Guest Blogger: Why ‘Us v. Them’ is a Flawed Accountability Construct

My recent post describing what I’d like to hold principals, district leaders and policymakers accountable for has drawn quite a bit of interesting conversation.

In particular, I’ve enjoyed a bit of pushback that I sparked when I argued that the ‘us v. them’ feeling that exists between principals and teachers around accountability is appropriate. 

Here’s a bit of what I wrote:

While I agree that the us v. them vibe you get from my post is disconcerting, I really think its appropriate.

In fact, the were all in this together and we have equal responsibilities for driving change lines that I hear in so many conversations about education actually drive me bonkers.

Here’s why: Principals and policymakers and school leaders beyond the classroom DO have more organizational power than teachers.

Eric Juli—the Director of Secondary Curriculum for the Lawrence Public Schools, an urban district with 13,000 students about twenty miles north of Boston—has probably forced me to think about the ‘us v. them’ vibe in my post more than any other Radical reader.

Our conversation continued offline, too.  I asked him if I could share his thoughts here on the Radical as a guest blog post, and he’s agreed.

I hope you enjoy his pushback as much as I did!

_____________________________________________

Why ‘Us v. Them’ is a Flawed Accountability Construct in Education

By Eric Juli

 

Dear Bill,

You are correct, there is some "us v them"-ness in accountability conversations between principals and teachers in schools.

We each have our roles to play, and ultimately, when tough decisions, whether financial or staffing or curricular are made, I’m one of the leaders making them. So we do not have equal responsibility even though that’s what the altruistic members of our profession would like to believe.

And while all of what you say about control is true, I still don’t totally buy into your conclusion that, "School change is more dependent on you than it is me." 

Superintendents, principals, district leaders set the tone. They make the decisions about curriculum, staffing, budget allocations and everything else you mention, but ultimately, school change comes down to the teachers.

I think a sports analogy is appropriate here.

The owner of the team pays the players, the general manager drafts them, trades for them, or signs them. The coach sets the team culture, decides who will play, and what plays will be run. But on game day, none of those people have remotely the same impact as the players.

It’s the players on the field who determine the outcome of the game.

In our schools, that means I set culture, I decide curriculum, I articulate how I want instruction to occur. I hire and fire people and decide what is to be taught. But at the classroom level—which is where the action really happens in every school—the teachers either do it or don’t.

The us/them structure is appropriate in terms of responsibility as you point out. And to the teachers I work with, our successes are their successes, and our failures are mine.

But my original push back to your post is simply to say that I know plenty of teachers who purposefully slow down the change process.

In my district, and perhaps this is rare, many more principals are progressive than teachers. And despite our organizational power, change is not occurring as it should.

I agree with you wholeheartedly regarding principals who abdicate their responsibility. We have to be willing to make the tough decisions. That’s why I became an administrator. Leaders who don’t want to make tough decisions are in the wrong job.

The same is true for principals who, as you explain in your original post, expect the script—any script—to be followed no matter the circumstances.

Now to be fair, I don’t know the circumstances of the schools you describe. If all the teachers are struggling and the only way to ensure learning could occur is to follow the script, then that’s one thing. If principals are telling teachers to follow the script because someone above them paid lots to purchase the program, that’s just bad leadership.

In the end, we probably both agree that there aren’t enough superintendents or principals who value, understand and implement strong instructional leadership. Managing the budget, deciding what materials to use, choosing who to hire is really the easiest part of leadership in schools.

Speaking only about urban schools though, because that’s really what I know, change is made in the classroom.

In my district, I am immersed in teaching teachers to shift away from the content as the only learning outcome to using content as the vehicle to learn skills that could be applicable in college and the workforce.

And while I lead this change, ultimately teachers need to make the changes.

_____________________

Eric Juli is the Director of Secondary Curriculum for the Lawrence Public Schools, an urban district with 13,000 students about twenty miles north of Boston.  He blogs at Growing Good Schools and can be found on Twitter here.

Eric’s current passion is raising the voices of urban educators into digital conversations about teaching and learning.