Tackling the “Accountability Dilemma” with Rob Evans

Conversations with our member schools reveal that a central challenge for many is an ongoing lack of clear expectations around growth, evaluation, and feedback in their schools. One answer to this challenge is to lean into what Rob Evans terms the “Accountability Dilemma.” In “Be All You Can Be: Tackling the Accountability Dilemma”, Evans — a keynote speaker at this year’s Folio Summer Institute — outlines the need to balance the tensions that inhibit school leaders from articulating a clear philosophy of instruction and developing a schoolwide system of feedback and evaluation. The entire article makes this compelling case clear, in the interest of time, below follows a synopsis of Evans’ primary points.

Evans addresses one of the most pressing challenges facing school leaders, how to both assess and convey the performance of its teachers. In terming this challenge the “accountability dilemma”, Evans is illustrating the tension between what is often presented as a faculty’s desire for autonomy and a Board of Trustees who increasingly desire metrics and benchmarks to understand the school’s value proposition. Heads of School often find themselves caught in the middle, but if they can find a way to walk this balance and create systems to focus on growth, it will create “a potentially powerful engine of personal and institutional growth, helping teachers, leaders, and trustees to learn from each other, and helping the entire school to be all it can be” (p. 6).

 

Heads of School: Stuck in the middle

Evans notes that Trustees increasingly seek data to “apply their own expertise and frames of reference” (p. 1) into their stewardship of the school. Also, as schools face enrollment challenges, Trustees, who are charged with overseeing the financial health of the institution, are in a position of attempting to both understand and justify the school’s value proposition in the market as a means to attract and retain qualified applicants. As such, Trustees press Heads for “ hard numbers about student outcomes and teacher performance” (p. 1).

On the other side of this tension are faculty who tend to view intrusion into their classroom autonomy with skepticism and suspicion. The autonomy of faculty in independent schools is created in a hiring process that often privileges subject matter expertise over pedagogical training, and it is perpetuated by the ways that most independent schools structure professional development and evaluation. Teacher autonomy is reinforced when professional development efforts focus on individuals and choice, with options like sabbaticals, and teachers electing to attend particular conferences alone or in small groups. Evans notes: “The plain fact is that large numbers of independent schools have weak traditions of performance appraisal and professional development” (p. 2). 

 

Defining a clear philosophy of instruction

Yet, Evans challenges school leaders to push back on this autonomy. He notes that independent school students are “the most teachable in America” (p. 3) and therefore the “essential question is not whether the outcomes are good, but whether they are as good as they should be” (p. 3). He pushes schools to define a clear philosophy of instruction. To Evans, a philosophy of instruction “means two things: a broadly shared understanding of how children learn and of what and how we teach them; and a primary focus on the outcomes we seek and the sequence of learnings that lead to these” (p. 3). He believes that schools should put greater emphasis on building a teacher’s capacity through professional development, and he believes that schools need to develop a thorough approach to supervision and evaluation that emphasizes regular assessment. He challenges schools to “concentrate resources on teaching itself” (p. 3) which means a focus on teacher performance and growth.

Evans pushes school leaders to focus faculty evaluation and assessment on “collaborative capacity and coherence” (p. 3) with attention to teaching skill, unit design, assessment and feedback, and collegial behavior. Excellence in these four areas is critical to state-of-the-art teaching, and Evans notes that to sustain this excellence in teaching requires sustained attention to supervision and evaluation on these metrics. As schools work to define their philosophy of instruction and ask teachers to self-evaluate their work on these four areas of state-of-the-art teaching, they are pushing teachers to answer the question: “what are you trying to accomplish, and how do you know you’re accomplishing it?” (p. 1)

 

Creating the conditions for change

Developing and sustaining a school-wide system of evaluation and supervision is a significant change, and might be met with resistance from teachers who cherish their autonomy. Therefore, it is essential for school leaders to create positive conditions for change through a “combination of pressure and support” (p. 4). As Evans notes: “If people are to adopt a change, they must understand its why, what, and how: why they can’t keep doing what they’ve been doing; what they must start doing; and how they can achieve this goal” (p. 4). In order to bring the Trustees into the conversation about pedagogy and instructional philosophy, school leaders can do more to instruct the Trustees on these topics. Some school leaders might walk Trustees through a sample teacher observation and evaluation. It is important that Trustees be supported to build an understanding that “important student outcomes transcend test scores and college admission lists, and its key inputs—teachers’ daily work—involve enormously complex interactional variables and must be assessed qualitatively more than quantitatively” (p. 1).

Creating a new system of evaluation and supervision is a significant change for independent schools. It pushes back on widely cherished beliefs of teacher autonomy and challenges the notion held by many Trustees that data and metrics can explain the quality of teaching and learning. Yet, it is imperative for school leaders to face these difficult conversations head on, as “at times people must be required to try something new, since only in this way do they discover that they can master it” (p. 5). Ultimately, creating and articulating a philosophy of instruction and developing measures to support faculty growth will push schools to be “all [they] can be” (p. 6).

It’s not that schools don’t know about the relationship between growth and evaluation, but it is a constant struggle for schools to find a philosophy to connect them. Join us at the Folio Summer Institute to learn from Rob Evans and others how to lean into this important work.

 

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