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Does #accountability work to improve performance?

May 1, 2016

I read these two articles a few months ago: (1) David Rock, Josh Davis and Beth Jones, Kill Your Performance Rating; and (2) Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, Reinventing Performance Management.  Both of them led me to rethink my views on models for teaching supervision and evaluation.  Both articles make the case that external accountability systems do very little to improve a person’s performance at their job, especially when the system is designed to rate the person based on a set of subjective standards.  Should we have external accountability systems, I think the answer is yes, but we need to be quite clear what purpose they fulfill?  Should we have standards that all employees have to master?  I think again the answer is yes so long as the standards are tightly aligned to the work a person has to accomplish.  However, extrinsic accountability systems cannot trump or supplant the need to create conditions that promote intrinsic accountability.

Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, makes the case that a “carrots and stick” model is not an approach that works to improve performance, especially when the performance demands initiative, personal commitment, application of skills, judgment and an ongoing desire to do a good job.  He makes the case that motivation to improve, an internal driver that ignites a fire inside us, must come from within the person.

If we want to design a system for accountability that improves performance, say improved instruction in the classroom so that all students learn, then we need to design conditions for teachers that foster the development of intrinsic accountability.  We should create conditions in schools that help teachers see the importance of role modeling self-improvement for their students.  If I expect my students to grow and learn, then I too need to grow and learn in my teaching practice.  If teachers are accountable to themselves, believing we expect them to demonstrate in a variety of ways that all students are mastering the goals and objectives laid out for them, then it is more likely they will design strategies and outcomes that illustrate their success.  We should set up the conditions for teachers that we (the system) values data that demonstrates students are engaged in learning, applying what they’re learning, and understanding themselves as learners.  Our goal should be to create conditions for teachers to become accountable to self first and the school second.

We have all the data in the world that informs us that system-imposed teacher evaluation processes do very little to improve teaching practice.  Stephen Sawchuk wrote a piece for Education Week entitled, Teacher Evaluation: An Issue Overview.  Here is a quote from the beginning of the article.

All that momentum aside, the results of recent changes to teacher-evaluation systems are, as yet, difficult to quantify. Most of the new data show that a great majority of teachers score just as highly on the new evaluations as they did on the previous ones, and it is unclear whether the reforms have systematically—or broadly—led to teachers to receiving better feedback that is translating to better teaching.

A teacher is more likely to construct a path towards improvement if they’re intrinsically motivated and see themselves as a learner.  They have to be curious about the questions: (1) are all my students learning what I believe are the “enduring understandings;” (2) can all of my students apply what they are learning in novel situations; and (3) are all of my students sufficiently engaged and enthusiastic about what I expect them to learn that see themselves as successful students?  Finally, are the conditions in schools designed to ask teachers to assemble evidence to illustrate positive answers to these questions?

If the answer to the last question is no, then school leaders need to work much harder to understand what’s required to create a culture where intrinsic motivation is the norm. It won’t be a “carrot and stick” culture according to Daniel Pink.  It won’t be a culture that values extrinsic accountability above all else.  It won’t be a culture that fails to understand how to give effective, growth-oriented feedback to teachers.  It won’t be a culture that fails to align its feedback system to its professional growth system.  Finally, it won’t be a system that values the individual above the team.  All the research points to the value of setting up a culture in which collaboration is expected.  We need school cultures that align individual responsibility to collective expectations and norms.  Teachers working in professional learning communities or critical friend groups create a culture in which teachers learn from other teachers.

In their article in Harvard Business Review, Buckingham and Goodall write:

In a public survey Deloitte conducted recently, more than half the executives questioned (58%) believe that their current performance management approach drives neither employee engagement nor high performance. They, and we, are in need of something nimbler, realtime, and more individualized—something squarely focused on fueling performance in the future rather than assessing it in the past.

What would an effective intrinsically focused and extrinsically aligned teacher evaluation system look life?  It would have to be nimble, work with teachers in realtime and be differentiated for the individual.  I would add that in addition to these elements it would have to encourage and value a teacher’s growth over time.

In their article, Rock, Davis and Jones write:

According to the Corporate Executive Board (CEB), a management research group, surveys have found that 95 percent of managers are dissatisfied with their PM systems, and 90 percent of HR heads believe they do not yield accurate information.

Again, they draw the same conclusions that extrinsic, organization imposed, and ratings-oriented evaluation systems do not work.  They suggest that we abandon the rating-oriented performance system and rethink the model.  They offer the ideal of a guided conversation model, a model that asks the supervisor to really get to know the person to whom they are giving feedback.

In either a structured or a guided conversation, one key element is to prime people—both the employee and the boss—to induce a growth mind-set. This improves how people listen to feedback, encourages them to set stretch goals, makes it easier for them to put in extra effort toward a worthy project, and helps them learn from positive role models.

In his commentary about teacher evaluation in the Every Student Succeeds Act in Education Week, Ross Wiener, Vice President at Aspen Institute, writes about three strategies that he believes good evaluation systems need to take into account.

  • Ensure that evaluators are trained and certified to focus on professional growth, not just ratings
  • Allow districts some flexibility in account for student learning
  • Test and ensure the integrity of the evaluation system

Interesting that in the first strategy he suggests we focus on professional growth not ratings, but in the second strategy he “applauds” states using ratings.  Granted he suggests the ratings consider multiple data sources, not just students scores or principal observations.  Nevertheless, he fails to point out the dismissal history of external accountability systems as a way to improve teacher quality and student achievement.  They have not worked and will not work until schools and school districts understand the importance of building a culture in which teachers are nurtured to rely on their intrinsic motivation to improve.  In order to achieve this goal, teachers need to see themselves as learners.

So the time has come to invest in setting up a culture (school culture) that encourages teachers to develop the intrinsic motivation to improve their practice to meet the needs of all of their students.  What does that culture look and feel like?  We have to design for this culture.

Finally, we must redesign our extrinsic accountability systems to: (1) work in the background to support the intrinsically-motivated teacher; (2) be aligned to a set of standards for good teaching, standards that teachers help design and understand; and (3) require that all those in leadership are well trained to give teachers really effective feedback.

We can do this.

Center for Teaching Posts on Supervision and Evaluation

  1. What is the richest feedback we can offer teachers in an #evaluation?
  2. Get to know a #teacher for an #evaluation to be meaningful!
  3. Effective Supervision and Evaluation: The self-reflective process
  4. Teachers Crave Meaningful Feedback & Want to Learn!
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