On March 28, USA Today published a scathing exposé of the seemingly miraculous test score gains of students in the Washington, D.C., public school system. Under former chancellor Michelle Rhee, schools that previously had underperformed on standardized tests began making remarkable gains. So remarkable, in fact, that Rhee became a national poster child for school reform. She graced the covers of Time and Newsweek, and appeared on countless TV programs touting her simple cure for the district’s education malady: accountability. Measure performance, set a target, reward those who meet it and fire those who don’t. High-scoring teachers and principals received bonuses of $8,000 to $10,000. Low performers were dismissed — Rhee replaced nearly 45 percent of the teachers and principals in the system. Test scores improved markedly. Some schools posted gains of more than 40 percent, meriting national awards and federal incentive grants. When the city’s mayoral administration changed last fall, Rhee left to start a billion-dollar foundation to replicate the accountability model nationwide.
So how exactly did all these incentivized, accountable educators improve their test scores? According to USA Today and CTB/McGraw-Hill, the two organizations that scored the tests, they cheated. The high-performing D.C. schools had alarmingly high instances of wrong-to-right erasure rates on test answers. That is, someone was erasing wrong answers and replacing them with correct answers before the sheets were machine-graded.
Rhee, of course, denies any wrongdoing. And no one accuses her of ordering the schools to cheat. But critics say she didn’t have to. Creating a climate of fear was enough to make these actions inevitable.
“The pressure on principals was unrelenting,” Aona Jefferson, a former D.C. principal, told USA Today. Jefferson is now president of the Council of School Officers, representing principals and other administrators. Every year, Jefferson says, Rhee would meet with each principal and ask what kind of test score gains he or she would post in the coming school year. Jefferson says principals told her that Rhee expected them to increase scores by 10 percent or more every year. “What do you do when your chancellor asks, ‘How many points can you guarantee this year?’” Jefferson says. “How is a principal supposed to do that?”
It would be easy to point the finger at the educators who cheated. But the real question is, what would cause these good people — teachers and principals who love educating children — to make these unethical choices?
The problem is the system. When governments design and implement a system based on accountability and results, public employees — logically — start to tailor their results accordingly. Yelling at systems doesn’t improve systems; bribing systems doesn’t improve systems. Fixing systems improves systems. When we don’t do the hard work to fix the systems, the only option is to game the measurement system.
It’s a perfectly rational reaction: The smart choice when faced with being held personally accountable for a broken system is to game the measurement system. That’s exactly what the D.C. principals and teachers did. Faced with being fired for low test scores — and with little control over the complex variables that make up student success, including class size, curriculum, socio-economic conditions, the education level of parents, availability of quality food and the compound performance of all the previous teachers — what choice did they have?
It’s OK to want results. It’s OK to focus on results. But when managers move from desiring a better outcome to demanding a better outcome, unhealthy behavior occurs. It was perfectly acceptable for Rhee to want better test scores. It was OK for her to expect improved performance from her principals and teachers. But instead of telling educators, “Give me a number that I will hold you accountable for,” Rhee could have been asking, “What systems in our district must improve in order for you to improve your learning outcomes? What methods need to be improved, adopted or removed to improve student performance?”
The entire carrot-and-stick accountability movement is predicated on the notion that the only variable that matters is effort. Front-line public employees simply must not be trying hard enough. With the right goals, incentives and constant monitoring, managers can finally get workers to use all that effort they’ve been withholding all these years. In that mentality, results come from people simply trying harder to get a carrot or avoid a stick.
The real truth is that we have good people trapped in complex, broken systems that they did not create. Performance improves when these good people in the system get together with those affected by the system to build a better system.
Management-by-fear has been the fad in the public sector for more than a decade. Across the country, in conference rooms of every size, governors are looking at cabinet members’ performance measures and demanding to know why the curve isn’t bending. There are city managers berating department heads because the trend line is going in the wrong direction. There are federal appointees making up excuses for why the green light turned yellow on their dashboard. Of course, nobody calls it management-by-fear. It’s called accountability, managing for results, dashboards, scorecards or STAT. Different names, same assumption: The way to get better results is to hold people accountable for measurable goals. Unfortunately not only do these accountability systems rarely work (affixing blame instead of fixing systems), they also produce devastating side effects (gaming the measurement system and increasing fear).
As a management consultant to states and localities, I used to believe very strongly in accountability systems. I created and implemented dashboards, scorecards and every other one of the buzzwords. None of them made a bit of difference. Not because we didn’t do them right. Rather, it’s because we got the notion of accountability all wrong.
My own view on accountability was greatly changed by the stories of soldiers from World War II. My grandfather had fought in the war, but like so many of his generation, he had chosen not to speak of it. I had no idea what he went through until I saw the incredible work of Stephen Ambrose, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks in the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers. This graphic, eye-popping series followed Easy Company from the storming of Normandy Beach through the liberation and the eventual end of the European conflict.
Each episode of the 10-part series showed a key battle through the eyes of one of the true-life characters. Viewers saw what the soldiers saw and felt what they felt through some amazing acting and directorial magic. The most memorable part of each story, though, was the final five minutes, when the show interviewed the actual soldiers depicted. Seeing the gentleness in their faces, the wisdom in their eyes, the bottled-up pain and their lifelong quest for a peaceful place to live out their days brought me to tears. I appreciated my grandfather as I never had before.
If you’ve seen the series or know about the events, you know that these men displayed acts of unthinkable courage. They ran head-long into a hail of bullets. They dived on grenades and ran across enemy lines with little regard for their own lives. How? How did the military breed that kind of dedication? How do they continue to do that? Why does a soldier give his life? Surely it’s because he is accountable to his sergeant and doesn’t want to let him down. The sergeant, in turn, is accountable to his major, and the major to his colonel. All the way up the chain, everybody is accountable to someone above them.
Of course not. What the military knows, and what the soldiers in Band of Brothers revealed, was exactly the opposite. The front-line troops didn’t feel accountable to their commanding officer. Heck, they didn’t even like their commanding officer, and couldn’t care less about his commanding officer. They were accountable to one another. They would rather take a bullet than see their friend take one. They risked their lives to save the man next to them, knowing full well that man would do the same. True accountability is shoulder-to-shoulder. It’s horizontal. Yet we keep trying to make it vertical.
True accountability looks like love and respect; we keep making it feel like fear.
Rather than creating a band of brothers (and sisters), rather than cultivating teamwork and togetherness, we continue to divide, separate and force competition. We incentivize the chain of command but do little to cultivate the foxhole. We keep trying to “re-form” government, thinking that another accountability form or scorecard will create excellence. That type of accountability only breeds compliance — doing just enough to avoid punishment. We can’t comply our way to excellence. Excellence is a pursuit of the heart.
So how do we create shoulder-to-shoulder accountability? Create more foxholes. Continually cultivate ways for people to work together for a common good. Create organizational puzzles to solve and use teams to solve them. Good leaders don’t have all the answers. Rather, they frame puzzles and challenge their people to solve them. The best way to do this is to form a team of people who work in a system to come together with people who are affected by the system to create a better system. Much like real foxholes, these team projects are harrowing and intense at the time, but create bonds that last a lifetime.
These foxhole moments not only create shoulder-to-shoulder accountability as the team members struggle, fight, coalesce and transcend, these moments also create the other powerful accountability: over-the-counter accountability. That is, accountability to the people that government serves. A child-abuse caseworker may loathe her supervisor and may not particularly enjoy her co-workers, but just try to get between her and what is best for the kids she is trying to protect. No top-down accountability system can produce even a fraction of the motivation, passion and creativity that comes from accountability to one’s team and one’s customers.
Vertical accountability perpetuates the parent-child relationships that so permeate public-sector agency cultures. Management author Peter Scholtes laments that most of our organizational cultures, rather than being populated by adult-to-adult relationships, instead are dominated by parent-child relationships. When we see others as children, we treat them accordingly. We try to direct them and control them. We punish them and praise them. If they please us, they get a reward. If they displease us, they get a talking-to. With this mentality, all organizational progress takes the same energy as getting a 3-year-old to put his shoes on.
Government managers have two options. They can keep trying to goad workers into putting forth more effort and punishing them for results that are beyond their control. Or they can create a system that fosters true accountability. They can foster the kind of horizontal accountability that arises when men and women form a band of brothers and sisters. That’s the kind of meaningful accountability — and results — that can never come from a carrot and a stick.
5 Steps to True Accountability
- Define your system. Where does it start? Where does it end? Who is it for?
- Measure the system. How long does it take? How much does it cost? Is it achieving its purpose? Are the customers happy?
- Form a team of people from all aspects of the system and study it.
- Radically redesign the system to get better results.
- Continuously improve the system by communicating the measures and soliciting ideas.
*Originally published as The Dark Side of Awards and Accountability, (Governing.com, June 2011)