Take a Bic lighter and a sprig of broccoli and you have the two keys to accountability for today’s schools. What would you do if your superintendent said that we are going to structure schools like broccoli and function like a Bic lighter? You would probably call the school attorney and have him or her committed. Sounds crazy but these two disparate items hold the keys to a high functioning accountable school district.
Accountability is one of the great political buzzwords of the day, and is one of the biggest issues facing school leaders and boards of education. The question is not: why accountability? The question is: what kind of accountability system makes sense?
That’s where Bics and broccoli come in. Accountability has two facets. A primary one is the obvious question about whether the school district and students are achieving at high levels? The second is whether school programs, operations, and procedures have integrity? Sometimes this second issue, which is an essential matter, gets overlooked.
School districts are accountable for what they accomplish – the outcomes and products of the system. They are also accountable for the processes and procedures used to reach the outcomes – how things get accomplished. These two purposes are what Bics and broccoli are all about.
Some time ago, the New York Times Magazine focused on quality and what it is. The Bic lighter, along with other products and companies, embodied the quality criteria. Quality, whether in services or products, have four simple characteristics:
1. They do what they say they do.
2. They do it consistently over time. They do not perform to high levels occasionally or reach the peak once.
3. They do it under all conditions.
4. They do it cost effectively.
So, Bic lighters work consistently, under all conditions, and for less than $1.98. School districts should have the same characteristics. Asking yourself these questions can be revealing.
Does your school system do what your mission, values and ethics say you do? Does your system perform to high levels consistently over time? Does your system perform to high levels for all children regardless of socio-economics, race, family demographics or other factors? Finally, is your system cost-effective?
Cost-effectiveness is not cheapness. It is about the results for the dollar spent. In the vernacular, it is “bang for the buck”. Programs that do not achieve high results for the dollar spent may be draining your school district bank account and robbing the opportunity to try new ideas or fund cost-effective ones.
So, what does broccoli have to do with all of this? If you closely examine broccoli, each small piece is reflective of the larger piece. They look the same. Ferns and cauliflower are other examples of fractals. In science, fractals are complex patterns created through simple processes operating over and over again.
Concerning the issue of quality, organizations should look like broccoli in the sense that if each department, level, school, and staff supports those four principles of quality, then a total organizational culture of quality will be created. Following simple principles and values allows for autonomy as long as the process and programs are in harmony with them. The whole organization has credibility and ethical patterns of operation. In other words if each department acts with integrity to those principles, then the entire organization will model those values.
Bics and broccoli provide simple concepts that can promote accountability of both process and outcomes. Straightforward, clear principles coupled with commitment from all individuals can produce an accountability system not based on one-dimensional and sometimes ethically questionable approaches.