54. Reflecting on the Meaning of Accountability

American industry was built on holding employees accountable for production quotas, competitive sales, high profit margins and efficiency.

In World War II industrialists understood the overriding importance of quality product and service. The measure of accountability to customers, employees, and the nation’s victory.

After the war, William Edwards Deming proved the importance of quality. He helped Japanese industry rebuild. His management model produced such amazing results American industry adopted it. Their attempt to stay competitive.

Industrialists learned that holding employees accountable for production efficiency and profit was not as important as creating working conditions that resulted in quality.

Traditional Industrial Processes Influenced American Schools

Our nation’s schools were patterned on the 19th and 20th Century industrial model. Top-down management, efficient assembly line strategies, and accumulation of data to measure the meeting of goals.

Graduation rates, college acceptance levels, grade point averages, standardized test scores, and other concrete data were and are used to measure effectiveness.

Education is expensive due to compensation and logistical factors. Those who allocate public money continually stress efficiency. How to get the greatest bang for the buck.

Data-based accountability has become the measure of quality. Especially significant when standardized test scores are both high and efficiently achieved. 

Data measure teacher accountability and effectiveness. Sometimes used to determine which school districts are better than others. A theory that states competitive feelings motivate poor or mediocre districts to improve.

What Does Quality Mean? How Does It Relate to Accountability?

Quality has a different meaning in our culture today. The same is true for accountability.

Quality autos, homes, and other products are different than in the 1950s.

Technological advancements play a role, but the other reason is consumer expectation.

We expect more today. We hold manufacturers accountable for meeting those expectations.

Defining Quality in Schools

Missing in American schools today is intense academic and intellectual engagement. Recent reform efforts rarely mention engagement or determine its meaning: dynamic cognitive interaction between and among human beings.

Interactions that cause the development of insight. An ability to transfer understandings to meet a wide variety of challenges.

To take full advantage of opportunities for academic and personal growth.

Quality today is too often defined as meeting baseline expectations related to skills and knowledge areas.

Such skills and knowledge areas can be measured on high stakes tests. Results are quantified and recorded as data. Those data can be used to establish norms, make comparisons, and support funding decisions.

But a high stakes test reduces the definition of quality to acceptability or baseline competence. It lowers accountability to the expectation of minimums. It eliminates ingenuity that regularly adds depth to our American culture. It cheapens human living, diminishes personal satisfaction and affects the quality of life for the communities in which we live.

Defining Accountability in Schools

Accountability in schools is now defined as establishing expectations. Ensuring they are met as stated. But Deming did not like quotas or goals. They were too arbitrary. 

What he did like was to continue the improvement of processes.

Quality is not a single dimension. To Deming, the constant seeking of quality was the proper measure of accountability.

Deming was a statistician, not averse to using numbers when it made sense to do so. But using qualitative measures made sense in describing anecdotal evidence associated with student academic and personal development.

Using that definition in schools, quality is active. Dynamic engagement between and among teachers and students. Evidence constitutes behaviors. Products that reflect student thought and academic contributions.

Accountability is shown by teachers who create these conditions on a regular basis.

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Barbara Seeks Consensus About Quality and Accountability

After a healthy discussion about quality, accountability, and the proposed communications mastery statement, many on the council appeared nervous. The rationale for what we were doing seemed solid enough. .

David Askins, parent of an elementary school student, and Vernon Wilson, local lawyer and board member, shifted in their seats. They looked disturbed.

David said, “All of this sounds good philosophically. But somehow I can’t get my head around what it will look like on a day-to-day basis. I know it is a cliché to say the ‘devil is in the details.’ But my background as a machine shop owner makes me want to know operational specifics.

“When I hire someone, it is important they function proficiently and safely. Frankly, that’s all I want to see. I couldn’t care less about their ability to do all the stuff you folks have written in the communications mastery statement. For me, education and training have everything to do with performance at the lathe and other machinery in the shop.

“The arguments in favor of ingenuity and creativity fall flat. Sure, I want that kind of thing for my son. I hope he goes to college and does more than what I ask of my employees. With my employees, I want people who are technically competent, can problem solve and assume more responsibility. Especially as the shop upgrades our computer software. But most employees can be trained for an upgrade.”

Vernon, the lawyer and board member who hated his own public schooling, nodded in agreement. “I get what you’re saying, David. I even agree with you up to a point. But public schools are not meant to train machinists.

“They don’t educate students for IT work. They prepare people for meeting a vast array of challenges, being able to think effectively and creatively in the larger community.

“You said two things that resonate with me. The ability to problem solve and assume greater responsibility over time. In my profession I encounter many folks who cannot solve even the simplest problem. So I must do it for them.  I also deal with men and women who cannot describe the meaning of responsible behaviors, much less live responsibly.

“Common sense is not very common. It is not meant to be cute. Some people have not been prepared to manage their world. They don’t have a clue how to acquire and maintain good relationships. Consider who your machinists and technicians are outside the door of your machine shop. Who they are away from their work impacts what they do inside your building.”

This discussion was getting more intense, so I decided to adjourn the meeting and pick it up later.

©2021 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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