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Accountability is perhaps the most misunderstood concept in education. 

The simplest definition is still the best: Accountability is the act of accounting, both for where you are and where you are not yet as effective as you need to do.

But here’s the rub: Accountability is only effective if it is to the truth. That is, only with the truth is improvement possible. Absent truth, we risk trying to improve in areas that don’t need improvement, or not improve in areas that do. Any accountability system that falls short of truth will make an organization or profession worse, not better.

Schools have not been held accountable to the truth for years, decades even. The current system labels schools that serve mostly students who would succeed in any school as successful, and those that serve mostly students who would struggle in any school as failures. Those judgments are false. Every school is effective in some ways and ineffective in others and could improve with that knowledge. Without it, with only the lens provided by the current system, all schools lack truth and every school, and our entire profession, suffers as a result.

The systems and structures that are the basis for the school accountability model are the issue. They were designed to hold factories accountable for not polluting the environment, not help organizations be great or shape themselves for the future. Not help them understand and act on the truth. The fact is, no organization or profession has ever made itself great from within these models because that goal is not a part of their design. The longer we try to do that the more harm we cause to the educational enterprise.

We are fortunate that we have a great many examples of organizations that do accountability well. The frameworks that emerge through observation are universal, whether the organization be a hospital, business, nonprofit, church, or family. That allows for the frameworks to be easily deployed in new fields and professions, like education, without having to reinvent the wheel.

What follows is our proven four-step process to achieve a mindset of True Accountability in schools. I hope you find the information helpful. If you’d like to talk more about our approach, or the work we are doing in school districts across the country, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I’d love to hear from you.

-John

Step #1
Deep learning around the Accountability Mindset

The Accountability Mindset represents the deep learning around these accountability concepts. Once in place, it transforms accountability into a tool for shaping an organization for the future, with a focus on benefits rather than compliance.

Learning occurs in 12 lessons. Each lesson gets attention for 4 to 6 weeks and includes both pre-and post-work. Each lesson is complemented by a selection of learning resources in the bravEd Learning Portal that offers additional support and guidance. A three-hour online seminar is a critical part of each lesson. 

The lessons and the learning that take place: 

  1. The Accountability Landscape — Benefits and the Types of Accountability
  2. Capacity and Change — Becoming a Different Organization
  3. Trust-Building, Truth-Telling Machines — the Role of Trust
  4. For What and to Whom? — The Smartness Profile
  5. Testing in its place — What is a test?

Rethinking evidence — How to Develop Credible, Believable Evidence

Step #2
Commit to a simple system

Schooling is unique in the professional world in that aggregations across schools are important to policy makers and the public. True Accountability requires us to create a system to provide value for those audiences.

A simple and powerful point of aggregation happens at the level of educational benefit. 

Benefits represent the things stakeholders expect as a result of the relationship they have with an organization. The benefits a stakeholder expects from a school are easy to recognize. Assume the role of a stakeholder and answer the following questions: 

What are your hopes and dreams regarding your education? 

Your child’s? 

For this year? 

After high school?

Etc.

The answers are almost always the same: a solid academic foundation, deep learning, to be engaged and not bored, to have effective adults in their lives, to be safe. 

Thirty-one benefits have emerged so frequently that we have named that list the Universal List. It makes for an outstanding starting point for new adopters.

What is powerful about each benefit is that a thousand schools could all be working toward providing more of that benefit in ways that are appropriate to them and their students, and yet at an aggregate policy makers and the public can see the trends, patterns, and challenges in ways that will be useful to them. The era of one-size-fits-all policies (something unique to schools) can finally come to an end and be replaced with something better.

The Universal Benefits List will change over time. The work on True Accountability is still in the early phases of forming into a national movement, and those who join will have a chance to inform the lists of the future. Nevertheless, the number of schools and districts that have, on their own, come up with the items on this list give us confidence that we are on the right path. The Benefits are divided into seven categories — we call Pillars — and are shown below. 

Note: the benefits are stated in terms that mean something to stakeholders, and thus are distinctly and intentionally non-technical. They will feel somewhat odd to a more technical educator, and yet they can be understood and accessed by everyone.

Student achievement pillar

  1. Basic academics
  2. Deep content
  3. Strength support
  4. Aligned to need
  5. Any environment, any time

Student readiness pillar

  1. Readiness for the future
  2. Life-long learning habits
  3. Learn to think ahead
  4. Own the work
  5. Be noble and fair

Engaged, well-rounded students pillar

  1. Students to relevant, interesting, and meaningful work
  2. Creativity, creativity, creativity
  3. Smartness-focused
  4. Students have a voice
  5. Teach & learn with perspective

Well-being pillar

  1. Safe, conducive learning spaces
  2. Social-emotional health
  3. Positive mental attitudes
  4. Friendships & student connections
  5. Respect for self & others 

Effective adults pillar

  1. Caring committed adults
  2. Effective teachers
  3. Students’ needs ahead of adults’
  4. Great training & support

Community connections

  1. Community as partners
  2. Parents as partners
  3. Students as engaged citizens

Effective systems

  1. Hire the right people
  2. Stakeholder understanding 
  3. Aligned resources

Racial & social justice

  1. Teach with perspective
  2. Be anti-racist
  3. Practice empathy
  4. Be noble & fair

Step #3
Make the Universal Benefits the backbone for all your efforts

You can use the Universal Benefits list to create alignment/coherence among each of the various strategy efforts in your district. It can be useful to identify which of these are done for compliance with state requirements and which are done to respond to stakeholder needs. 

What follows is a simple example for how to do this:

Step #4
Put in the effort

The effort to install a system of True Accountability in schools is straightforward, but intentionally rigorous.

At minimum, it requires commitment from the building principal at each school site and a dedicated team of two to three school leaders from each site.

Here’s what the process looks like for school-based staff:

  1. Schedule a 30-minute block each week from now and as far into the future as the calendar software will permit. This is a timed event. Start the timer, work for 30 minutes on the category or pillar, and do it again the next week.
  2. You will regularly need to engage students and their parents in this work as representatives of the school, especially during the first year. Plan on one to two 30-minute sessions per month.
  3. For the first two years, you should plan to attend a series of structured Deep Learning Sessions. These occur once a month, approximately 10 times a year. Each session is three hours. There is some homework both before and after the sessions, most of which can be accomplished in the 30-minute weekly sessions.

Here’s what the process looks like for district & central office staff:

  1. Schedule a 30-minute block each week from now and as far into the future as the calendar software will permit. This is a timed event. Start the timer, work for 30 minutes on the category or pillar, and do it again the next week.
  2. You will regularly need to engage your public and your board in this work, especially during the first year. Plan on one to two 30-minute sessions per month with the public. You will be asked monthly to share the effort with your board at a regularly scheduled board meeting, whenever possible. This should require no longer than 15 minutes on a board agenda.
  3. For the first two years, you should plan to attend a series of structured Deep Learning Sessions. These occur once a month, approximately 10 times a year. Each session is three hours. There is some homework both before and after the sessions, most of which can be accomplished in the 30-minute weekly sessions.
  4. The superintendent will have an additional and key role. While they have a very specific reporting line to the board, broad community support for this work is also critical. It is the responsibility of the local school executive to secure that support. This is not so much a time commitment as it is learning to use the True Accountability Framework in productive ways whenever information about the district is shared. 

Want to learn more about the True Accountability Framework™ and what schools districts like yours are achieving through this work? Sign up for your free consult today.

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