Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Accountability for Thee, But Not For Me

(originally published at


When I lived in Arizona, there was a controversial program wherein cameras were posted on key roadways to catch people speeding.  I got caught doing 50 MPH in a 40 MPH zone, and had to attend an online driving school to clear my record. I was mightily annoyed, because as far as I was concerned, I was driving safely. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who was irked. The Republican governor attacked the camera system as being an “invasive” holdover from her Democratic predecessor, and the program was shut down.

Accountability is a funny thing. We love it in the third person, but we often hate it in the first person.  We don’t need oversight and regulation; the rules are for those other people. We encounter this attitude all the time, from the grocery store checkout line to massive Wall Street banks. We want law and order, but we also want the freedom to do whatever we choose, because—well, darn it—we’re good people, aren’t we? Kind and thoughtful and wise?  Sure. You can trust us.

In general, we have no problem obeying rules we already agree with; it’s the rules we don’t like that we tend to violate. And how much we like a given rule may depend on all sorts of contingencies. The express line at the grocery store may be fine in theory; at least it’s fine on days when the store isn’t crowded and we’re not in a rush. But if we feel pressed for time, well…now it’s an inconvenience, and we’ll fight with the checker to let us go through with our 37 items. Unless there’s already another rule-breaker in that line, gumming up the works. Then we’ll curse that person for being selfish, and skulk back to where we belonged in the first place.

The Categorical Imperative

It would be lovely to think that we’re capable of restraining ourselves without outside authority or interference—that we can all be relied upon to do the right thing in all cases.  The Golden Rule has been around for a long time, after all, and we learn it at an early age. But obviously, if we all abided by that rule, people wouldn’t be hogging the express line with their 37 items.

Immanuel Kant said, back in the 18th century, that we should choose only those actions we’d be comfortable seeing implemented as a universal law. That’s the Golden Rule on steroids. If I feel it’s okay to speed whenever and wherever I want to, then I should be comfortable with everyone doing it.  And if that thought is unpalatable or frightening to me, then I shouldn’t be speeding, myself.  

But I do speed. The sad fact is that we can’t be depended upon to let logic rule over our baser instincts—not all the time. For good or ill, we need rules and laws to restrain our impulses and provide some external, objective standard to follow. And we need to hold ourselves and each other accountable for living within those limitations.

In an organization like a business or a school, accountability isn’t just about living together in peace and harmony; it’s also about working together towards a common goal and getting things accomplished. The minute you move beyond doing everything yourself, you need some kind of accountability to ensure that important things get done. Without accountability, people end up stomping around the office, muttering, “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.” And who wants to be (or listen to) that guy?

Let Them Teach

Accountability—tricky in the business world—is even trickier in the world of education.  Who do we have to depend upon, and who depends on us? Are we accountable to our students or our principals, our parents or the local board of education, or are we only accountable to the state? In theory, it feels like “all of the above;” in practice, it sometimes ends up as, “none of the above.”

How many of us have responded to the endless parade of mandates and initiatives with external obedience but internal rebellion—going through the motions to keep up appearances, but then closing the door on the new “flavor of the month” initiative and doing whatever we feel is the right thing to do? How many of us have grimaced during principal walkthroughs, sure that our administrators don’t have enough understanding to pass judgment on our performance? How many of us have reacted to larger, state-level evaluation systems with even more scorn? How many Defenders of Teachers have responded to all of this with blog posts and tweets that say, “Leave them alone! Just let them teach!”

“Just let them teach” suggests that outside evaluation is unnecessary, burdensome, and perhaps even dangerous. It implies that only teachers can understand and assess their own day-to-day actions, because the job is too complex. We do not seem to say that this particular evaluation tool or process is flawed; we say (or at least we imply) that the entire idea of evaluating teacher performance is foolish.

But is that true? Are we educators so strange and unique that our work simply cannot be evaluated?  I mean, even the wizards-in-training at Hogwarts had to pass their O.W.L. exams. If their performance could be assessed, surely ours can.

Defining Accountability

In his book, Winning with Accountability, Henry J. Evans describes in detail what it means to hold yourself, and others, accountable—and why real accountability is crucial for any successful organization. For him, accountability simply means being reliable: knowing that when someone says she’ll do something, the thing gets done. When there is real accountability, Evans says, little checking-in and checking-up is required. Accountability creates trust. 

Evans says that the first piece of the “accountability puzzle” is clarity.  He talks about the importance of being specific in making requests or promises. If you aren’t clear and specific in explaining what you need, your odds of getting exactly what you want are slim. If your people are aiming at a moving target—or a target they can’t see—you’re bound to end up disappointed.  Evans also talks about the importance of being precise when discussing deadlines.  Say you ask for something to be completed “sometime today,” expecting it in your hands in mid-afternoon. Instead, you get the finished work at 6:00 PM. You’re annoyed, but the person completing the task feels satisfied. There is instantly a gap between the two of you. That’s true of promises as well as requests. If you tell someone you’ll deliver something “later today,” instead of, say, “by noon,” you create the possibility of misunderstanding. And misunderstanding erodes trust.

Evans also talks about ownership. He says that you can’t be truly accountable for something you don’t own. Maybe you only own a small part of it. Whatever you own, you can be held responsible for. But if you don’t have real autonomy in how the work is done, you don’t really own it, and you can’t be held fully accountable for the final product. Or if ownership is conferred ambiguously on members of a committee, with no clarity around what is expected from whom, then no one ends up being truly accountable.

Finally, Evans talks about being open and public about expectations and commitments, about making sure everyone knows, and everyone understands clearly, what has been asked for and what was been promised.

Accountability in Teacher Land

Already you can see where accountability can be problematic in the world of education. Doctors and lawyers operate within well-established and universally-accepted norms of practice—so well-accepted that proven violations can result in a loss of license to practice. Teachers have nothing like that. It’s nearly impossible to lose one’s teaching license because of shoddy practice. In fact, the word “malpractice” doesn’t even exist in our world, partly because we can’t all agree on what “best practice” actually is—which is shocking, given the amount of research that has been done in the field, from Marzano to Hattie. We should know what works and what doesn’t. In fact, we do know what works and what doesn’t. But if you are a teacher, what you believe about instruction is usually a personal concoction, brewed from a recipe consisting of your own background as a student, the training you received in college or graduate school, the influence of a mentor or senior teacher, and the years of experience you’ve had in the classroom. Your definition of “good practice” may or may not agree with the definitions of your fellow teachers in the building, or the view of your principal, and it may or may not coincide with the definition laid out in whatever teacher evaluation system your state has adopted. So already, we’re in trouble. If there is no agreement or clarity about what the job of teaching means and entails, the situation is ripe for miscommunication and disappointed expectations. This is why we have instances of teachers preparing detailed, standards-aligned lesson plans, only to be dinged during a walkthrough because the standard hasn’t been written in the upper right hand corner of the white board.

How about being open and public with expectations? Do we see that in our schools?  I would have to say, “Not really.” Far too often, teachers feel caught in a trap between what is said publically (“All students will be imaginative, creative, critical thinkers and problem-solvers with a rich base of content knowledge,”) and what is actually expected (“If your kids don’t ace those standardized tests, your job is on the line,”)—and usually, the private expectation is the one that ends up mattering. To compound the problem, if principals are not strong instructional leaders themselves, they may not know how to set explicit expectations for what they want. They’ll want the school to “improve.” They’ll want the students to “do better.” But they may not understand what those things really mean, or how to help teachers and students get there (witness the misunderstanding around what a “standards-based lesson” is, from the paragraph above).  And even if they are instructional leaders, if they don’t have school-wide agreement as to what constitutes best practice, nothing is likely to change.

All “Quid,” but no “Pro Quo”

One puzzle piece that Evans doesn’t discuss, but which I find incredibly important, is the piece I call, The Right Tools for the Job. Maybe he feels it’s so obvious that it doesn’t bear mentioning, but it’s massively unfair to hold someone accountable for completing a task if they don’t have the resources they need to do it. And that is something we see in our schools every day.  We expect excellent, thoughtful, inspiring teaching, while treating our teachers like assembly-line factory workers. We set rigorous goals for literacy, while shuttering school libraries. We talk about global citizenship, but react in horror if a teacher tries to bring too much of the outside world into the classroom. We hope for curious, well-rounded, soulful young children, but slash funds to expose them to music, theatre, and arts. We talk about 21st century skills, but we ask our schools to manage with 20-year-old computer equipment and shaky Internet connectivity locked behind a restrictive firewall that prevents science students from researching “breast cancer.”

Sometimes, the problem isn’t just the lack of tools; it’s the setting of completely unattainable goals. Recently, Dr. Sean McGrew wrote about the legacy of No Child Left Behind, and the many reasons why the goal of “Adequate Yearly Progress” was a “useful fiction,” that could never really be achieved. As he said, “a metric that is not what it seems to be is confusing and dangerous.” 

Accountability only works if it’s a two-way street, and yet in our schools, teachers are expected to “own” a student’s academic performance, regardless of that child’s background, previous experience, unique abilities, and special challenges—and they are expected to effect change for that child without the time, resources, or support needed to do the job effectively.  

What happens when a person is given unclear or unreasonable expectations, and is then denied the resources needed even to make an effort at meeting those goals?  If teachers come to realize that the game is rigged against them, and that the consequences of failure are extreme, is it any wonder that some of them resort to cheating  to protect their jobs and their students?

Salutary Neglect

Does this mean that we should just leave teachers alone and “let them teach?” Yes and no. It would be lovely if we could stop driving teachers crazy with This Year’s New Program at the school level and This Decade’s Political Initiative in Congress. It would be nice if we could stop threatening to fire them if they don’t achieve the impossible. But leaving teachers alone shouldn’t mean leaving them isolated and unsupported. That’s not good for anyone’s practice. And we shouldn’t say that oversight and management has to stop at the classroom door. The “shopping mall school,” where every teacher operates like an independent contractor and does whatever she thinks is best, is not good for the children who move from teacher to teacher.

As educators, we’ve got to get over the thought that what we do is too complex to be explained, or that we are only accountable to ourselves. If there can be professional standards and protocols for conducting brain surgery, there can be professional standards and protocols for teaching. Just because we haven’t figured them out yet doesn’t mean it can’t be done. The systems laid out by Robert Marzano, Charlotte Danielson, and James Stronge are all good efforts at capturing the domains and competencies of teaching. Each has its strong points and its limitations. Unfortunately, the states that have adopted these systems—and then turned them into quantitative, punitive instruments of judgment—have, to some extent, wrecked what’s good about the rubrics, obscuring their value as tools for professional growth. The states that have fetishized student test scores over qualitative observations have made it plain that good teaching is less meaningful than test prep, whether they’re willing to admit it or not. So if teachers aren’t buying in, it’s not really much of a surprise.

As Henry Evans made clear, a culture of accountability is a culture of trust, where every member of an organization knows what is expected and what she, in turn, can expect—a culture where everyone can be relied upon to do good work. That doesn’t just happen; it has to be cultivated and managed. And when it exists, heavy-handed evaluation tends to disappear, because we hold each other (and ourselves) accountable to high standards all the time, just as a matter of course.

In 1775, Edmund Burke coined the term “salutary neglect” to refer to the British government’s practice of “leaving the Colonies alone” to flourish without heavy-handed interference (a practice that was, by 1775, rapidly disappearing). He said it was clear that the flourishing Colonies owed “little or nothing to any care of ours,” and had not been “squeezed into this happy [successful] form by the constraints of watchful and suspicious government.” It’s true that the Colonies were doing just fine without his paternalistic guidance. But he was wrong that the Colonies owed nothing to Britain. They were not operating in total isolation and independence; they had developed, over a long period of time, a system of self-government based on a variety of historical models, from those of the ancient Greeks to those of their British cousins, and those of their neighboring Iroquois. They had an effective set of norms at their disposal, and they were doing good work for themselves and for the mother country. The wiser heads of Parliament suggested that they be left alone to continue flourishing. Others disagreed and decided to “squeeze them” harder into more rigid compliance and obedience.

We all know how that turned out.