Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The gross misunderstanding in educational accountability

For a word used with ease in educational policy circles, accountability is a term that is surprisingly misunderstood and misused.

Seeing this is relatively simple. Ask an audience to brainstorm a list of terms they associate with accountability and a pattern will quickly emerge. Many of the words will be positive such as:
  • Transparency
  • Effectiveness
  • Responsibility
  • Outcomes
And many of the words and phrases will be negative, such as:
  • Feet to the fire
  • Testing due to lack of trust
  • Blame
  • Shame
If you list these words in two columns on a sheet of paper what you will be observing are the two sides to accountability.

The negative terms represent what happens when an organization refuses to be accountable and/or is perceived as failing. In that case, accountability is something imposed on that organization by outside stakeholders for the purpose of bringing the organization in line. Such an accountability focuses the organization on failure prevention at the expense of everything else.

The positive terms represent what happens in effective organizations. These are organizations that internalize the principles behind these terms and attempt to exemplify them in their efforts.

This type of accountability focuses the organization on how best to sustain itself long-term, and how best to communicate its effort to its stakeholders.

Both types of accountability are perfectly valid depending on the circumstance.

What should be clear is that the objective for any organization should be an accountability focused on long-term sustainable excellence. This properly aligns the organization with its long-term goals and the idea of continuous improvement.

What should also be clear is that imposing an accountability of failure prevention by stakeholders must be performed thoughtfully. Its intent is not long-term sustainable excellence, but just the opposite: an immediate, short-term failure correction. The intent of an imposed accountability is to focus the organization and its resources on correcting the failure at the earliest possible moment or the organization’s existence may well be at risk.

An imposed accountability’s purpose is thus temporary: to force an immediate correction after which the organization can turn its focus towards long-term sustainable excellence. When an organization is having its feet held to the fire its job is not long-term sustainable excellence but something else. The sooner it can correct its errors and turn its attention towards long-term sustainable excellence, the sooner it can return to a state of effectiveness.

It would be deeply illogical and harmful to any organization required to operate in the perpetual shadow of an imposed accountability when the goal is long term effectiveness. The reason for this is simple: it would make the formal focus of the organization failure prevention, and thus attempts at long-term effectiveness would be perceived as secondary.

Even if the organization’s leaders recognized they were in an illogical system and attempted to focus stakeholders on their long-term approach, the fact that the imposed accountability was at the behest of stakeholders while the long-term approach was not, means the imposed accountability is likely to triumph. At best this would cause any positive message to be diluted, and at worst ignored or not believed.

Getting the balance right is always a challenge as organizations consist of lots of moving parts and it will regularly be the case that some of those parts are deserving of an imposed accountability. So long as such accountabilities are temporary that part of the organization can correct itself and return to a focus on the long term the accountability system. In that case the overall accountability system will be seen as contributing to the overall well-being of the organization.

The objective must be for any organization to spend the majority of its existence in an accountability focused on long-term sustainable excellence, and as little time as possible under the pressure of an imposed accountability. Only then will it be in a position to deliver effectively for its stakeholders

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