Layers, Brushes, and Multi-Lane Highways: Examining Accountability
in a Non-Traditional Program
SABES Central Resource Center
/ World Education
This article was written in spring of 2000 as I prepared to
leave my directorship of Swearer
Center for Public Service programs after nine years. The Swearer
Center for Public Service is a non-academic department of Brown
University whose mission is to engage undergraduate students and
community members in examining issues of social justice, and to
develop collaborative programming responsive to the needs of the
greater Providence community.
Our work at the Swearer Center is
pretty messy stuff. We develop non-traditional models of education
that meet needs not met by traditional systems already in place.
Much of this work involves tailoring programming to individuals.
Having worked in education for 16 years, the biggest lesson I have
learned is that there is nothing as individualistic as a person's
education. Swearer Center programs strive to help people identify
what works for them in the learning process, and then to help them
acquire the resources necessary for supporting their efforts. For
this methodology to be successful, it means that the many players
involved must collaborate carefully and consistently. We must be
able to count on each other.
The language and literacy programs that I supervise are focused
on helping people gain basic skills they need, for example, to find
a job or a better living wage, help their children with schoolwork,
or conquer ESL at the high school level. Presently, there are seven
programs that follow this focus on three ABE programs (Adult Basic
Education) and four ESOL programs (English to/for Speakers of Other
Languages). Each program is supervised by a part-time, paid program
coordinator and staffed by volunteer tutors. All coordinators and
volunteers are college students, the majority of whom are studying
at Brown University. The language and literacy programs receive
funding from the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) in
addition to being supported by the Swearer Center. All the services
we provide to the community are free of charge. This web of individuals
presents significant resources brought to bear on the literacy needs
of Providence communities, with student leaders at the helm.
Molly, a sophomore concentrating in History and Latin American
Studies, coordinates Partners in Education (PIE), an adult basic
education program which works exclusively with teenage mothers.
PIE pairs female Brown students with female community members who
have children and have left high school before graduating. PIE provides
individualized educational programming at learners' homes, making
schooling accessible. Presently, PIE maintains twelve learning partnerships
that meet for approximately three hours per week.
Allison, a senior concentrating in English, coordinates the Pawtucket
ESOL Program, which offers small group instruction four nights per
week to immigrant community members from an area just north of Providence.
Three levels of instruction are offered: ESOL Literacy, for individuals
with no literacy skills in any language, and Beginning and Intermediate
ESOL. Volunteers team-teach classes until they are comfortable enough
to lead a class on their own. Presently, the Pawtucket program engages
12 volunteers and 40 adult learners.
Neither the program coordinators nor the volunteers necessarily
have a background in literacy or teaching. It is my responsibility
to provide leadership and support for them so that they in turn
can effectively provide educational opportunities for community
members. The programs' structure and methodology stem directly from
the learners' needs and strengths. The college students, while new
to the craft of teaching, also offer their optimism, energy and
creativity to the community, making learner-centered, progressive
classrooms a possibility.
In my role as the supervisor of these programs, I am responsible
to our learners and the new skills and knowledge they seek; to program
coordinators and volunteers and the guidance and training they need;
to funders who seek concrete results; and to my colleagues who trust
my leadership and rely on my expertise. Each of these roles requires
different behavior, involves different expectations of me, and is
driven by different assumptions of the roles I play. As with many
other areas of work, responsibility and accountability come in layers.
And because we are an educational institution, the learning comes
in layers as well. As I said, this is messy work.
Brushes with Accountability
As I enter my ninth year in this job, I realize that my expectations
and assumptions have changed drastically since 1992. I entered this
job fiercely believing (and still believe) that effective teachers
must necessarily have formal, rigorous training, and without it,
they cannot possibly be held accountable for their work. How can
someone who has never digested theory and tested their practice
be an effective educator? I entered this job somewhat skeptical
that youthful volunteers could carry out work that I had spent six
years attempting professionally. This was my first brush with accountability
at the Swearer Center: I took the job, so it was my responsibility
to figure out how to educate and support a novice group in this
I lost a little bit of weight and a lot of sleep those first years.
I thought my role was to coordinate and support teachers in their
effort to bring literacy services to members of the community. But
my role is actually to develop those teachers while they struggle
to help other people learn. I thought I would be working with teachers
of a certain caliber, but I work with student-teachers who are striving
to build their teaching skills. While I had to change my assumptions
about who I would be working with, I also learned that I was now
among a real community of learners. In our programs both the "students"
and the "teachers" were clearly learning new skills.
My second brush with accountability involved one of our funders,
Island Department of Education (RIDE). As the director of these
literacy programs, I am responsible for making sure that RIDE receives
documentation which indicates that we are indeed conducting our
literacy business as outlined in the grant guidelines. Often in
adult education this is our first responsibility; after all, without
funding, we won't exist.
I have slowly shifted my perspective about accountability to the
funder. The grants that I write are practical, carefully crafted,
and feasible. Over the years my student staff and I have done our
best to fit into what the grant states. But I have come to believe
that the funder is the least important player in this game, even
though we depend on that money. Regardless of new guidelines or
requirements or federal programs, I must remain accountable first
to the adult learners who attend our programs.
Expectation and Assumption
In the cascading structure of our programming the question of
who is accountable to whom and for what is significant; embedded
within are each person's expectations and assumptions. In thinking
about what the adult learner needs from us, I find myself working
backwards: if the learners needs x, then the volunteers need y,
which means the program coordinators need z. I can only make myself
accountable to the learner through the work I do with the program
coordinator. It is crucial then, that I fully understand what each
constituent needs and how he or she defines expectations of one's
self and of those with whom he or she is working. Those expectations
must be the same. The content and the process might look different
depending on the individual and their role, but each person must
be challenged, must be presented with relevant material, and must
be given opportunities commensurate with his or her capabilities.
In a staff meeting with my program coordinators we were discussing
uses of creativity in language teaching. It emerged that many volunteers
had been using games such as "Simon Says" and "Head, Shoulders,
Knees and Toes" in their classes in units on the body. This is a
viable technique, but one that must be used with other methods to
connect new vocabulary with experiences that are a part of learners'
lives. In other words, this vocabulary must be put into a context
that is relevant to the learner. Otherwise, "heads, knees, and toes"
are words in a song that is remembered for only a short time.
In further discussion, it emerged that many volunteers were having
difficulty providing real and practical context when teaching new
vocabulary. I asked, "What methods and activities do YOU find to
be most helpful when learning new vocabulary in another language?"
and the response took me by surprise. None of my program coordinators
felt that using game techniques would be effective for their own
language learning. Why, then, I asked, should they assume that adult
learners would find this method helpful or appropriate? Shouldn't
the adult learner studying the names of body parts be equally as
engaged as the Brown student studying microbiology? Shouldn't the
adult learner be presented with material relevant to her life ("How
will you describe to your doctor the kinds of pains that you feel
in your chest?") just as the Brown student should be presented with
the practice of microbiology in the 21st, not the 17th century?
a Multi-Lane Highway
What does it mean to count on someone? What does it mean to be
counted on? With the layers of staff we have at the Swearer Center,
accountability becomes not a two-way street, but a multi-lane highway.
The adult learner is counting on her volunteer tutors to teach her
what she wants to know; the tutors are counting on their program
coordinator to help them figure out how best to help people learn;
the coordinators are counting on me to help them be effective administrators
and teachers for their volunteers.
These layers of trust demand that we continuously examine our
assumptions and expectations. To be effective, we need to identify
and articulate our expectations of one another, utilize our assumptions
in productive ways, and develop methods for accountability for all
participants. If we do this, then we are ahead of those grant guidelines:
the grant can then reflect the work, not vice versa. With a structure
of accountability and trust in place, we create room for creativity
and growth for all of us. We take advantage of the messiness to
explore new and effective ways to learn and teach together.
Originally published in Adventures in Assessment,
Volume 13 (Spring 2001),
SABES/World Education, Boston, MA, Copyright 2001.
Funding support for the publication of this document
on the Web provided in part by the Ohio State Literacy Resource
Center as part of the LINCS
Assessment Special Collection.