Ken Miller is a GOVERNING contributor, blogging for GOVERNING Public Great.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
In 1997, the FDA put an end to the miracle weight-loss drug Fen-Phen. The Fen-Phen case was typical of so many of the miracle cures we have seen, from weight loss to addiction to lower cholesterol. They promised to replace hard work and discipline with a pill. Forget dieting and exercising — those are too hard. Just pop a pill! Fen-Phen seemed too good to be true. And just like so many of the miracle cures, it was. People started dying of enlarged hearts; investigations followed. The drug was pulled and lawsuits began. This is the miracle cure cycle: Outrageous promises, mixed results, death, recall and lawsuits. For the public-sector accountability movement, we have our first body.
For the past few years, those of us in the public sector have been sold a miracle cure called accountability. Poor results? Out-of-control costs? Poor customer service? All you have to do is hold people accountable. No fuss, no muss, no diet or exercise required. Just measure something, set a goal and hold people accountable. Miraculously, everything will get better. This miracle cure comes in a lot of different forms: measurement systems, dashboards, scorecards, performance management, STAT, etc. They are all based on the belief that good performance comes from holding people accountable for achieving measurable goals. This belief is killing us. Let's look at the first autopsy.
On March 28, USA Today published a scathing exposé of the seemingly miraculous test score gains of students in the public school system of Washington, D.C. Under chancellor Michelle Rhee, schools previously underperforming on standardized tests were making remarkable gains. So remarkable in fact, that Rhee became the cover girl for school reform. She graced Time, Newsweek, and appeared on countless TV programs touting her simple cure for our education malady: accountability. Measure performance, set a target, reward those who meet it and fire those who don't. High-scoring teachers and principals received bonuses of $8,000 to $10,000. Low performers were dismissed — Rhee replaced nearly 45 percent of the teachers and principals in the system. Miraculously, test scores improved and Rhee went on to start a billion-dollar foundation to dispense this miracle cure nationwide.
So how exactly did all these incentivized, accountable educators improve their test scores? (Some schools posted gains of more than 40 percent, meriting national awards and federal incentive grants.) According to USA Today and McGraw-Hill, who scored the tests, they cheated. The high-performing D.C. schools, Rhee's shining examples, had alarming instances of wrong-to-right erasure rates on test answers. That is, someone was erasing wrong answers and replacing them with correct answers before the sheets were machine-graded.
Rhee, of course, denies any wrong-doing. And no one accuses her of ordering the schools to cheat. She didn't have to. She created the climate of fear that made these actions inevitable.
"The pressure on principals was unrelenting," Aona Jefferson, a former D.C. principal, told USA Today. Jefferson is now president of the Council of School Officers, representing principals and other administrators. Every year, Jefferson says, Rhee would meet with each principal and ask what kind of test score gains he or she would post in the coming school year. Jefferson says principals told her that Rhee expected them to increase scores by 10 percentile points or more every year. "What do you do when your chancellor asks, 'How many points can you guarantee this year?' " Jefferson says. "How is a principal supposed to do that?"
It would be easy to point the finger at the educators who cheated. But the real question is, what would make these good people — teachers and principals who love educating children — make these unethical choices? To see how the problems are created, one need look no further than the ubiquitous surveys that are thrust upon us after every visit to a restaurant, hospital, and even church service. I mentioned this in my book We Don't Make Widgets, and I have since had my inbox flooded with stories from readers who had the same experience I did: Their car salesman, waitress, and even nurse handed them a satisfaction survey — already filled out with perfect scores. Rather than being a tool to learn from customers, these surveys have become an instrument for banging people over the head. These people game the system to avoid the hammer. It's a perfectly rational reaction: The smart choice when faced with being held personally accountable for a broken system is to game the measurement system. When we don't fix the system, they game the system.
It's okay to want results. It's okay to focus on results. But when we move from desiring a better outcome to demanding a better outcome, the unhealthy behavior occurs. When dieting, it's okay to want to lose 20 pounds. It's okay to fantasize about fitting into a certain shirt. But how will you actually lose the 20 pounds? What has to change about your system of choosing, cooking and consuming food in order to lose weight? What has to change (or start) with your exercise system to lose the weight? Results come from our systems. If we want better results, we need better systems. Better methods. Better methods yield better results. It was perfectly acceptable for Chancellor Rhee to want better test scores. It was okay for her to expect improved performance from her principals and teachers. But instead of telling educators, "Give me a number that I will hold you accountable for," Rhee should have been asking, "What systems in our district must improve for you to improve your learning outcomes? What methods need to be improved, adopted or removed to improve student performance?"
The focus has to be on fixing the systems. Yelling at systems doesn't improve systems. Bribing systems doesn't improve systems. Fixing systems improves systems. When we don't do the hard work to fix the systems, the only option is to game the system. Which is exactly what the D.C. principals and teachers did. Faced with being held accountable (read: "fired") for test scores — and with little control over the complex variables that make up student success, including class size, curriculum, socioeconomic conditions, education level of parents, availability of quality food and the compound performance of all the previous teachers — what choice did they have? What would you have done?
The charlatans selling the accountability snake-oil don't see systems. They don't see complexity, cause and effect and correlation. They don't have time for the analysis required to understand a system and its constraints. They don't have the patience to balance competing stakeholder interests. Rather than studying your unique body, helping you choose food, plan meals and build an exercise regimen, they just demand you lose 20 pounds. Now. The accountability movement believes that the only variable that matters is effort. That you aren't trying hard enough. With a goal, an incentive and constant monitoring, they can finally get you to use all that effort you've been withholding all these years. For them, results come from people simply trying harder to get a carrot or avoid a stick. The truth is that we have good people trapped in complex, broken systems that they did not create. Performance improves when these good people in the system get together with those affected by the system, to build a better system. Like all miracle cures eventually prove, there is no shortcut for hard work. If we don't do things the right way, the weight comes back and the test scores go back down. Fen-Phen killed people from enlarged hearts. Accountability — Management by Fear — kills government by shrinking the hearts of the people who work in it.
In the next two parts of this series, we will look more closely at Management by Fear, why performance measures need warning labels, and how your agencies can create true accountability — without money, dashboards or fear.
How has the Accountability cure affected your agency? Agree or disagree, we'd love to hear your stories below.