Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Freedom and Accountability, Hand in Hand

According to an interview with the Boston Globe, Matthew King, superintendent of schools in Wellesley, Massachusetts, has decided to leave public education to lead a small Jewish day school:

I would say that I’ve grown tired of the direction public education is going, with more and more controls from the state and federal government and less and less autonomy for individual schools and school systems. There’s no question I’ve had a very, very satisfying career. But right now, just the whole accountability movement, I guess you would say, has made working in schools not as satisfying as it used to be.
If public education isn't as satisfying as it used to be, autocratic, micromanaging administrators may more likely be the cause than the accountability movement. Rightly implemented, the new reporting requirements of the accountability movement, which are beginning to reveal exactly how well schools are achieving their educational mandate, should provide schools with more freedom and autonomy, since quality may be assured through the "fruits of schools' labors," as opposed to detailed regulation. As UK Education Secretary Alan Johnson has noted in response to criticisms by the independent General Testing Council, assessment data provide schools with transparency and openness: "Parents don't want to go back to a world where schools were closed institutions, no-one knew what was going on in them" (BBC). This transparency can give parents and societal leaders the confidence to allow schools to function independently without the fear that rogue administrators or teachers would be permitted to abuse school resources without detection for long.

But, giving up the regulatory control they've held for so long can be difficult for administrators in the public sector as well as the private; and yet when smaller working units are provided with less regulation in exchange for accountability for their results, workers on the ground have made wonderful progress where higher-level administrators failed. Keith Sawyer, professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis and author of Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, tells the story of the Brazilian manufacturer Semco that made an impressive recovery from near-bankruptcy when Ricardo Semler took over and radically altered the company's organizational structure:
Semler tossed the binders, fired most of his senior managers, and handed the reins to the company's employees. "It was like taking an improvisational jazz ensemble and ramping it up to the organizational level," Sawyer says. Small groups now run the company with near-total autonomy. Large, 300-worker factories have been split into smaller, 100-worker units. The move initially caused inefficiencies and higher costs but eventually allowed low-level innovation to flourish. Empowered factory-line workers, it turns out, really do know how to do their jobs better. Inventory backlogs have eased, product lines have expanded, and sales have jumped. "That's not a lack of structure; that's just a lack of structure imposed from above," Semler has said. After the company's reorganization, revenues climbed from $4 million to $212 million. (US News and World Report)
If empowered factory-line workers can revive a manufacturing company from bankruptcy, perhaps empowered teachers and principals can reform a failing school system. But, this empowerment can only take place if parents and administrators can see that local schools are making use of their freedom responsibly. Accountability provides the transparency to assure constituents that schools are doing their job; freedom provides schools with the room to implement successful practices and respond nimbly to local challenges. Freedom requires accountability, and accountability enables freedom. They go hand in hand.

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