The resistance to accountability goes back a long way–perhaps to the Garden of Eden with the passing of blame from Adam to Eve and from Eve to the serpent. Each evaded taking responsibility for his or her actions. These problems persist to the present day as a result of this original brokenness. To whom am I accountable and to whom shall I submit? And for what reason?
I work with faith-based schools in many different places. Most of them have submitted to some form of accountability in the form of accreditation by an organization of schools that they have chosen to join or are required to join by their provincial government. Schools sometimes contact me to begin the process of curriculum alignment to an external set of standards, and I help them with tools and processes to begin this journey. Sometimes I go to schools to provide training and am not surprised to find that the vision for improvement provided by the school leadership is not in some cases widely embraced; in many cases that vision is not well understood by a majority of the staff.
I can’t let my mind wonder about other schools that seem content with the status quo and do not seek any measures of accountability. In these cases, freedom from any government intervention or accreditation or corporate accountability is a detriment that can lead to subpar schools, ones that probably should not exist. If the market functions properly, they will not be around long term.
It is easy to be discouraged in the face of resistance to improvement. I try to remind teachers that school improvement is a task connected to the love they feel for their students. Similarly, as a father I did things to care for my children that were not always fun but were in their best interest. However, even when it is our own children, we parents sometimes whine about the sacrifices we make for them, so I guess it is simply the broken human condition to resist working toward improvement. Among teachers, I am most troubled to hear these complaints in schools where every word and action should be seen as an offering of worship to God, efforts that connect deeply to the mission of the school and call all staff members to offer their finest.
As I look around at the range and quality of Christian schools, I see that the flourishing ones have embraced accountability not only through accreditation or provincial requirement, but by implementing best practice at the school level. Growth may begin with a strong leader moving the school in the right direction, but it will certainly not become culturally embedded and lead to lasting change without sustained effort. Accreditation can be a starting point for improvement, but it will produce limited and minimal standard results unless a true culture of improvement is rooted in the school culture through purposeful processes and intentional routines and rituals. I am a fan of accreditation as a serious first step, which is why I led the team that developed the Measuring the Mission instrument while employed at Christian Schools International. This tool has resulted in an increased number of schools seeking accreditation.
Even with a good self-assessment tool and a good process, accreditation seems dependent on the quality of the visiting team and their expertise. The lack of follow-up by the visiting team to see if change has been made is a common weakness, and the school may once more be left to the will of the leader and board to faithfully implement what was identified as needs and an action plan. Will they lead, or won’t they? Leadership change and commitment to a long-term direction remain problematic, let alone changing how the teachers teach and assessing the quality of student work. Thoughtful and collaborative intentionality is the key in all aspects of a flourishing school, but as we know, there are a thousand things that can derail good intentions.
Faith-based schools moving into deeper learning practices such as project-based learning, Teaching for Transformation, and Big Picture Learning are moving in the right direction of increased accountability when they make visible to all community members the purpose and focus of learning through exhibitions of collective student work, individual student portfolios, and service learning connected to both the curriculum and the broader community. However, these audiences of peers, parents and community members are more of an encouraging audience than ones who can offer a constructive critique from a professionally informed perspective.
Recently I had the opportunity to attend an International Baccalaureate (IB) World Continuum conference. Represented were schools from all over the world who use the IB program at all levels of their schools. Two ideas stood out to me from this experience and the wonderful pre-conference days held at White Rock Christian in Vancouver, BC. First, these schools submitted their student work to the IB organization for evaluation and critique. This work was reviewed by other professional teachers for overall quality and final grading. Second, in order to be a part of the IB organizations, these schools completed a three-year candidacy process and then committed to ongoing professional development programming for all their teachers. Consequently, IB course completion and student grades hold the highest value for student entry into higher education colleges and universities worldwide. Furthermore, hearing and seeing how the IB Continuum was implemented from an equity and access perspective in the Ann Arbor Public Schools with some of the most disadvantaged students helped me realize that this model could work for all students, not just those “born on third base.” It was exciting to hear how high expectations coupled with high support and high accountability could equal future-ready students.
What would it look like if all Christian schools adopted this level of accountability on behalf of their students and the missions they seek to implement?
Dan Beerens is an educational consultant, author, international speaker, and educational leader. Before starting Dan Beerens Consulting in May 2010, he served as Vice President of Learning Services and Director of Instructional Improvement at Christian Schools International. Prior to that, he was the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Holland Christian Schools. Dan has also worked as teacher and principal in urban and suburban public and Christian schools in Wisconsin and Illinois. He serves as a Senior Fellow at CACE (Center for the Advancement of Christian Education), represents Curriculum Trak sales and professional development and serves as co-chair of the annual Christian Deeper Learning conference. He blogs regularly for CACE and is the author of Evaluating Teachers for Professional Growth: Creating a Culture of Motivation and Learning (Corwin Press) and co-editor of the recent book MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education (ACSI).