ACCOUNTABILITY @#$%!!&* Whose Good Idea Was This, Anyway?

By Mary Jo McGrath, Attorney at Law
Founder and President, McGrath Training Systems

Accountability is not for the faint of heart. It exists in a current paradigm of dread, fear and “gotcha!” When communicated as “produce the numbers or else”, accountability can be debilitating. However, when approached as a vision for excellence, it can be exhilarating. Before we even begin to talk about excellence in education, we must first acknowledge and address the status quo.

A Climate of Defeat
The current climate that touts accountability as THE SOLUTION is not productive. I have been on the road for over twenty years, out in our schools working with thousands of administrators, union leaders and teachers. Administrators and teachers express similar concerns:

  • Too many expectations;
  • No time to fulfill them;
  • Extremely high stress levels;
  • A sense of not being heard or valued;
  • Feeling overwhelmed;
  • Fear
  • Defeat.

These reactions do not represent the whining and complaining of a few slackers. Our best and brightest are telling us what it is like to try to fulfill the ever-increasing demands from on high – the federal government, the legislature, school boards, superintendents, and communities. Even more debilitating is the total focus on scores as the expected result. Not all effective teaching is measurable by statistical outcomes.

Trying to motivate accomplishment by focusing on numbers is backfiring. Included in the fallout are leaders’ refusals to apply for administrative positions, a huge turnover in existing administrative staff and out and out cheating on state imposed tests.

Additionally, one of the primary tools for holding teachers and administrators to account is a sham in many districts. A review of personnel office files reveals that less than .01% of evaluations of veteran teachers reflect a rating of “needs to improve” or “unsatisfactory.” This is true even though school administrators estimate that 15% to 18% of any district-wide permanent staff is functioning at less than a satisfactory level. (Statistics are based on an anecdotal survey, conducted nationally between 1992 and 2004, by McGrath Training Systems of approximately 100,000 school evaluators.)

A Conspiracy of Silence
In our schools there is a conspiracy of silence motivated by fear. Many, principals do not provide honest, constructive feedback in their permanent teacher evaluations.Even though most school district policies proclaim that the evaluation process is meant to provide input for growth, the reality is far from that. Evaluations tend to fall into two modes: “satisfactory” evaluations with no real substantive feedback (the majority) or the dreaded “improve or else” (less than .01%). By the time employees receive a “needs to improve” on their evaluations, they believe they are being “handed their head on a platter.” In many school districts this rating given to a veteran teacher often does mean the person has been targeted for dismissal.

Shifting the Paradigm
Until accountability is part of a paradigm of life-long learning and growth at all levels of the organization the concept of responsibility will appear as an externally imposed dictate that is to be manipulated and avoided. Life-long learning can only place in a climate where leadership is viewed as invaluable coaching for excellence, and a leader has a commitment to help people grow in order to produce excellent results.

In our zeal for numerical results we have forgotten that we are in the people business. A school district’s primary responsibility is to provide quality instruction that empowers students to become the best they can be through the learning process, whether at school or in the workplace. Students will best become learners for life when the educators who teach them are themselves thriving in a climate of life-long learning and development.

Shifting the paradigm of accountability from dread and overwhelm to growth and success is possible, but it can’t occur as a cheap fix. It takes a district-wide commitment to leadership, coaching, and evaluation based on quality communication and respect. People are extraordinary and hold within themselves the fulfillment of all possibilities, whether individually or collectively. People do not perform in an extraordinary fashion unless they are in an environment of acknowledgment and safety. Numerical accountability used as a hammer will simply bludgeon initiative and creativity, thereby stifling growth.

Accountability can be set in a context that calls forth the human spirit to succeed, rather than a context that discourages and defeats. Accountability that encourages life-long learning and development at all levels of the organization provides a guiding vision. This shift is achievable if it is approached with a willingness to learn and a dedication to communication that is honest, factual, constructive and inspired!!

Editors’ note: This article is general in nature and is not intended to replace professional, legal advice.

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