What is accountability really?

accountability john tanner trust Apr 30, 2024

This is a repost from John Tanner's blog at www.edcontrarian.blogspot.com

What s accountability? I ask that question a great deal in my work. Specifically, when I ask educators about how it is done formally, what I hear suggests it is both everything and nothing, the end and the means, hated but grudgingly tolerated, and a fete accompli. It often sounds to me like educators are describing an amorphous multi-tentacled entity that appears annually to render its negative judgments on schools, but then slinks back into some dark, inaccessible hiding place that allows it to avoid scrutiny or even identification.

Being amorphous doesn't mean it doesn’t have weight because of course it does. Each state has a formula for compliance (at the behest of the Feds) into which it dumps standardized test data and perhaps graduation rates or attendance. The formula arranges schools, from the school deemed to be the greatest of them all down to the worst, and then parses that scale into labels or grades. The schools at the top usually get a plaque of some sorts confirming their greatness, and the schools at the bottom are told to get their act together, often accompanied by sanctions.

The fact that the judgments correlate with the socioeconomics of a neighborhood—a fact that for any researcher worth their salt would cause them to say, whoa, wait a minute, are we judging school effectiveness or stating the obvious, that poor people have it tougher than rich people—never seems to bother the people making the rules. At least not enough to question what we’re doing.

What it boils down to is what passes for school accountability is in fact an amorphous $2 billion (at least) annual boondoggle that helps us see where rich and poor people live. By any stretch of the imagination, that is not accountability.

So, what is accountability, really? I’ve been investigating that question for the better part of two decades. Early on, I realized that answering it is the key to getting it right.

And the key to answering the question lies in asking why it is we ever account for what we do in the first place. Why do we tell others about our efforts? What is it we want them to feel as a result? How is it we want them to think about us?

We could spend hours in workshops working through any number of responses (and it’s a worthwhile exercise, if you have the time). Then if we stared at those responses (which I have now done many times) and tried to identify some purpose or motive, one will occur far more than any other.


It's in almost every response. I account for what I do so that you will trust me. You do the same. Organizations account to their stakeholders in the hope that those stakeholders will trust that the organization will have their best interests at heart. That desire and need for trust is everywhere you look when you think about why we would ever account to anyone regarding our efforts. We account for what we do because we care and need others to care as well.

Accountability is far different than selling or spinning a narrative, so please don’t confuse them. Neither of those builds trust. In fact, they can often have the opposite effect. Selling and spinning are to compel an action, regardless of trust, sometimes even in the face of it not existing. Selling and spinning tell only part of the story, the part they want you to hear. Trust requires more. Trust requires an accounting based in fact and truth.

Accountability, at its best, is a truth-telling trust-building machine.

But what of those, I am often asked, whom we must hold to account, those whom we don’t perceive as being sufficiently accountable? What is it we want from them? What is it we are lacking that causes the perception that they are not being accountable?

It’s that same word, trust, but an absence of it: we don’t trust them, and what we are in effect asking for are efforts that will allow us to trust, or a change from the present to conditions in which trust might be possible.

And how is trust built?

One step at a time. Gradually, one interaction, or transaction at a time. Trust requires an accumulation of numerous intentional actions until one day it feels as if it was always there, even when we know that was never the case.

That won’t happen accidentally. Hope won’t get you there. Doing nothing is the surest way to ensure trust never occurs. Talking at people, flinging reams of data at them, or saying “trust me” aren’t steps that get you closer to trust.

Accounting for your efforts honestly, accurately, and understandably, is the most important thing we do to build trust, both within an organization and without. That requires purpose, intent, and effort, just like planning, strategy, and execution, three of the disciplines required to be a leader.

Which brings us around to answering that question, what is accountability?

Accountability in its purest and yet most pragmatic form is the trust-building discipline of leadership. It is that plain, that simple, and that powerful. It is the discipline that enables us to account for what we do and as a result, over time, be trusted to do it some more. Institutions that lack such a discipline will be sorely lacking in their capacity to build trust with their stakeholders. That would be a difficult spot to be in.

In schools we give tests to students, drop the scores into a formula, and spit out an annual judgment.

That sound to anybody like we’re doing school accountability right? Like a trust-building exercise? Like anything resembling what accountability could and should be? Especially in an institution as critical as public education?

I didn’t think so.

It is not possible to corrupt the idea of accountability any more thoroughly than in what has been done to schools. And the consequences of that are enormous. Without a meaningful accountability in schools public trust can’t and won’t happen. Let that sink in for a moment, because what it means is that every day we don’t account for what we do in a way that builds trust, this institution of public education is closer and closer to not existing, and that would be a terrible thing for the nation.

That isn’t to say every school is great and that if we could just tell the truth every school would be seen positively. That isn’t true, and we all know it. But what we have now is an accountability system that cannot tell the truth about any school, the good or the bad. The absence of trust that produces leads the public to believe that the institution of public education should be perceived negatively, or that it might closet to beyond saving, or perhaps not even worth it.

Here’s the bright spot. We don’t need those who got it wrong to get it right. Accountability in its proper form was always there for us to take advantage of, regardless of policy, and it still is. Accounting for what happens in a school is as necessary today as it was when the current system started, perhaps more so given the mess it’s made. And it doesn’t require permission. It doesn’t even require that you tell anyone what you are up to. It just requires leadership.

We won’t solve this trust issue overnight but rather, over time. But we’ll never solve it if we don’t start accounting for our truths in a manner that is believable. And understandable. We need to build and recover trust one step or transaction at a time until the accumulation is such that the public can wonder why it didn’t exist before.

Fixing accountability and putting a school on the road to trust just requires a leader willing to do it. That’s remarkable when you think about it. And it gives me hope.