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  • John Tanner

Two kinds of accountability

Get a piece of paper. Divide it down the middle. Think of the word accountability and on the right side make a list of all the positive terms that come to mind. There are lots. My bet is that responsibility, transparency, integrity, and improvement--or terms like them--will be a part of your list. Accountability is a good thing. It is a state of mind that embodies all those good terms all the time.


Now think of what we do to unaccountable organizations or politicians and list those terms on the left. My bet is that the terms are decidedly negative. Feet to the fire is common. So too are sanctions, punishment, blame, and testing in the face of a lack of trust.


The two sides of your paper represent two different forms of accountability. One is what accountable organizations do as part of their day to day work. The other is what we do to organizations that refuse to be accountable as a temporary effort to get them back on track. Both are legitimate systems when appropriately deployed, but they are different systems and only one can be in effect at a time. This is because one is focused on excellence and continuous improvement, while the other is focused on rooting out failure and getting back to continuous improvement at the earliest possible moment. Those are not the same thing and either will suck up all the energy of an organization.


So where are schools? Where have they been for the last twenty-five years (at least)? On the left side of your page. Accountability has been done to schools. You may think that was appropriate or you may not--it doesn't much matter at the moment. What does matter is where we go from here. Since only one type of accountability is in effect at a time, why wouldn't we want the one that focuses schools on excellence and improvement? And how is it that an accountability designed to be temporary is now permanent?


Real failure should, of course, be addressed, but to apply an assumption of failure as the universal starting point makes no sense given what we need to accomplish regarding the education of all children. It especially makes no sense given that no other field has ever been asked to operate as if the unaccountable accountability model is the means to greatness. It has never made a field great and never will, as that is not its purpose.


I promise, a better way exists.

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