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The forward-facing nature of meaningful accountability

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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