Show and Tell—The Transparency of Accountability
What is freedom, if it's private? Related to the imagination and design of a new abolitionist accountability approach is the Achilles heel of teaching and learning communities: transparency, a growth area not exclusive to our communities, but endemic in all organizations that involve humans and information. That is to say, abolitionist accountability demands show-and-tell. One of the misconceptions we often rely on as school leaders to perpetuate hiddenness and obscurity in our accountability processes is that humans within our teaching and learning communities are uninterested in the goals, objectives, and embodiment of values of others within the community. But like toddlers and preschoolers, adults, including teachers, are particularly inquisitive, interested, and engaged in the accountability of other adults. As such, the quality of the relationship between transparency and accountability in teaching and learning communities depends significantly on the purpose of the transparency, the definition of it, and how the implementation of it occurs. Our responsibility as leaders is to co-create a working definition of transparency with other folx in our community. This initially demands acknowledging that, when teachers and staff ask for transparency, there are as many conceptions of transparency as the number of folx asking for it. For our sake, the starting point is being clear that the purpose of transparency, in relationship to accountability, is to ensure the pursuit of freedom for all of our students by improving teaching and learning that abolishes oppression and deconstructs positional power politics.
By having a communally informed starting point for why— freedom, the usual contested questions regarding transparency— how much information should be revealed, and what might be the costs of revealing information—has less influence, because information sharing is not seen as inherently harmful. Instead, transparency is seen and experienced by the teaching and learning community as a precondition for mutual accountability, because transparency is never unilateral, but is always bilateral. In practice, a leader never shares an aspect of accountability about teachers within the community without sharing an aspect of accountability about themselves first. Traditionally, the trove of accountability metrics for school leaders has remained locked away in hundred-page binders and central office databases, with only a handful of folx having the capacity, whether in accessibility or knowledge or tenacity, to find it or ask for it. But an abolitionist leader understands and accepts the emancipatory significance in preemptively making their accountability metrics available to all members of the teaching and learning community. While increased transparency and accountability by the school leader is admirable, it does not go far enough, because transparency with the community is not solely about pulling back the curtain and allowing folx to more closely see. It is also about calling on folx within the community to participate in shaping and improving the accountability system itself, and the metrics being used to structure that system.
In an assessment of the intersection of transparency and accountability in social systems, particularly the relationship between governments and citizens, Jonathan Fox concludes that the openness of information on its own does not make a community accountable. It is only when there is community answerability to the questions, concerns, and ideas of the folx within that community that there is an impact of transparency on accountability. As such, communities with the power to share existing information must also produce answers if it wants to consider itself transparent.5 Allowing for more engagement and participation from those being led is abolitionist because it frees the school leader from harboring the false assumption that self-accountability is the full measure of accountability in communities of oppressed folx; and it invites the lived experiences, perspectives, and knowledge of other folx to participate in actualizing the work that brings life to the community.
Many folx, acutely Black folx and queer folx and Latinx folx, carry justified distrust of leadership in all aspects of our society. Consider, then, how you as a teaching and learning leader can start to reclaim a trust in the existential idea of leadership by sharing your goals, objectives, metrics, and performance indicators (qualitatively and quantitatively) to move the community forward toward freedom. Could you imagine any possibilities of trust restoration if you were to invite for teachers, staff, families, and even students to ask questions about your goals and objectives and metrics and performance indicators?
As we strategized our communal response to Covid-19, racial unrest, and economic downturn, I made a vulnerability request of the leaders within our network. Every summer, for the first two to three weeks leading up to the start of the academic year, we have what our organization calls Build Days—it's what many other districts and networks call Summer Institute, Summer In-Service, or Teacher Training in preparation to welcome students weren't in the form. As part of Build Days, all of our leaders review our Beginning-of-Year (BOY) goal-setting process with the folx they lead or manage in order to identify goals, objectives, action steps, individual growth measures, and in response, how their manager can support them in achieving all of the aforementioned. This is a mostly typical performance management process, though some of our indicators pursue an abolitionist ethic, such as antiracist pedagogical practice, non-conventional qualitative metrics, and community collaboration. While they reviewed the BOY process with teachers and staff, I requested that all of our network leaders—deputy superintendents, network director of operations and strategy, network directors of inclusive learning, and all of our principals—publicly share their goals with their teams that they'd already shared with me. I then requested that they engage an entire session during Build Days in which they, as leaders, intentionally centered those goals for questioning, discussion, deconstruction, modification, and even erasure, if necessary.
On the second day of Build Days, I had an opportunity to join a virtual session led by one of our elementary principals. Though only two years into her role as principal, she is an influential, freedom-pursuing, abolitionist-minded leader who thoughtfully navigates the identity politics of being Puerto Rican and Italian while leading a school of mostly Black and brown students. She walked through her goals with a team of mostly experienced teachers in addition to a cohort of nine new teaching residents entering education for the first time. While reading the chat, I found a comment that fully captured the intended aim of transparency and its distinctive trust-building role within a teaching and learning community—especially a community making sense and moving forward amidst a world of crises. The comment was from a teacher with more than fifteen years of experience in education, who had built a remarkable reputation as a literacy specialist with an exceptional propensity to take the youngest learners and partner with them to grow their love of and engagement with all things literacy. She commented,
Thank you so much for sharing this with us! It was a lot of information, and really overwhelming, but I feel like I know what you are working on and thinking about, and that helps me to know where I should align my goals. Plus, it is so helpful to see how these align with the network's guiding pursuits of love, healing, knowledge, and results. You made that so clear in how you presented these, and it is makes it so clear what we will and will not focus on this year, which we all know is going to be incredibly challenging—for us, and our scholars. I hope we can come back to each goal and have more time with them in breakout groups or grade-teams, and unpack each one with more detail. Thanks again for sharing!
For a leader to inspire someone in the teaching and learning community to say, "... that helps me to know where I should align my goals" and "it is makes it so clear what we will and will not focus on this year" it rarely gets as magical as that. Not only does this underscore a sense of belonging, but it also emphasizes a sense of self-accountability driven by that sense of belonging and transparent knowlege-building.
As a teaching and learning leader, consider the following questions intrapersonally, and with the leadership team of your school community:
- 1. What are some examples of opaqueness in the accountability process and practices in our teaching and learning community, and who are the primary drivers of conserving that opaqueness?
- 2. What are communal risks of embracing a show-and-tell model of accountability that embodies transparency? Are there indicators within the accountability process that are particularly opaque in order to protect individual sentimentality? What are the structural, political, and leadership oppressions at work by not showing-and-telling accountability indicators?
- 3. How could a vocal and behavioral valuing of transparency in accountability, by us and other leaders in the community, result in a meaningful increase in a pursuit of freedom, or more shared authenticity of the barriers to pursuing freedom?
- 4. How does confidence in teaching and learning leadership change in response to the transparent openness of accountability data? If our communities could see our proximity—positively or adversely—to the abolitionist rhythms, how could it revolutionize the embodiment of authenticity and trust?
Reimagining accountability for the sake of the community may seem obvious, but it isn't. It demands asking a lot of all, which is often why teaching and learning leaders stray away from reimagining how we do and embody accountability, as to avoid the risks of asking a lot from folx within a community who are already stretched. But reimagining accountability in humanizing and transcendent ways that point toward belonging and freedom makes a difference—not only in the lives of the students we are called to impact, but also in the lives of the teachers and staff. In a world of crises, there is a great deal of distraction. Do not allow the distractions to force you to double-down on ineffectual, inhumane, and insipid mechanisms of accountability. With competing distractions, it seems it would be easier to accept our current versions of accountability. Only it isn't. Leading teaching and learning communities amidst intersectional crises is not a moment to waste assuming the easy route. This moment matters because it opens a world of possibility about how we think, talk, and do accountability. And how do we get better at accountability? Not by doing what we've always done, but by imagining what we have yet to do.
- 1. Trotter, Laurence W. (2020). Seeing the Light through Black Death: Salvation in the African Savanna. Bloomington, IN: Trafford Publishing.
- 2. Gill, Brian R, Lerner, Jennifer S., & Meosky, Paul. (2016). "Reimagining accountability in K-12 education: A behavioral science perspective." HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series, 2.
- 3. Gorski, Paul. (2019). "Avoiding racial equity detours." Educational Leadership, April Issue, 60.
- 4. Brown, Brene. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing, 26.
- 5. Fox, Jonathan. (2007). "The uncertain relationship between transparency and accountability." Development in Practice, Vol. 17, No. 4-5, 667.