The DeHavilland Blog

Monday, January 08, 2007

Accountable...like Ken Lay?

Accountability is a core element of any kind of meaningful education reform. But when the issue is raised, particularly from people in the business community, those opposed to such reforms often question both the reality of accountability in the business world and the morals of those suggesting it. “Do you want us to be accountable like Ken Lay was accountable?” is a question that I’ve heard more than once in this debate.

This argument is flawed on many levels.

Looking through the criminal lens
Let’s start with the insinuation that businesspeople are crooked and unethical as a rule, and therefore that their practices should not be emulated. Painting businesspeople in this way is a common tactic in education reform: if you don’t want to listen to someone, you question their credibility, morality, and authority, then ask why you would possibly want to emulate someone held in such poor regard.

At any rate, it’s a spurious argument – crooks can be found in every walk of life, and using the criminal exceptions to paint an entire group with such a stroke is simply disingenuous. How many examples of criminal behavior can we find in education, from union leaders who embezzle to teachers having sex with students to teachers and administrators who consistently cheat on accountability efforts?

Is that the lens through which we should judge all of public education? Or should we believe that these are malignant exceptions to an otherwise honorable profession? Whichever you choose for public education, you must therefore choose to view business in the same way.

You’re not Ken Lay
Let’s next look at the comparison: a classroom teacher to Ken Lay. Does this seem like a fair and equal comparison?

In reality, we need to compare apples to apples. We’re not comparing classroom teachers to Ken Lay; we’re comparing them to Bob from sales, or Carl from production. The typical worker in the business world is completely accountable, and despite the fact that they rarely help in determining the goals they’ll be measured against, and the fact that they’re unprotected from forces outside of their control, they are held accountable as a condition of their employment.

Bob from sales, for example, is given his sales quota – “you have to sell $50,000 a month of this product” – and he is judged according to whether he meets that goal. It is the reason he was hired, and if he doesn’t meet it he’ll face consequences regardless of what outside factors – market demand, competitive pressures, etc. – work against him.

That’s the kind of accountability we’re talking about: while we do holder leaders accountable for ultimate results, the accountability germane to this discussion relates to the day-to-day outcomes of the work of millions of professionals across the education system, with specific objectives broken out from larger systemic goals.

The alternative?
Let’s also look at the consequences of the counter-argument. Ken Lay, as a criminal, was ultimately caught because there was an accountability system in place. One can argue that it could have been better or stronger – but it was there, and ultimately he and his cohorts couldn’t outrun it.

What if we followed the logic path of the counterargument? Would Ken Lay have ever been found out or brought to justice in the absence of an accountability system?

And perhaps more importantly, borrowing from the last section, would Bob from sales be more productive if given a specific quota (with consequences), or if we just told him to give it his best shot and not to worry about his results?

OPM: Why we’re accountable
Next, let’s talk about the reason for both system-wide and personal accountability. The root reason is OPM: Other People’s Money. When you’re working with other people’s money, you are expected to be accountable.

Salaried and hourly workers are held accountable for their results because they’re being paid with OPM. It’s part of an explicit value proposition: we agree that you were hired to do X, and if you do X, you’ll get Y.

The same thing goes at the system level with publicly held corporations, where external shareholders (ie, owners) hold companies accountable for their performance. They’ve invested in these companies – in other words, the companies are using their money – and they are therefore entitled to answers and to results.

And of course, the same thing is true of public education. The system is working with OPM – specifically, our tax dollars – and therefore has an obligation to let its owners – the public – know what kind of return they’re getting on their investment. Are kids learning to read and do math? Are they graduating? We, the people, are owed these answers, because you’re playing with our money.

I heard someone at a conference highlight the fact that we’re just now starting to shift the discussion in education from inputs (degrees, years spent teaching, certifications, etc.) to outputs (whether children are learning anything). It’s a tremendous shift in thinking – but that does not allow one to make misleading or slanderous comparisons to justify their resistance to change.

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