Education Opinion

High Performance Is Not a Function of Accountability Alone

By Sam Chaltain — December 03, 2013 6 min read
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Guest Post by Edward J. Dirkswager and Kim Farris-Berg

The dominant culture in education is to seek high performance by telling teachers and students what to do and, often, how and when to do it. The idea is that only by making teachers and students act more “accountable” can we truly leave no child behind.

This is the narrative, and as we all absorb it, practice it, read it, and witness it, we limit our own thinking as well. Indeed, many among us are now talking about the best way to hold teachers accountable, assuming it will get us to get high performance.

In our research for our book, Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots, we conducted a review of the literature examining the characteristics of high-performing organizations. We gleaned nine such characteristics from the literature. Accountability is one of the characteristics. People working in high-performing organizations are expected to be accountable for the outcomes of their own decisions, assuming they have authority and responsibility for making decisions on matters for which they are accountable. In other words, accountability isn’t necessarily about implementing other people’s decisions well.

Another increasingly dominant way our nation seeks high performance is via “innovation.” The literature suggests that high-performing cultures value innovation. These cultures encourage people to try creative new things, challenge old processes, and continuously adapt. Like accountability, this is hugely important! But, again, it’s just a portion of what’s necessary.

There are seven more characteristics of high-performing cultures. They include:

1. Seeking clarity and buy in to a shared purpose, made up of mission, values, goals and standards of practice.
2. Establishing a collaborative culture of interdependence characterized by an open flow of ideas, listening to and understanding others, and valuing differences.
3. Expecting leadership from all and perceiving leadership as a service to all.
4. Establishing a learning culture characterized by a sense of common challenge and discovery, rather than a culture where experts impart information.
5. Learning from and being sensitive to the external environment.
6. Being engaged, motivated, and motivating.
7. Setting and measuring progress toward goals and act upon results to improve performance.

In Trusting Teachers, we found that when teachers are collectively trusted with autonomy to make the decisions influencing their school’s success they, for the most part, choose and invent ways of operating that are associated with high-performance. A key to our understanding of these cultures is that they are multifaceted. Each of the nine characteristics is an interrelated piece of one complete system.

Many of our readers have since asked us whether leaders in other school governance models (e.g., principals who involve teachers in making principals’ decisions, district leaders who make decisions for schools in their jurisdiction, Education Management Organizations, or others) also make such choices and create high performing cultures. Further, some readers ask, is it even possible for external management to create or foster such a culture in schools where they do not physically work? These are important questions that we hope researchers will pursue. In our quest for the key to high-performance, these questions are likely to be far more important to answer than whether the people in the schools are acting “accountable” enough to state and district leaders.

In The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, David Brooks emphasizes two essential aspects of human development. The first is an idea that philosophers and psychologists have been echoing for centuries, and that brain research is beginning to affirm: we acquire habits of mind and body by first having to put them in action. Small, repetitive actions have the power to rewire the fundamental mechanisms of the brain.

Put differently, what we habitually do influences what we become.

Second, and quite related to the first, Brooks points out that emergent, organic systems exist when “different elements come together and produce something that is greater than the sum of the parts. . . . The pieces of a system interact, and out of their interaction something entirely new emerges. . .” He continues, “If you surround a person with a new culture, a different web of relationships, then they will absorb new habits of thought and behaviors in ways that you will never be able to measure or understand.” This means that, for better or worse, the culture of the school -- including the web of relationships between people within them -- shapes teachers and students’ habitual thoughts and behaviors.

This begs the question: If the habitual behaviors of teachers and students in a school are rooted in an accountability-focused culture, will the behaviors of teachers and students lead to high performance? Or, as the literature suggests, is high performance more possible when habitual behaviors are rooted in a culture that focuses on developing all nine characteristics? Further, if behaviors were more widely rooted in cultures embracing all nine characteristics, what new definitions of school success would our schools, and eventually our nation, embrace?

There is good work happening in this country that asserts the cultural design of the school is key to its success with students. In their book, Assessing What Really Matters in Schools, Ron Newell and Mark Van Ryzin contend, “Schools transform [student] character by the distinctive values they espouse, not by curricula, or course work. When schools create a culture of cooperation and introspection, recognize identity and autonomy, support interaction and belongingness, and provide the opportunity for personal inquiry and intellectual curiosity, student character is transformed.”

Newell and Van Ryzin designed The Hope Survey, a tool to assess the impact of cultural choices on student character, and have tested whether the outcomes can be used to inform improvement. Van Ryzin recently wrote us, “The Hope Survey asks students about the amount of choice/autonomy they received, about their relationships with teachers and other students, about the expectations that teachers had for them (academic press), and about the way the school organized its goal structures and rewards. If a school was low on one or more of these areas, the [teachers and school-level administration] could target that area with specific interventions and then measure over time how the students responded in terms of their perceptions of school culture, their engagement in learning, and their hope.”

Van Ryzin went on to explain that The Hope Survey aims to understand how the culture in the school impacts the habitual behaviors of teachers and students. The survey design is based on the idea that changing the school culture can change habitual behaviors in ways that will lead to high performance. He wrote, “Each year we re-assess how the students were doing in terms of their previous goals and [teachers and administrators use the results to] make adjustments to the school’s [cultural approach and associated work plan]. Each school had its own improvement plan, developed in conjunction with the teachers. [Plans were not imposed from the outside by people who don’t know the culture of the schools.]”

If high-performing cultures are multifaceted in nature, then sticking to “accountability” or shifting our goal from accountability to innovation, or even innovating to get more accountability, won’t by itself get us to high performance. It’s time we give strong consideration to the idea that high performance will come when we value a broader set of cultural characteristics, and when we’re willing to adjust our school cultures as well as our state and national narratives to support new habitual behaviors and choices from teachers and students. Habits that are not rooted in “accountability” culture, but in a culture that supports high performance.

Edward J. Dirkswager and Kim Farris-Berg are authors of Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots (R & L Education 2012). Both are independent consultants and Senior Associates with Education Evolving.

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The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools 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.