TRUE ACCOUNTABILITY BLOG

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I was going through old notes and saw this in response to an exchange with George Thompson. We were talking about how you play a good education game in spite of the bad state accountability game they want you to play.


Regardless of whether you’re a school, a district, or a board, as well as the people in each, here is the dilemma. of a bad game versus a good game and how I would recommend people think about it:


1. You get elected, hired, or promoted, and you’re excited—you want to change the world for the better. You go to work and suddenly the weight of what you are attempting hits.


2. You get bogged down in the bureaucracy, often co-opted by it, because that is where the state places success. Success is where teachers teach to the test, administrators jump through unhelpful hoops they can't see how to avoid, and the board adopts the tone of the compliant board. All accept the current state of accountability as a done deal even though they complain constantly knowing it isn't right or good for kids.


3. No one is happy because of the misplaced notion of success, but outside of a Herculean effort no one can see a way out. Teachers leave by the truckload and those that are committed and stay do their best to live a schizophrenic life for the sake of the kids. Boards form tribes and bug the hell out of the superintendent, firing him/her when their frustration with the bureaucracy reaches the point where it exceeds the superintendent’s ability to respond. In the end, board’s protect the bureaucracy because they are told by the state that's their job. The superintendent churn is bad for everyone.


4. The state sees the dysfunction and responds with more compliance and more bureaucracy, because that is what they are good at. (Go back to #2 and hit repeat). Or they throw up their hands, declare the problem too big, and offer charter and choice as a capitulation.


5. A committed educational leader gets fed up. They accept that a buracratic organization is rudderless and commit to do something. That something generally takes two forms: rebellion against the bureaucracy and its accountability systems, and the desire to start serving the kids rather than the system. Care must be taken as the committed leader is frequently in a place the state judges as a poor performer, and the leader risks looking like an apologist unhappy with what most will accept as an accurate judgment.


6. Two parallel paths need to form. One is towards becoming a Learning Organization. The other is towards True Accountability. The order is less important than knowing that both paths exist and must be followed. Much care will need to be taken to ensure that the negative judgments in the state system are kept isolated from this work, which occurs in a very different system.


7. Each sub-organization within a school system must go down both paths in a manner unique to them. You must have accountable schools, an accountable central office, and an accountable board, and they must all be accountable for constant movement towards a Learning Organization. And never forget what accountability is: the system through which you build and maintain trust with your stakeholders, which are the students, their parents, and their community.


8. The new paths will frequently collide with the old. Care must be taken that the new work not be corrupted. The more fidelity and focus give to step #7, the more likely the school system will succeed in the real sense of the word.


9. The new way will be different to most. Much care will need to be given to induction, culture, community, etc., to ensure that the new way is supported and protected. The goal is to eliminate steps 2-6 above so that the process begins with excited people who are inducted into a Learning Organization with True Accountability as the driver so that the new becomes the norm and the old fades into the background.


Like a board game. But without dice. And way more important.

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This morning I tweeted: "Test-based accountability doesn’t identify effective or ineffective schools, but who is ahead or behind at a moment in time. Judgments at that moment are judgments prior to evidence, which by definition makes them invalid. Time for a better way."


Think about that in terms of graduation rates so you can really see what I'm talking about: who is better at graduating students, the school at 99% or the school at 65%?


Most people pick the 99%. After all, they appear to have done their job of graduating students, while it appears the 65% school did not. But both of those assertions are statements made prior to evidence, and are therefore invalid. And watch how wrong those invalid inferences risk being.


Imagine the the 99% school. Where is it, what does the neighborhood look like, how often are the streets violent, and how many students regularly go to bed hungry? The odds are that this school is in a middle or upper-middle class neighborhood with fairly stable households, safe streets, and parents who know how to value and prioritize their children's education. Given that, what would be the odds that these kids would graduate regardless of where they went to school? The answer is, very high. So, if the students are going to graduate in spite of the school they attend, it can rightly be said that the school is not a cause for that to happen and for the school to take credit for it would be a little silly.


Now imagine the 65% school. Odds are this school is in a more challenging environment. There will likely be more violence on the street, fewer parents with college degrees, and a lot more students who regularly go to bed or school hungry. Let's consider a similar question regarding these students: what are the odds they would graduate without the efforts of that school? The answer there is a little more tenuous--the fact is that in many instances it would not be great. It will likely be the case that a considerable number of students within that 65% would not have graduated under different circumstances. The school in that case can be considered a clear cause in making that happen.


So in that hypothetical situation, which school is actually better at adding value to their students' lives when it comes to graduation? It is just the opposite of what the rushed judgment concluded. The 65% school, at least in that regard, is adding the greater value to their students' lives.


The point of this example is simply to point out the danger of jumping to judgment prior to having evidence. The moment you have a comparison of something that is all you have, and you don't yet have sufficient evidence to make a judgment, or know if one is even warranted.


When you have a test score from a state test you can see at that moment who is ahead and who is behind and that's it. Making a judgment at that moment is not just silly, it's wrong, invalid, and possibly downright hurtful.



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A stakeholder is a member of a group without whom the organization has no reason to exist. That word reason is key. Shareholders or the owners of a company are not the reason the company exists. At best they are a cause to bring it into existence, or to will its survival, but they had to have a reason to create the thing in the first place. The target of that reason, that's the stakeholder.


Never forget who the stakeholder is, because they dictate the nature of the work in the organization. The 1919 Chicago White Sox (forever now known as the Black Sox) forgot that the reason baseball organizations existed was for the fans and the nature of their work shifted from winning the World Series for those fans to throwing it to the Red Sox when they presumed three gamblers would make for a better stakeholder. They were wrong, by the way.


Schools have a stakeholder. Its the student that walks in the door. Remember that and the job is to maximize the educational benefit the school can provide given the unique needs of each child. But sometimes states think they should be the stakeholder, and if you believe that then the job of schooling is high or rising test scores regardless of student benefit. Those are two different jobs that are at odds with each other. And while I'm certainly not equating the state with a group of crooked gamblers, the effects on the organization called a school can be just as dramatic.

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