Accountability is the buzzword in education today. That's not bad. For too long many public schools have chugged along in mediocrity, with no one taking the initiative to produce needed change.
The danger is that accountability can too easily become targeted only on a particular person or group of persons - teachers, local and state administrators, parents. In fact, shouldering responsibility for kids' performance in school is very much a joint undertaking. Nearly everyone - not excluding students themselves - has to bear part of the load.
Teachers are certainly major load-bearers. They have a clear responsibility to keep pace with their fields, to be masters of their own subject matter. If some states turn to testing teachers in order to assess their readiness to teach (see story on page 1), that may be galling to some in the profession, but it's not unreasonable.
What can be unreasonable is a single-minded reliance on testing as the substance of accountability - whether for teachers or students. Wider considerations have to be taken into account. Teaching styles have to be observed; ability to relate to the kids has to be assessed.
Objective judgments from outside experts and thoughtful members of the general public are the essence of the school-accreditation process. That process should be broadened into a major part of today's accountability thrust.
Accountability is also important far from the classroom, in the halls of state government. California's school officials are being sued for not providing adequate facilities - books, desks, even toilets - in many schools. Similar suits are possible in other states.
What's taking place is a reshaping of the architecture of American education, with accountability slowly being built in. It's a difficult task, with factors like outmoded funding structures, highly mobile student populations, and union rules posing obstacles. But it's doable, and there's no more crucial job facing Americans.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society