Things I Know 227 of 365: You can’t sell accountability, we already own it

Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.

– Jacques Barzun

In 2006, then-chancellor of NYC schools Joel Klein delivered some remarks tot he Academy of Management in Atlanta, GA outlining the changes Klein and Mayor Bloomberg set in motion in New York.

Klein claimed the aim of the changes was to accomplish “three fundamental cultural shifts”:

  1. To move from a culture of excuses to a culture of accountability.
  2. To move from a culture of compliance to a culture of performance.
  3. To move from a culture of uniformity to a culture of differentiation.

Ignoring for a moment the semantic argument to be made that compliance and performance are not mutually exclusive ideas, I’m interested in Klein’s case that he was moving to true accountability through his policies.

“These principals,” Klein said in reference to the principals who signed documents against their union’s advice, “accepted the challenge and signed performance agreements, explicitly taking responsibility for student performance outcomes.”

The agreement “also specifically spells out the ways we will leave them alone to do their work.”

Klein went on to say the principals had put their “tails on the line” with the agreements, committing to their accountability to student learning.

They bought in to Klein’s accountability measures and they’d signed contracts to that effect in the same way they would have agreed to a car loan or mortgage.

And in the same way as either of those examples, the principals didn’t really own what they’d signed on for.

It was closer than most efforts had likely come to giving principals ownership of their schools, but it wasn’t the same thing.

When Klein stepped down in late 2010, I wonder how many of the principals pulled their contracts out of their filing cabinets to see if they were still accountable for their students’ learning.

My guess would be none.

My guess would be that the principals who signed on to Klein’s initiatives held themselves just as accountable for learning in their schools as they did before Klein took over the chancellorship.

They already owned that responsibility. They showed up everyday to live it and it probably consumed their thoughts before they drifted off to sleep at night.

What Klein was selling wasn’t acceptability for learning. You can’t sell someone what they already own.

He was attempting to sell principals on changing the way schools, principals and teachers go about helping students learn.

That’s an impossible sell.

To make it work, to get Klein’s initiatives off the ground, they couldn’t be his.

The only way to move, to make change, is to share the ownership, not sell it.