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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Accountability Is Like an 80’s Flight To Bucharest

By Katie Zahedi — June 26, 2013 5 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Katie Zahedi, Ph.D. Katie is a principal in the Red Hook Central School District in Red Hook, N.Y. However, her opinions expressed are her’s alone and not the opinions of her school district.

In 1984 I was on a flight to Bucharest, Romania on Malev Airlines. A steward and stewardess were pushing their cart down the aisle serving juice while subtly but intentionally shoving the cart, making unwelcome contact with each other’s legs.

Hostile public interactions were common in the 1980’s in Eastern Europe. Whether in long lines to buy bread, or in the bureaucratic tangle of the public sector, generalized discontent permeated society. I have often thought about the discourteous employee interaction on Malev Airlines. The usual line-up of explanations for the curious exchange:

Was the culture to blame?

Were those two individuals in a personal dispute?

How about the terms of their employment?

Recently, principals in New York have been frustrated with the implementation of poorly conceived policies that are being enforced on schools. The imposition of “Race to the Top” walks and talks like the heavy-handed and undemocratic systems imposed by dictators, in general. New York schools are scurrying to comply, but unfortunately the brand of reform being levied is so nonsensically constructed that it is causing discord and unhappiness in schools.

As if back on that flight to Bucharest, I watch as hostility increases and cooperation declines, by design. Proponents of RTTT and APPR will react to criticisms like mine saying that, teachers should be able to “take this” and we need to “hold them accountable”, but let’s take a look at the management typology of APPR and RTTT.

Douglas McGregor discusses Theory X and Y management styles:
• Theory X Management uses tight controls to manage employees who are seen as lazy and unmotivated.
• Theory Y Leadership trusts and empowers employees who are seen as motivated to contribute and make a difference.

The quick eclipse of Theory Y forms of school leadership by politically mandated Theory X models is unprecedented. Such a fine-grained imposition of requirements has never been attempted in U.S. public schools. Curiously, even during the cold war when political rhetoric in education policy was at a fever pitch, the government did not enact such extreme strictures, e.g. Nation at Risk, 1983.

Meyer and Benavot question the reliance on standardized accountability measures in educational policymaking, saying that it “runs the risk of engendering an unprecedented process of worldwide educational standardization for the sake of hitching schools more tightly to the bandwagon of economic efficiency, while sacrificing their role to prepare students for independent thinking and civic participation.”

Theory X in the implementation of RTTT and APPR
Calls for accountability are designed to blame teachers and principals for comparatively lower scores of U.S. students. Yet, even high performing schools (in award winning districts) are charged with implementing cumbersome accountability measures. RTTT regulations are not simple quality controls but illogical and time consuming supervisory practices, consistent with

Theory X in assuming that employees are lazy and selfish. The assignments of points and numbers that are supposed to correspond to qualitative and nuanced professional performance is petty, inaccurate and insulting. Repressive and tightly controlled organizations lead to punitive and distrustful relations that consume an unjustifiable amount of time to implement.

Theory Y and Professional Respect in Educational Leadership
Theory Y includes all of the intrinsic motivation that leaders activate within the culture of their organizations, which engenders public-minded and cooperative work relations. Principals who are adept at these refined practices have the loyalty of faculty who feel that they are valued and respected, leading to performance that goes above and beyond what a point system could ever provoke!

I am cognizant that I am drawing on reserves of trust built with my faculty in the ten years preceding the RTTT and APPR craze. I sense the corrosion of morale as teachers await number grades for a year of work that had much more to do with creating an atmosphere of learning than with raising scores. These teacher scores will produce a bank of data for manipulation in the new state and federal competition called Race to the Top.

In the End
Back to the flight to Bucharest, I suspect that Theory X management (on a national level) was at play. Public trust was low, the economy was broken and people in Eastern Europe were feeling oppressed and undervalued. Seeing heavy-handed and undemocratic systems in my own profession through the introduction of hyper-supervisory systems is disheartening. An accountability scheme that blames teachers for problems in our society that belong to everyone is unacceptable!

In fact, accountability is particularly applicable to politicians and the state (and federal) appointees who fancy themselves above the accountability systems they create. So, what should the government be doing that they are blaming schools for? First they should heed the example of schools that are successful like Finnish schools, built on equality and cooperation.

It’s high time that the political domain be held accountable, for the conditions in poor communities! If we cannot rise above Theory X leadership, let’s add into the mix politicians and appointees to state education departments who have promoted systems under RTTT and APPR that blame teachers for the unequal results that are the logical product of an increasingly unequal society.

As we will recall, the New York State Education Department invited educators to gather their students and board a plane being “built while flying”... and there we have it RTTT, APPR and now poor service on U.S. flights.

Heinz-Dieter Meyer & Aaron Benavot. Introduction. PISA and the Globalization of Education Governance: some puzzles and problems. OXFORD STUDIES IN COMPARATIVE EDUCATION

PISA, Power, and Policy. The Emergence of Global Educational Governance
Edited by HEINZ-DIETER MEYER & AARON BENAVOT (Benavot, 2013)

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.