One of the more interesting (and harmful) things to come out of the test-based accountability era is that we now equate testing with accountability, to the point where most people can’t see how accountability could be done without testing.
This, however, is wrong on so many levels. In my work we approach the issue from a far more practical angle. My question years ago was simple: is there a structure or framework to the way in which effective organizations do accountability? Even though hospitals, businesses, and non-profits function in dramatically different ways, and whether formal or informal, is there something they have in common when their results match their mission?
The answer was a resounding yes: a common set of patterns and frameworks is most definitely shared across effective organizations. Upon that discovery my work immediately shifted to a simple premise: if effective organizations have an accountability framework in common, and we want schools to among the most effective organizations in society, don’t schools deserve to operate under an accountability framework designed for effective organizations?
If your answer is no, stop reading. You’ll be happy with what we have, which upon closer analysis through the lens of these frameworks reveals itself to be an accountability designed to sow discord, create confusion, and separate the haves from the have nots. That is incredibly ironic since the primary argument for the system was based on equity.
But if your answer is yes, these true accountability frameworks offer a compelling solution.
Think of it this simply: which question is the most important to a parent:
1. Was my child safe yesterday?
2. Will my child be safe in school today?
It isn’t that the first is unimportant, as it informs our work, but it is the second that should occupy our accountability efforts, and that is of greatest concern to all of us. What that suggests is that accountability must have a forward-facing function, or it will fail to support a continuous improvement mindset. When accountability is only about what happened, the most likely messages will be negative given that the perfect school does not exist, and judgments about the past are always against some ideal.
When accountability takes a forward-facing approach, it puts a set of leaders in the position of leading towards the future, and when done properly, as in effective organizations, it makes those efforts transparent to anyone wishing to look.
Test-based accountability can do nothing of the sort. It offers a brief backwards-facing look that is at best a partial accounting, and fails to offer insights into the most important of the two questions: will my child be safe today?
I had the theory for a lot of this pretty well intact two and a half years ago when the Texas Association of School Administrators and I decided to partner and see if districts were interested in doing this work. We hoped for a dozen and then more than forty signed up. That group took the theories and made them live, fine tuning the old frameworks and building new ones in the very pragmatic environment of actual schooling. We now have research partners, and more and more districts interested in joining. Additional states have started to take notice, and a great many organizations are coming to a similar conclusion: that tweaking test-based accountability is a waste of time and risks the future of the majority of our children.
I have never put out a blatant call to action, until now. I am encouraging you to find a way to support this work, wherever you are. Learn the frameworks and put them into action. Fine tune them through practice and share your discoveries so that others can benefit. Stop the nonsense of thinking that a better test exists or that tweaking the existing system solves anything. It does not. We need a different way of doing school accountability, one that finally is good for our children, their communities, and their schools.