Two words, both 14 letters long and beginning with the letter A, have become quite trendy in the world of public education. The first is


, and the second is



Accountability is used mainly by superintendents and politicians who want to show the public they mean business. Addressing the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce last year, President Obama called for a "new culture of accountability" when it comes to America's teachers and schools. In an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal the next month, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote, "We need a culture of accountability in America's education system if we want to be the best in the world."

The theme of accountability has trickled down to the Philadelphia School District as well. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman continues to tout the implementation of the district's five "Core Beliefs," the fourth of which is: "Leadership and accountability are the keys to success."

"Imagine 2014," Ackerman's strategic plan for reforming the city's schools, contains an entire section on accountability. She's appointed David Weiner the district's chief accountability officer, and his job includes managing the district's Accountability Department.

The interesting thing about accountability is that at times it seems more about placing blame than improving instruction. When goals aren't met or test scores fail to improve, the person in charge can point a finger and say, "It's his fault," thus holding someone accountable. The question is, Will this help our kids read and do math?

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The accountable few

For the most part, only two groups are held accountable in public education: teachers and principals. Arne Duncan's national model for reforming failing schools is based on this philosophy. If schools don't meet the criteria set in annual performance standards, their teachers and principals are held accountable.

One version of the national reform model mandates that failing schools fire their principals and half of their teachers. This is done blindly, across the board, regardless of whether the staff is performing exceptionally under the circumstances, or whether there is a larger, more profound problem responsible for the lagging test scores.

Oddly enough, though, it's considered poor etiquette to hold parents and students accountable. The accountability police aren't allowed to stop at their houses - nor at those of ineffective community leaders, deadbeat fathers, out-of-touch policymakers, or any of the other people responsible for a child's schooling.

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The other A-word

When it comes to parents and the community, accountability is replaced by an equally trendy buzzword: accommodations. Accommodations are made for various members of the education community (except teachers and principals) who need help pulling their weight.

If you just moved to this country and haven't taught your son a word of English, there will be accommodations. The Philadelphia School District will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on special English-as-a-second-language teachers for him. The district also translates all the information on its Web site into eight different languages.

Is your child emotionally disturbed? Does she act out against her teachers and classmates because you never taught her how to solve problems without violence? The district's accommodations have you covered. There are guidance counselors who will give your daughter something called "positive behavior supports," and, with enough practice and reinforcement, maybe she will learn to keep her hands to herself.

Does your child have a literacy problem because you never once opened a book and read to him at home? Again, if you're in Philadelphia, don't sweat it: There are accommodations. Teachers are trained in "differentiated instruction," which enables them (in theory) to teach a class of 33 kids on five different reading levels, including some who speak limited English or have emotional problems.

So let's review: A is for accountability, which applies only to teachers and principals. And A is also for accommodations, which are for everyone else.