TRUE ACCOUNTABILITY BLOG

Getting True Accountability going across the country requires lots of voices and lots of dialogue. The blog below will host those voices and the responses to them. Sign up to be notified of new posts and to add to the dialogue. 

 
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When organizations don't want to or won't contribute to making things better the policy response is frequently to put in place a protectionist model that works like this:

The model is not intended to foment excellence or encourage greatness, but to prevent an organization from screwing things up in some narrow part of what it does. Generally speaking, this isn't the thing that defines them as an organization, but something that once in place must be complied with in order to function as that organization. The model works by identifying a point in a metric as the difference between failing and not failing. If the organization fails, it is punished or sanctioned to promote compliance. If it does not fail, it is free to go about its larger work as an organization.


And because there exists a real advantage to not comply given the costs and effort often required, repeated verification for compliance is likely to be necessary. Successful cheating (think Volkswagen and their emission scam) creates a competitive advantage, and so trust by those doing the compliance check is going to be in short supply.


This model is reasonably effective when trying to promote the basis for water quality standards, or ensure we have minimally clean air to breathe, but that's it. The model draws its power by selecting a small piece of what an organization does, most generally in the form of an easily measurable output, and forcing compliance through the risk of sanctions or punishments, sometimes to the point of denying the organization the right to exist.


It is also important to note that full compliance says little about the organization's effectiveness. That determination is elsewhere.


But the greatest limitation of this model is that the line that gets drawn in the sand as the minimum will have a ceiling effect as well. If a factory is well above the threshold and needs to cut costs, it can limit some of its efforts to do that and still be in compliance. That sort of regression is to be expected, but in many cases it will be seen as a reasonable trade-off in creating an overall benefit for society. In situations where parts of an organization are in compliance and others are not, those that are in compliance will be ignored and those that are not will get the attention, which will contribute to the regression as well.


Thus this model would be a terrible model for an organizational accountability, or for building trust with stakeholders, or creating a continuous improvement mindset, since it doesn't care about such things.


What is so damned frustrating regarding school accountability is that this is the very model that was chosen, but the rhetoric of policy makers presumes it has all the capacity necessary to transform every school into a great organization, and so they hammer away on the model and wonder why schools aren't magically transforming themselves to match the rhetoric. But it's even worse than that because they picked a metric (predictive test scores) that doesn't do what they they think it does or mean what they think it means. So now they get mad when schools don't comply with the metric that doesn't mean what they think and wonder why schools aren't becoming great in a system that was never designed to make them great in the first place.


Makes you wonder.


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Andy Calkins of Next Generation Learning and I had a nice exchange worth repeating below.
I wrote Andy:

Here is one thing I’ve discovered about how we create a narrative around schools that is very different than how effective organizations (be that a church, non-profit, hospital, business, government agency, you name it) do it. In organizations that are viewed as effective their narrative is ahead of them, in the future, and forward facing. They use evidence and research to inform that narrative, since it isn’t a public relations activity, but one that must be based on truth or it will be ignored and dismissed. 

Schools remain one of the few institutions that bases its entire narrative on the past, on the percentage of students that did this, or parents who think that. The information is not irrelevant, but it isn’t where other organizations base their narrative. Their narrative is about going forward, about why a stakeholder should continue their relationship with the organization, or form one. They would never think of stopping at the data or focusing their narrative primarily on the past. This can all be encapsulated in two simple questions from the perspective of a parent: was my child safe yesterday? That is a research question, and the answer is not irrelevant. But that isn’t where the narrative should be housed. That narrative must answer a different question: Will my child be safe today, and tomorrow, and the next day?


The point of the narrative in effective organizations is to answer that question sufficiently that it inspires action going forward. If it is based on a lie the narrative will quickly be distrusted and the organization will suffer. But if it is based in honesty and truth, which will require evidence, then the inspired action can be said to be well-placed.

Accountability in effective organizations is a more formal version of that narrative. Certainly not a participation trophy or a chance at self-congratulations, but a robust opportunity to build trust with the organization's stakeholders, which is never an easy or simple thing.

Andy responded with something I thought was excellent:

RE basing the narrative in the past: YES, and I’d say it’s more endemic than the ways they use testing, evidence and the accountability system.

  1. It happens on both a personal-narrative level and on a plumbing-and-wiring/systems-dynamics level. Schooling gets rooted in the past because it feels like part of adults’ personally and historically-formed self-perception (parents, educators, policymakers). We adults were all partially formed by our experiences in schools, and – especially those of us with any kind of privilege and power – the whole model seemed to work for us, so why would I think about changing it in any fundamental way? That would feel earth-shaking in ways that many or most people aren’t all that comfortable with.

  2. Systemically, we’ve had 90 years of policies, regulations, contracts, operating habits, and building design that have made public education an almost miraculously designed exercise in self-reinforcing inertia loops. So much that happens in schools happens that way because it’s locked into the plumbing and wiring and there are advocates with self-interest to protect it. See this recent blog of mine for a glimpse of some districts (part of our Transformation Design research work) that are trying to address that problem: When Humans, Not Systems, Run Schools.

When you write: What a true accountability does is take awareness and ask two powerful questions: do we have the capacity to truly do this work, and if not, how do we build it given the uniqueness of our particular organization? And then include in the narrative the process and progress being made in language that will make sense to the stakeholders that told us it was important….. Our next gen learning educators and policymakers would say “how are you defining ‘this work’?” The whole standards-testing-accountability movement, in a way, was a super clumsy effort to get at the questions you pose, but without any regard to the future-focused lean that the definition of “this work” should take. It became all and only about what we thought we knew how to test, accurately (and, as you say, looking backwards). That became narrow sets of testable standards and poor incentives for ed leaders. And that poisoned so much practice and the learning experiences (and life outcomes) for kids.

Back to John for the conclusion--thanks Andy for a thoughtful exchange.

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On Monday we held our first National Educational Accountability Forum via a video call with 26 participants. Eric Simpson, my co-director on the Texas Public Accountability Consortium, made a comment about the wind for once being at our back regarding solving the accountability issue, and that we'd better take advantage of it. George Thompson of the Schlechty Center sent me what follows in response, and I thought it worth sharing here.

As I was listening to the Forum discussion yesterday, I remembered something I learned from my mentor superintendent. He advised that one should never even hint at leaving a leadership role until you are ready to accept the fact that you will, from that day forward, be treated as a lame duck. He said that people in the organization will act as if you never existed and will become preoccupied with who they think the successor will be. Reminds me of the song, “Mister Cellophane,” from the musical, Chicago. “You can look right through me, walk right by me, and never know I'm there ...” I recall about a month after I left the school district, I ran into a teacher who approached me to tell me how much she and her colleagues missed me. Then as she said goodbye, she called me by the name of the person who had served as interim superintendent before a permanent one was appointed.

So what does this have to do with the Forum yesterday? It was the combination of Eric’s comment about having the wind to our backs, and the pastors comment about parents expecting superintendents and school boards, and not government, to make the hard decisions needed now. Federal and state DOE departments are not only lame duck, they are out of sight and out of the minds of parents. The test has left the room, whether it knows it or not. Dr. Phillip Schlechty used to say that the standard is set on the outside by the customers of the organization—not on the inside. The standards have shifted, and most of us are acting like the test is still the standard. The new standards that parents care about, have to do with their children being safe when they return to school. They are concerned about mental health and how their children will either maintain or establish healthy relationships with peers and adults. They want their kids to have memorable experiences both in academics and in extracurricular activities. 

The test is a lame duck, and so are those who have staked their reputation on it. But more than that, the political, and often partisan, impact of departments of education is waning. Even in cases where departments are helpful, they are still lame ducks because parents are looking right past them, walking right by them, and don’t even know they’re there.

George

Quick note: you can find George and all the Schlechty folks at https://www.schlechtycenter.org.

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