ACCOUNTABILITY DOESN'T DRIVE WHOLE-SYSTEM REFORM
Updated: Mar 21, 2018
Accountability is necessary…it just isn’t an effective lever for system-wide reform and sustainable change
Accountability is an important element of reform, but as a driver (or strategy) it rests resolutely in the pantheon of failed reform strategies used to drive whole-system reform. Good intentions. Bad outcomes (Example: NCLB). As an element of reform, accountability has its place. Loose couplings, to borrow a computer science expression that suggests that while functional components interact, they are not dependent on each other to work, are common in education.
Accountability can help tighten couplings. Its purpose is exhausted at that point however, despite the accountability movement taking credit for what positive change has occurred….accountability is a euphemism for control…and the foil of capacity building.
Accountability is necessary…it just isn’t an effective lever for system-wide reform and sustainable change. I’ve lived it as a principal and a superintendent. As a superintendent I want to be held accountable for fostering intrinsic motivation among students and teachers; or for creating a culture of collaboration, the fertile ground from which intrinsic motivation may spring. Instead I’ve experienced accountability for what it is: an albatross that has cursed education reform. The LCAP is just the latest example. It’s become more than just a psychological burden. It’s become yet another institutional barrier taking precious time away from building the capacity necessary to thwart the urge to propose simple solutions for complex problems.
Successful superintendents spend their time toiling in the soil to create the perfect environment for growth. Creating conditions for success.
Building a system where collective work, popularly referred to as collaboration, and colloquially referred to as teamwork, is valued. With a history of isolationist practices and policies that support it, leaders who try to convert an isolationist culture to a culture of collaboration face strong opposition. As a result, most leaders give up because they are not skilled enough to master the subtleties of change leadership. Collective work continues to be loosely rooted in education. Don’t get me wrong, collective work (e.g. PLCs) is present in name, just not in professional practice. And where it is deeply rooted and effective, it is likely to be a charter school or a school that teachers created and lead. Or in the best case, a school where teachers and students are empowered, engaged, and focused on continuous improvement of student outcomes.
Forgive me if I have overdone the harvest metaphor, but as Chance the gardener said in Jerzy Kosiński’s 1970’s novel Being There, “As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.”
In education parlance, that means a deeply rooted culture will continue to flourish as long as it is nurtured. Accountability as we know it: test results, teacher appraisal, rewards and punishment make building the capacity for a deeply rooted culture of collaboration nearly impossible. Equally ineffective are strategies revolving around technology solutions and other fragmented strategies that are neither integrated or systemic.
Strategic planning in education has not realized its promise to revolutionize education any more than the wonders of technology has…but for different reasons. Technology is a tool. It’s not grown. Strategic planning on the other hand, is a collective enterprise. If done well, it integrates all of the functional components of an organization and ties them to one another to create a system that is dependent on each component and is only as successful as its weakest one. Shore up the weakest by coupling it with the strongest, thereby situating the energy of educators towards a model where intrinsic motivation thrives. Teachers strive to improve because teaching is personally meaningful to them and their contribution to the greater good of society becomes even greater as they become more effective practitioners. Not because they are being held accountable. Being highly effective is empowering and working together with teammates who are also highly effective creates a level of energy that perpetuates intrinsic motivation, and thus a continuous improvement model.
I've witnessed policy makers at the highest and lowest levels talk about accountability as though it has not already been proven to be ineffective as a driver of system reform. It's increasingly harder to listen to the arguments, thinly veiled as they are as partisan politics and personal agendas that have nothing to do with kids.
[This essay was inspired by a conversation I had a day ago with two teachers the morning after a board meeting]