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When we make promises, we commit to do something, be somewhere, provide something, or otherwise follow through on what we have pledged. Promises are integral parts of our personal lives and professional roles. Our promises tell others what they can expect from us. Promises are essential to the formation of strong, sustaining relationships.


Within organizations, the promises we make to each other are important building blocks of the culture we build and maintain. The absence of promises and follow through lead to mistrust, suspicion, and division throughout organizations. On the other hand, when we promise to respect and support each other, we create the foundation for relationships that are trustful and make it safe to take risks. Our promises to each other can also help us to remain focused and insulate us from the buffeting we may otherwise experience from external issues, conflicts, and fads. Promises can give us a greater sense of control over factors that contribute to our shared success.


Promises can also lay the foundation for internal accountability in our work with students. When we promise to be learner-centered in our priorities and practices, commit to ensuring that every student receives the support necessary to succeed, and when we mobilize to address areas where work is needed to lift learning outcomes, we are taking steps toward a culture of shared accountability.


Importantly, internal accountability is far stronger and more effective than external accountability measures that attempt to hold schools accountable for performance. Over-reliance on external accountability for improvement and outcomes can shift our focus away from processes that lead to improvement such as collaboration, shared problem-solving, and mutual support, and lead to prioritizing short-term solutions, superficial changes, and excuse making. Even worse, a hyper-focus on external accountability measures can lead to decisions that make the organization look good, while compromising the learning needs of students. Several high-profile testing scandals in recent years are examples of attempts to respond to external accountability at the expense of integrity and internal accountability.


Of course, we cannot ignore external accountability. Published test results, state report cards, and compliance with state and federal regulations are among the elements of accountability that cannot be discounted. Clearly, external accountability has a role to play. Such accountability measures are intended to assure that student needs are met and expected performance outcomes are achieved. Yet, external accountability typically does not provide the internal support and commitment to achieve results that internal accountability provides.


So, how should we think about the roles of shared, internal accountability and externally imposed accountability measures? Michael Fullan, who has written extensively on this topic, advises that we think about the mix of our focus on internal and external accountability as an 80/20 ratio. Eighty percent of our focus should be on building and maintaining an internal culture of accountability, and twenty percent of our attention should be on the extent to which our internal work is generating results that satisfy external accountability measures.


Fullan also advises that we start with promises we make to each other and build a culture of internal accountability before turning our focus to elements of external accountability. Internal accountability builds processes and creates capacity to make lasting improvements in student achievement. Subsequently, external accountabilities can serve the role of monitoring internal efforts and providing guidance where adjustments may be needed.


Now may be a good time to step back and consider the health of our culture and the strength of our internal accountability. How clear is our common purpose? What have we promised each other about our shared goals? What is our commitment to continuous learning and improvement? How do we provide mutual support to improve instructional practices and learning outcomes? These promises are at the core of our culture and internal accountability work.

Thought for the Week

Simply pulling a strategy “off the shelf” or defaulting to the most recently read article or staff development session topic may not generate the results we seek.

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