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Beyond 'Accountability' in Education: Multiple Accountability Theory

Note:¬†Alexander M. Hoffman, the president of AleDev Research and a former high school teacher, is guest blogging this week. You can contact him [email protected]

Today is my last day filling in for Rick here at Rick Hess Straight Up. I want to use this opportunity to share some of my own work regarding the nature of accountability at the school level.

The word "accountability" has taken on a very narrow meaning in education policy. Heck, this narrow meaning has bled into discussions about pedagogy, and it is used with the broader public. It has come to refer to a narrow range of consequences for what is often a narrow range of outcomes. Generally, it refers to making teachers, schools and school leaders somehow "accountable" for test scores. Sometimes, it refers to the loss of students to other schools due to perceptions of school quality.

Unfortunately, this meaning of "accountability" misses most of what happens in schools. This kind of feedback mechanism is too infrequent and/or attenuated to inform instruction or decision-making in any kind of efficient fashion. Therefore, it is just a tiny fraction of the real accountability that happens in schools. By accountability, I refer to any dynamic in which a person is accountable to a person/office/organization for something, facing some sort of potential consequence. This differs from mere responsibility because of the specific accountor (to whom one is accountable) and the possibility of a consequence (be it good or bad).

In my research, I have found eight (8) kinds of accountability, most of which have far more influence on the educators who work in schools than what we usually refer to as "accountability."

The four formal paradigms of accountability rely on formal structures in order to operate. They must be intentionally set up, and these formal structures are the source of their authority.

  • Regulatory accountability occurs when a more or less automatic consequence follows from the accountee's performance by some pre-determined criteria. NCLB was based in this paradigm, as are merit pay programs and most test-based accountability policies.
  • Organizational accountability is generally similar to regulatory accountability, but adds some measure of discretion to the criteria and/or the consequence. Rather than automatic sanction or rewards, the accountor has some leeway in deciding how to respond. Most rewards or punishments from one's supervisors at work are based in this paradigm.
  • Market accountability is well-known in education policy. Providers of some service compete for consumers. Schools may compete for students, teachers may compete for employment, and districts may compete for labor.
  • Electoral accountability is important in education, but relatively infrequent. Members of some group collectively make a decision, with a pre-determined number of winners, leaving all the others to be losers. Obviously, this occurs in school board elections, but this dynamic can occur elsewhere.

Each of these four formal paradigms are forms of accountability. They lead to consequences for accountees, and they put authority into the hands of accountors. However, educators have reported to me that they are not as influential as the four informal paradigms.

  • Approvative accountability occurs when approval is on the line. Accountees want to be respected or liked by accountors, and can potentially gain or lose either sort of approval due to their actions or performance. When professionals worry about losing their colleague's—or their boss's—respect if they do something stupid at work, they are thinking in this paradigm.
  • Affiliative accountability is a paradigm we rarely think about, but is very important. Many people worry about making others look bad, by dint of these accountors' association with them. Perhaps they do not want to make their family look bad, or the graduates of their college. It is easy to imagine trailblazers from a particular group wanting to show that they can succeed at a high level, so others can follow them, and thinking about this frequently. All of this is affiliative accountability.
  • Introspective accountability may be the easiest to understand, and may be the most important paradigm. Often, we are often accountable to ourselves, first and last. We look ourselves in the mirror, we know our mistakes better than anyone and rarely can someone beat us up over them better than we can ourselves. If we do not hold ourselves accountable, there often is little that anyone else can do to ensure a good performance.
  • Resistive accountability is even less acknowledged than affiliative accountability, but it, too, is influential. Those whom we usually think of as accountees often have the power to turn the table on their would-be accountors. Principals have told me about the power of student walkouts, or even less intentional student resistance. Accountors depend upon their cooperation of their accountees in order to hold them accountable. When they do not have that cooperation—even in small ways—they are facing the consequences in the resistive paradigm.¬†

The goal of all of our so-called accountability policies is to improve school and educator performance, but when we talk about "accountability," we include only a narrow range of paradigms. In fact, educators are influenced by these informal paradigms every day. They often feel most accountable to accountors who lack formal authority over them and for matters that are not included in our "accountability" policies. They feel accountability to their peers, their supervisors, their students and those students' families every day in ways that our education policy usually ignores. Meanwhile, policy tends to focus on market and regulatory mechanisms whose feedback is about as infrequent as elections.

If we want to improve our schools, if we want to influence the every-day actions and decisions of those who work within them, we need a better set of tools than we usually consider. Effective supervisors do make use of their formal authority, but they really depend on informal paradigms. They motivate people through interpersonal channels, all of which rely on these informal paradigms.

This is not to say that states and the federal government cannot be influential. They do not have to limit themselves to test-based accountability (i.e., regulatory accountability) and market accountability. They could use other paradigms. In my research, I have found that this is possible. That is, I have found state programs that leverage informal accountability paradigms to promote and steer school improvement efforts. Unfortunately, like Fermat, I simply do not have the space to share them. (Perhaps if Rick invites me back, I'll use the opportunity to explain further.)

Rick points out that the feds (and perhaps states as well) cannot mandate how things are done. I agree with him that there are real limits to regulatory accountability. But if we understand how accountability really works, we all might be able to use these various paradigms to effect change for the better.

--Alexander M. Hoffman

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