Lessons on accountability from experiences in the Army

March 16, 2015 • Lars Esdal

Last week I was on a call with the leader of a teacher-powered school. She told us candidly about her struggles with “collective autonomy.” On the one hand, she said, she fully wants to let teachers call the shots at her school. On the other hand, she is still formally the principal in the eyes of the district (per state and district rules, many teacher-powered schools are still required to have principals, even though those leaders are usually elected by the full teacher group). It’s hard to let others be in control, she said, when if something goes wrong she could, as principal, lose her job based on their decisions.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard these concerns from leaders in teacher-powered schools. And in talking to policy makers and district administrators, it’s clear why they often want schools with distributed leadership to still designate a single principal. “How does accountability work,” they say, “if there’s no single person in charge? How can a group be held accountable?”

As I was describing this dilemma to my colleague Ted Kolderie, he recounted the following story from his time in the Army. I think it illustrates well the advantages of “group accountability” over “single leader accountability.”

I spent about 10 months stationed at Fort Churchill, on the west shore of Hudson Bay in Canada. We were quartered eight to a room. Discipline was lax. We routinely slept in, got up just in time to catch the last few minutes of breakfast. One morning Sergeant Colley came in about 7:15 and found us all in bed and shouted, “I want you all down in Captain Botdorf’s office in five minutes!” We dutifully dressed and went down. Captain Botdorf was very angry. He demanded an explanation. Before any of us could confess our guilt, apologize, and plead for mercy, one member of our group—a street-smart high school dropout from Detroit—said, “Sir, the room leader did not wake us.”

Officially, formally, it was not our individual responsibility to get up on time. Formally, the ‘Charge of Quarters’ was to wake the room leader, and the room leader was to then wake the rest of us. But the CQ hadn’t done so. The captain and the sergeant knew perfectly well they were trapped. Captain Botdorf’s face grew redder and redder. Finally he exploded, “Get out of here!” Which we did; unpunished.

Because we could blame failure on ‘the leadership’ we evaded accountability.

Earlier on in basic training I was at Fort Bliss, in the desert outside El Paso, Texas. Here we were quartered in six-man huts; shacks, really, each with a gas-fired stove for warmth. There was a coveted weekend pass available, which we all devoutly desired. Word passed down about The Italian Kitchen, a family-run restaurant in El Paso that served a great chicken cacciatore for, as I remember, $1.65. If you had a pass.

The weekend pass depended on good behavior. The deal was that if any single individual screwed up nobody in his hut would get a pass. The effect and I assume the intention was to make all of us in the hut responsible for everyone’s good behavior. And for sure, nobody wanted to be the guy whose screw-up kept his hut-mates from getting out for the weekend.

In the entire time I was there we didn’t have a single problem getting weekend passes, and I don’t recall hearing of any other hut that did. Group accountability had worked.

The world beyond education is replete with examples of group accountability. Any time people form a “team” of any sort, success (or failure) falls on the group as a whole. Think of runners in a relay, partners in a business, secretaries in a political administration, or coauthors on a paper. Accountability should work the same when it’s a team of teachers running a school.