High Trust versus Low Trust Accountability

Experiment: Explaining the different experiences possible under a single, umbrella term.

As I began writing the series on distortion (check them out starting here), I received a lot of response from teachers. Interestingly, it was not just about the Hattie research, but often how Hattie’s research was embedded into forms of accountability. Although I’m not directly researching the effects of increased accountability measures in schools, it is definitely a feature of neo-liberalism. School evaluations, teacher appraisals, and other forms of “value-added” testing and accountability are becoming a normal part of school.

Most of these “accountability technologies” (shout out here to Stephen Ball) occur in low trust environments, even when the message from administrators is that they want to increase trust. An example from my past is from a low trust school when administrators attempted to implement peer observations with the goal of increasing trust within the teaching faculty. Because accountability evaluations had been used in very heavy-handed ways and the school was already low trust, the reaction was negative all around. The end result may have even decreased the already low levels of trust within the school.

Trust is an interesting topic that probably doesn’t get enough discussion time at schools. Not surprisingly, when we treat people as if they are professional and trustworthy, they live up to our expectations. When we are distrustful and increase external accountability measures, trustworthiness declines. “Trust breeds more trust and conversely distrust breeds more distrust, producing virtuous or vicious circles. The trustworthiness of an individual not only benefits the person, but every other person with whom he or she interacts. Trust is a relational concept. . .When conceived in this way, trust is inseparable from a way of life. It has to be sustained within a communal tradition, in which it is upheld by daily social interactions and practices” (Codd, 2005, p. 204). What I appreciate most about Codd’s description of trust is the focus on trust as relational. It is not “earned” and also never finished forming. Trust is based on the interactions of people.

Low trust schools do not just pop up naturally in the wild, they are formed through the interactions of people that breed distrust. Codd uses the language of performativity to explain how a low trust culture is created through accountability measures where “good practice is defined in terms of a set of pre-defined skills or competencies, with very little or no acknowledgement given of the moral dimensions of teaching” (Codd, 2005, pp. 201-202). This sets up a school heavily focused on the  visible and measurable aspects of teaching and accountability then becomes a measure of how well the teacher fits the mold of the neo-liberal ideal; individualistic, self-interested, and clawing their way up the ladder. This interaction “with its emphasis on efficiency and external accountability, treats teachers as functionaries rather than professionals and thereby diminishes their autonomy and commitment to the values and principles of education. What this defines is a culture of performativity in which ends are separated from means and where people are valued only for what they produce” (Codd, 2005, p. 201). Low trust accountability measures undermine the nature of who teachers are as people. The connection with neo-liberalism is evident in the language; little attention is paid to what comes into the school or the process compared to the extreme emphasis on quality assurance, outputs, learning outcomes, products, and performance.

Changing schools to high trust environments and treating teachers as professionals does not cause accountability to disappear. Often the rhetoric against unions makes the false argument that high trust leads to people gaming the system, but that belief stems from a position of acceptance of a low trust environment! Codd (2005) defines the culture of professionalism as one that “emphasizes process more than products and has a more open-ended approach to curriculum design, enabling the emergence of unanticipated outcomes and the development of diverse human capabilities such as creativity, imagination and critical thinking. This implies a more self-reflective culture within a context of collaborative educational leadership. Teachers who are fully professional are people who embody fundamental educational values. Such values are manifested not in a narrow set of technical competencies, not in a job description or an employment contract, but in personal initiative, self-knowledge and professional autonomy” (Codd, 2005, pp. 201-202). I have experienced this kind of school; it is not a fictional, future ideal. Professional communities of teachers who work together and communicate with an underlying sense of fellowship exist! They do not come together because of external accountability measures. Human beings feel accountable to each other when their interactions are purposeful, professional, caring, and supportive. “High trust accountability is based on professional responsibility, with an underpinning conception of moral agency. It is maintained by internal motivations such as commitment, loyalty and sense of duty” (Codd, 2005, p. 203). It seems simple when I write it down, but some schools just can’t seem to find the sweet spot of high trust accountability.

For those of you caught in low trust schools, let’s speak about it out loud. It is too easy to back down in low trust environments; talking about it feels like exposing your own weaknesses or as if you were trying to evade accountability. But it must be done! Question why accountability has to be imposed, why your work has been diluted down to skills or competencies, why the moral dimension of teaching is left undiscussed, and why you are expected to trust people who never trust you. It may be difficult, but I trust it can be done. 🙂

Codd, J. (2005). Teachers as ‘managed professionals’ in the global education industry: the New Zealand experience. Educational Review, 57(2), 193-206. doi:10.1080/0013191042000308369




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