Compliance And Accountability Do Not Need To Be Dirty Words

Compliance in itself is not a bad thing. It exists to ensure school systems and schools function within the rules and regulations set out by governing bodies. Just like when driving your car, everyone is very aware of the rules and regulations established to ensure driver and pedestrian safety. In a similar way, compliance helps to keep schools operating safely within the law.

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Top-Down Model of Accountability (figure 1)

There are some leaders at varying levels within every education system, who take responsibility for ensuring schools and teachers adhere to government, system and/or school compliance expectations. It is their brief to keep the next person accountable and ticking the right boxes. By operating through a ‘chain of command’ process, these leaders are not really leading, they are merely managing. It is this structure in education that is limiting the opportunity for leaders to lead.

If we look at a visual representation (figure 1), you can see that the expectations come from the outside and driven from the top down, from government to school systems, to schools and then onto teachers. As you go down the ‘chain of command’, individuals are held accountable. As this structure includes governments, system administrators, school leaders and teachers, it creates a certain mindset for many other structures in education. This impacts on our capacity to change ‘how we do things’, as ‘this is the way it has always been done’.

Management is critical (for managers). Leading learning is critical for leaders. Fullan calls compliance the ‘elephant in the room’ and believes leaders should move it to the side and find ways to spend less time on it, but still meet minimum requirements. This is true, but it is still taking someone’s (leadership team members) time, which takes them away from our core business of learning. School systems should re-evaluate their structures and explore innovative ways to better accommodate the demands of compliance. In order to do this, we need to move away from the top-down model of accountability.

For me personally, the elephant in the room is not really compliance. It is the inspectorial mindset driving it and our propensity for exceeding expectations, which feeds the top-down model. With so much resourcing and effort placed into micromanaging compliance, the same mindset is often projected onto other areas of schooling that it should not. I am talking about our core business, such as providing the best learning opportunities for children, developing clarity in school-wide pedagogy, creating collaborative teaching programs, engaging in deep purpose-driven professional learning, and refining innovative classroom teaching practices. Schools are creative learning communities, not factories, and herein lies a significant tension. If our core business is a creative endeavour, then there is no room for an inspectorial mindset that focuses on a top-down accountability modus operandi.

I have an assumption, which may be biased, but I believe the more our teachers are exposed to top-down accountability processes, the less likely they are to engage in critical and creative thinking, which is what we need if we are to design innovative alternatives. If teachers only ever have to worry about doing what they are told, tick some boxes, hand in a program, collect and enter data, write a couple of professional learning goals on a proforma and have it validated by a leader, then we should not be surprised when these teachers have difficulty engaging in critical and creative thinking, stepping outside their comfort zone or rigorously participating in and contributing to authentic, collaborative learning. For the most part (I am generalising), since their formative years in school, followed by university, and then as a practicing teacher, much of what has been required from these learners is obedience. There’s not much room for Fullan’s Six Deep Learning Competencies to flourish within a compliance/accountability-focused environment. What does flourish is the proliferation of leaders and teachers developing a ‘tell me what I need to do’ mentality, rather than growing as a self-determined learner.

Internal Accountability2
Internal & Collective Accountability (figure 2)

As an educational collective, we really need to explore how we might focus on growing authentic learning devoid of ‘top-down’ and ‘micro-management’. Compliance and accountability do not have to be dirty words, they just need to be approached differently.

As part of our ongoing self-determined learning journey through Organic Learning, we have been working on ways to develop individual internal accountability, with a view to raising collective accountability.  If we can foster strong accountability to self and colleagues, we can make significant inroads towards developing individual and collective efficacy, which Hattie rates as 1.57 in effect size influencing student achievement. The added bonus to this strategy is a reduced reliance on top-down accountability measures.

I have written in previous blogs about some of the prototypes we have developed to impact on internal and collective accountability. These include making teacher thinking and learning visible, tangible and ‘critique-able’, as we do with our students. This is exemplified through Hexagonal Curriculum Mapping, Teacher Professional Learning Goals and our newly designed Growth Menu for Lead Learners (full blog post to come). With each of these examples, there is nowhere to hide for individuals or teams, not on top of their game.

All three processes require individuals or teams to ‘map’ or make visible their thinking and learning, and have it openly critiqued by colleagues. Hexagonal Curriculum Mapping, for example, shows the teams’ curriculum plans for each term, which stays on display for the year, undergoing constant refinement. Individual Professional Learning Goals and subsequent actions taken are recorded on hexagons and connected to school Strategic Planning Goals. The Growth Menu for Lead Learners requires individuals to rank themselves against their colleagues and how they believe their colleagues would rank them (a deeply reflective, provocative process). This is then deconstructed with colleagues.

Each process above involves ‘pitching’ individual or team thinking and learning to others and receiving instant feedback. It is quite revealing and growth promoting during these ‘Pitch & Critique’ sessions for individuals or teams, particularly if they are experiencing difficulty. From failure (and acknowledging it) comes great learning and incredible growth. The critiquing process focuses on the viability, astuteness and depth of learning shared, and through this internal and collective accountability are enhanced.

These organic processes are being used to help teachers become more aware of themselves and others’ strengths and needs, and their contribution towards developing a culture of collaboration. All are active ingredients working against the need for ‘top-down’ micromanaging, and moving teacher mindset away from ‘tell me what to do’ to growing stronger internal accountability and capacity for self-regulation.

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