Compliance vs. Ownership

Moving From Compliance-Based Systems to an Ownership Culture

By David Vroonland, Ed.D., Superintendent of Schools

Starting about 15 years ago, the State of Texas and the nation at-large began down the pathway of high stakes testing. This began out of a sincere concern on the part of most people that many of our children were being left behind in comparison to others and that we were losing our competitive edge on the international scene. The latter concern, while perhaps legitimate in the eyes of the individuals purporting its significance, is rooted in a paradigm not based in fact. Interestingly enough one only has to review articles in magazines and newspapers dating from the 1960s and 1970s to see that we have had the same concerns about education with the only difference being the countries of comparison. This is not to suggest that we could not do better, but rather to inform those who believe we have slipped, that in fact we are sitting in approximately the same position internationally we have always been. In fact, during all of this time of so-called educational slippage, the United States has grown in significance on the international scene and has significantly lead in economic development. On the other hand, in respect to the first concern, there is little argument that some of our children, especially students living in high poverty areas, were receiving disparate educational treatment relative to their peers not from poverty. To be clear, this treatment was not born out of a lack of care on the part of the educators, but rather it was born out of a sense of what children from these poor urban communities were capable of doing. President George W. Bush called this the “soft bigotry of low expectations”, and it was this concern that led him to work with the nation’s Congress to develop the bipartisan supported No Child Left Behind Act.

In response to the national legislation and soon to follow state legislative actions, districts across Texas began to tighten up their systems to meet the various measures prescribed in the legislation - measures that the authors felt strongly, if followed with fidelity, would lead to overcoming the gaps created by poverty and put us on the pathway to international competitiveness. Sadly, but not without surprise, the resulting impact was not as significant as those who authored the legislation had hoped. The response on the part of the legislature was to double down and create stronger compliance-based structures, new tests, and new measures, with significant negative consequences for failing to meet expected outcomes. School districts in turn followed suit by designing tighter systems to create greater efficiencies, give students common experiences, and meet the measures prescribed by the state. This led to actions such as district created scripted lessons, paced curriculums, benchmark testing, teacher evaluations tied to student performance, data systems and more in an effort to “teacher proof” the classroom. At the same time this was occurring districts began to turn principal leaders into managers of central office expectations, with focus on preparing reports (sometimes weekly) that would communicate up through the systems that they were doing as they were instructed to do. Decision-making was centered on making certain you followed prescribed expectations and monthly or bimonthly principal meetings became about knowing what rules to follow, not leadership development. This was especially true in districts that were struggling to meet the state expectations. The resulting impact, not surprisingly was that these struggling districts had some improvement, but also that the student performance flat-lined after the initial gains. This flat-lining is because compliance-based systems general reach about 75% proficiency (+ or – 5%). We should not expect to see any movement from this level of student performance unless we make some significant mind shifts to our paradigms.

The impact of this compliance-based systems thinking has not only been seen in overall student performance flat-lining, but we are also seeing very concerning levels of teacher dissatisfaction, a lack of movement in the advanced performance of students across the system, business leaders unhappy with the graduates ability to operate in the workforce, and sadly students from poverty receiving a disparate learning environment created by the very system designed to eliminate disparate learning environments (Districts concerned about test performance are typically providing a less innovative and deep learning experience relative to those districts that are less concerned, thus leaving poorer students less prepared for the work environment they are to face when they graduate). As an educational entity we have to recognize that prior to the No Child Left Behind Act, we were not doing as well as we could have, especially in educating children from poverty. There were clear disparities in the system, but our district leaders, political leaders, bureaucratic authorities and talking-heads have to recognize that we have had some significant unintended (hopefully unintended) outcomes that need to be addressed. From my perspective the primary mind shift has to center around the role of the state, the culture of school districts, as well as structural design. While I may touch on the state’s role in the conclusion, my focus as a district leader is on the latter two elements. 
“Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.”
William Pollard

We have to recognize the need to be in a constant state of innovation, an innovation that is driven by a collaborative effort of campus leaders and teachers. This requires a cultural shift, and the cultural shift that must occur is away from a “Compliance-based Culture” and towards an “Ownership Culture.” This is not to suggest that in an “Ownership Culture” there are not compliance structures – there certainly are and need to be so – rather it is to focus on how we can move the point of accountability and decision-making to the point of responsibility. What is clear is that we have in large part neutered the ability of the teacher to be a decision-maker with the resulting impact being that a gap has developed in connecting personal actions with corporate consequences, especially true in larger districts. In an “Ownership Culture” the employee feels a substantial and personal stake in the corporate performance, which is missing in our current culture. This has occurred due to the treatment teachers have received in a “Compliance-based Culture.” While we may say that we value the teacher as an instructional leader and we may even provide them with professional development that is intended to strengthen their skills sets as instructional leaders, we have also prescribed exactly what they do in the classroom through our structures and expectations. At the district and state level we have effectively commercialized the classroom, and the resulting impact is that, while we still have many dedicated teachers fighting to provide the best for our children, we also have many dissatisfied and potentially angry consumers teaching our children. This must change to mirror what the successful businesses are doing today. Business leaders have recognized that creating an “Ownership Culture” results in a nimble organization that can respond to the changing environment and grow their bottom line. Compliance structures limit, by definition, nimbleness and responsiveness, and ultimately lead to the failure of the business. We only have to look at the changing face of the Fortune 500 over the last 30 years to see this, and we must recognize the same potential impacts on our educational structures.

A significant component of developing any culture is to make certain that your behaviors as an organization match your expressions of what you believe your culture to be. If we are to be serious in our effort to create an “Ownership Culture” in an educational setting we have to be just as serious in creating a “distribute leadership” model as the operational paradigm. While in any organization you will have social and situational distribution of leadership, in the model being pursued by Mesquite ISD the focus is more intentional than some random leadership structure that is dependent upon personalities in the organization. In our distributive leadership model there are certain components that are vital in our efforts to overcome the chronically bad effects of the compliance-based structures that have been in place for years.

The first of these components is to distribute leadership to the appropriate levels of the organization depending upon the nature of the responsibility and the capacity of the individuals to hold that leadership. This is the decentralization of leadership and leadership decision-making to the greatest extent possible. To do this we have to change the current practice of the central office management of the school or classroom and move this responsibility to the campus leadership or classroom teachers. As we do this, we also have to move the point of accountability and decision-making closer to the point of responsibility. We have to recognize at the state and district level that we cannot innovate the space of that teacher and campus. We have to recognize that our role is in a different place. Our role is one of support for the designed efforts of campus leadership and teachers.

Moving the point of accountability and decision-making closer to the point of responsibility requires that districts need to invest significantly in the development of leadership capacity at all levels in the organization. This includes such things as the ability to engage people in leadership opportunities, knowing when to provide support v. pressure, moving from authority to influence in leadership, how to have “eyes on” student performance and adult behavior, aligning behaviors to culture, creating more autonomous environments and much more. While not intended to be an exhaustive list of what should be a part of leadership capacity development, the importance is to have regular, ongoing and deep conversations and growth opportunities for key people in the organization to develop as leaders.

There are two areas of leadership development that require special focus. The first is in the area of autonomous environments. In our model this is referred to as defined autonomy and it is key to creating a distributive leadership operation and thus an “Ownership Culture.” Simply put, organizations have to create definitions for people to operate under, but in an organization that embraces defined autonomy the effort is for people to increase their capacity to the level that those definitions can be removed and replaced with autonomous actions. As an example in today’s educational environment you have benchmarks that teachers are required to give on a regular basis in order to ensure student learning is taking place (not the best educational practice one should use). If a teacher’s capacity were increased in formative assessment practices and differentiation and then implemented, the practice of benchmarking could be removed as an operational definition as it would not only be unnecessary, it would actually be an impediment to this teacher’s ability to improve their student’s performances. This doesn’t change the value of assessment, it changes the structure of it, which will lead to greater student performance.

The second area of leadership development that requires special focus is that of “eyes on.” In the compliance-based system “eyes on” is often a role that involves a teacher or campus leader being responsible for certain measures created by a supervising agent at the district level. Following certain timelines reports are developed and after being consumed by the supervising agent, meetings would be set up in which the campus personnel is called to explain the results and then create action steps. In an “Ownership Culture” with a distributive leadership operation, this is problematic. Remember that we need to move the point of accountability and decision-making closer to the point of responsibility, thus changing the nature of how eyes on occurs. In this system, “eyes on” centers around the campus personnel gathering data, developing plans on a regular basis and then reporting actions and needed supports upward to supervising agents. While this is a subtle difference it is significant to the development of leadership and ownership. From the supervisor perspective “eyes on” centers around coaching conversations, reflective questioning strategies, and in an educational setting being present at the place of accountability (principal in the classroom, central office administrator at the campus) in order to verify integration of the campus plan into the learning going on at the campus.

While many organizations may speak of moving culture, in Mesquite ISD we have moved rapidly towards an “Ownership Culture” and developing a “Distributive Leadership” operation. Evidence of this is in our design of our PreK-2 Initiative to get all students on grade level reading by third grade, our Excellence in Teaching Incentive Program (ETIP), our central office structure of support of principals through our Executive Directors of Leadership Development, and various district training efforts in place and moving forward. With the PreK-2 initiative we have intentionally designed it with a district team of teachers and staff developing the learning framework and campus teams designing their own goals, measurements, timelines for goals, professional development plans and reporting mechanisms. While doing this we put in place supports for their professional development plans, added coaching to build teacher capacity to innovate their space around literacy teaching skills, built in coaching for principals in leading their campus efforts, and provided collaborative time, while still maintaining the definition of expected outcomes and the scope and sequence of learning. Teachers may be working harder, but initial reports are they love the ownership they feel in being in control of their plans. 

The ETIP program is design to incentivize teachers to stay in the classroom by building in opportunity to advance professionally (by title changes) and grow financially. This is a capacity development plan focused on instructional and leadership practices that will grow the leadership capacity and instructional effectiveness of the teacher, allowing us to decentralize the definitions of practice. Just begun this year, reports from participants indicate a high level of satisfaction, excitement and feeling valued as teachers. 

The Executive Directors of Leadership Development is designed to build campus administration leadership by having designated central office staff present on campuses 75% of their days walking with and working with principals. The focus is on building the principals’ leadership capacity in developing their teachers as instructional leaders and developing their own abilities to meet their campus designed outcomes. Beyond these programs we have engaged in significant professional development around leadership development with regular monthly meeting around leadership, evening meetings with the entire district leadership team around leadership and even taken the extra step of taking the entire Mesquite ISD campus leadership and district support personnel to Deloitte University for their training around “Courageous Principals.” 

These efforts speak of our intentional efforts to build a strong “Ownership Culture” centered on identified distributive leadership elements. It is our belief that if we want significant and not incremental student performance gains we have to pivot from a compliance-based structure with tight operational definitions to more of an ownership model with capacity development plans intended to reduce operational definitions in support of autonomous decision-making. Texas, as a state that values the individual and places great pride in being autonomous, needs to realize that its cultural values are not in line with its behaviors. The focus of the State of Texas needs to be centered on moving from compliance, and instead lifting up leadership development, creating capacity enhancing programs, and elevating the need of school districts to own their accountability.