Balance Trust and Accountability: Education Reformers Want More Accountability Even Though the Evidence Suggests Better Outcomes Result from Fewer Rules

By Levin, Ben | Phi Delta Kappan, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Balance Trust and Accountability: Education Reformers Want More Accountability Even Though the Evidence Suggests Better Outcomes Result from Fewer Rules


Levin, Ben, Phi Delta Kappan


"Trust but verify," Ronald Reagan famously said about nuclear arms reduction proposals in the 1980s. Exactly this same dilemma is at the forefront of education policy debates today around the world as education systems struggle to balance trust and regulation. How much do school systems need to be controlled by rules, and how much can we trust the judgment of those working in the system?

These two contrasting approaches were the subject of discussion at a recent meeting in Jerusalem of representatives from 17 countries, sponsored by the Van Leer Institute and several other Israeli organizations. Each country brought a team of three--a teacher, a principal, and a government leader. The theme of the meeting was "Trust and Regulation" as understood and experienced by people in these different roles.

In practice, as was clear from the discussions at this event, every education system has a mix of trust and regulation. Of necessity, some things must be regulated--the school year and day, and graduation requirements, for example--but everything about school can't possibly be regulated. Still, the situations in these countries--mostly European but also Canadian, American, and Japanese--are very different. Some see their systems as heavily based on trust, with relatively little regulation. That would be the case in Finland, but also in most Asian countries. In other countries, extensive regulation suggests a climate of distrust, leaving educators feeling beleaguered and unmotivated.

These two ideas about human nature are not new: Some 60 years ago, Douglas McGregor wrote about them as Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X holds that people can't be trusted; that, unless they're watched closely, they'll take advantage of any situation for their own benefit. Policy and management therefore must develop incentives, accountability measures, and penalties to prevent misbehavior. This view underlies quite a few recent policy efforts in education--for example, increased inspection, testing, or evaluation linked to various consequences, whether for students, teachers, or schools. It's also behind more traditional centralized approaches, including systems that believe every school should be doing the same things in the same way at the same time.

A second position, Theory Y, starts with the assumption that most people know what they are doing and are reasonably well intentioned, at least most of the time. In this view, organizations benefit by putting more trust in people to do their jobs and building organization cultures that encourage such an attitude. Proponents of this position tend to opt for fewer rules and weaker accountability measures. Proposals for greater autonomy for individual schools are one instance of this attitude, as is the position of many teacher organizations that individual teachers should determine their own practice.

Unsurprisingly, those outside the system tend to favor policies with more regulation, while insiders tend to favor more trust. Most of us think we're trustworthy while others are often, in our view, less reliable, and so they need more controls. As one wag put it, it's human nature to want more autonomy for ourselves and more predictability--and therefore less autonomy--from everyone else. So, in the same way, teachers may want more autonomy in their work, but they often want more rules for students; the same is true of principals with teachers, and policy makers with schools. The double standard is alive and well!

More regulation

The pressure for increased regulation is not confined to education; the same dynamic is at work in other fields. It's evident in nurses who feel they spend more time documenting than caring for patients, or government agencies that must check and recheck even the smallest expenditure or have highly restrictive procedures for hiring or procurement. And the private sector also complains about increased requirements related to health and safety, audits, or antidiscrimination. …

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