skills improvement, colleges need better data not just to argue for ongoing state funding but to inform their own work to address local basic skills needs. Central to this phase of the Basic Skills Initiative is the development of rubrics and tools that colleges can use to generate this information.

As a college-supported organization, the Academic Senate also sees the need to be accountable to you, our membership. One of the major projects underway is the development of an evaluation process for the faculty you elect to serve on your Executive Committee. The evaluation process has at its core three goals. First, through the development of the evaluation process, the Academic Senate hopes to focus on its core functions and whether or not they are being served. Second, we hope to use the evaluation process to clarify the roles and responsibilities of each Executive Committee member. Third, based on a review of those roles and responsibilities, we hope to improve our orientation and professional development for Executive Committee members so that they have the knowledge and tools to carry out their responsibilities. You should be hearing more about our progress with this process later this year.

As with professional ethics and collegiality, attempts to impose accountability on colleges and their faculty result merely in artificial measurements that denigrate the concept of accountability. As faculty, we need to take on accountability and not turn from it, whether we are talking about our syllabi, our grading policies, or rates of student success; for it is only when we accept the responsibility of accounting for ourselves to our students and the public that we can improve as educators.