This guest blog post comes from AASA member Jay Haugen, Superintendent of Farmington Area Public Schools (MN), and current President of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.
I recently had the honor of speaking to a large crowd of policy-makers, school board members and superintendents concerning an aspect of policy-making that everyone recognizes does not serve any of us well. We tend to drift from item to item, addressing legislative initiatives as they come up, some proposed by legislators, some by educators, others by a myriad of organizations, agencies, or citizens. As a remedy to this, I proposed an over-all picture of how policy-makers can support us, and have their hopes and dreams for us and the students we serve realized. That theory is local control.
Local control is usually talked about as an ideal, as a right, as a way to get decisions made closer to the action. While all true, there is a deeper reason for local control, it is the only thing that really works. It goes like this.
There is a limited number of things any of us can do to increase engagement and direction in any organizational system. We can clarify what we are after, provide inspiration through why, and provide support in terms of resources, information, and coaching, (clarify, inspire, support). This all serves to increase true accountability in a system.
There are many things we can do to destroy accountability, most of them include telling people what to do and how to do it. This allows a system to "wash their hands" of the ultimate result because we just "did what we were told," so "it is not our fault," and all we really need to do anyway is "comply."
The hopes and dreams of our policy-makers tend to align pretty closely to our own as educators. With so many after the same thing, closing the achievement gap, providing a system of education where every student finds success and is college and career ready, why does the system make so little progress, incremental at best?
To develop strong, responsive systems that actually accomplish their intent, policy-makers need to give us clear, compelling direction, state what we are after, why we are after it, and provide reasonable support, and then unleash us to create what to do and how to do it, holding us accountable for the ultimate result.
But in contrast, we are too often given well meaning legislation, heavy on compliance "accountability," which is actually not accountability, and low on providing support. Often, the heart of the legislation provides strong, positive direction that could inspire us and move us forward, but instead much of the good is overshadowed by telling us what to do and how to do it, asking for compliance instead of our heart.
There is something about humans that makes us love to tell others what to do. There is also something about humans where we do not want to be told what to do, but we can be inspired, we can achieve greatly, if we clearly know what we are after, know why, and are given support. Systems of humans, such as our educational system, are just the same. I know it feels like allowing local control can be leaving things to chance, but a deep understanding of human systems and true accountability can help us understand why telling people what to do and how to do it is doomed to failure. It is only when you have a system's heart, and it knows what we are after and has support, that true progress is made. This is also the only way policy-makers will have their hopes and dreams reached.
And so I have a request of everyone who reads this. In all your interactions with policy-makers, MDE staff, federal staff, colleagues, really anyone with whom you have this conversation, don't let them get away with mislabeling a compliance measure by calling it accountability. If the purpose of a given measure is to make sure we are doing a certain thing, a certain number of times, involving certain groups of people, etc., this is compliance, not accountability. True accountability is about the ultimate result, what we are after in the end. These types of accountability measures are rare, but powerful. They should be the basis of everything we do, the basis of good legislation, and frankly of our own work as school leaders.