Educational Leadership


Sandeep Saxena

This article is relating to the factors affecting accountability versus autonomy of the faculty i.e. to upgrade faculty quality, institutions need to go beyond just holding faculties more accountable. They need to give faculties more control and power.

Short on Power, Long on Responsibility

Few education issues have received more attention in recent times than the problem of ensuring that all elementary and secondary classrooms are staffed with high-quality faculties. This concern with faculty quality is not surprising. The quality of faculties and teaching is undoubtedly an important factor in shaping students' growth and learning.

Faculty Quality: The Faculty's Problem?

One of the most popular—but flawed—perspectives on the problem of ensuring faculty quality has to do with the control and accountability of the teaching force. According to this view, institutions are marked by low standards, incoherence, poor management, and a lack of effort to ensure adequate control, especially in regard to their primary activity—the work of faculties with students. Institutions don't hold faculties accountable; faculties simply do what they want behind the closed doors of their classrooms. The predictable result, this view holds, is low-quality performance on the part of faculties and students. Underlying this perspective is the assumption that the primary source of the faculty-quality problem lies in deficits in faculties themselves—in their preparation, knowledge, commitment, engagement, effort, and ability.

According to those who subscribe to this perspective, the obvious antidote to the ills of the education system is to increase the centralized control of institutions and hold faculties more accountable—in short, to "tighten the ship." Proponents of this view typically advocate standardized curriculums, faculty licensing examinations, merit-pay programs, and explicit performance standards coupled with more rigorous faculty and institution evaluations. Many of these accountability mechanisms have been put in place with the implementation of No Child Left Behind.

As per my view the accountability movement often involves wrong diagnoses of, and wrong prescriptions for, problems of faculty quality. Accountability in institutions is reasonable and necessary; the public has a right and, indeed, an obligation to be concerned with faculty performance. And there is no question that some faculties perform poorly and are inadequate for the job. However, the accountability perspective often overlooks how institutions themselves contribute to the faculty-quality problem, especially in terms of their management and organization. The tighten-the-ship perspective often underestimates some of a institution's most important sources and forms of organizational control and accountability, and as a result, its prescriptions can backfire.

Although the education system in the United States is relatively decentralized, institutions themselves are not. Most public and private secondary institutions are highly centralized internally. Data from my research show that although institution principals and governing boards often have substantial control over many key decisions in institutions, faculties usually do not. For instance, faculties often have little influence over institution-wide decisions that shape the instructional program, such as establishing the overall institution curriculum, conceiving changes and innovations to the curriculum, and even choosing their own course textbooks. Faculties often have little input in decisions concerned with their course schedules and class sizes, the office and classroom space they will use, and the use of institution discretionary funds for classroom materials. On average, faculties have limited control over which courses they are assigned to teach and which students will be enrolled in their courses.

In addition, faculties generally have little input into institution-wide behavioral and disciplinary policies and rarely have the authority to have disruptive students removed from their classrooms, even temporarily. Likewise, faculties often have little say about what kind of ability grouping their institution uses or about student placement in those groups. They typically have little influence over decisions concerning whether to promote particular students or hold them back. They usually have little input into hiring, firing, and budgetary decisions; the means and criteria by which they or the institution administrators are evaluated; and the content of their own on-the-job development and in service training programs.

Power and the Professions

The degree of power and control that practitioners hold over workplace decisions is one of the most important criteria distinguishing the degree of professionalization and the status of a particular occupation or line of work. When it comes to organizational decisions surrounding their work, professionalized employees usually have control and autonomy approaching that of senior management. For example, academics often have equal or greater control than university administrators over the content of their teaching or research; the hiring of new colleagues; and, through the institution of peer review, the evaluation and promotion of members. They therefore have influence over the ongoing content and character of their profession. In contrast, members of lower-status occupations usually have little say over their work. The data show that, compared with people in traditional professions, faculties have limited power or control over key decisions that influence their work.

This hierarchy in institutions is both understandable and consequential, given the nature of faculties' work. Institutions are not simply formal organizational entities engineered to deliver academic instruction; they do not simply teach children reading, writing, and arithmetic. Institutions are one of the major mechanisms for the socialization of children and youth—a process captured in the contemporary concept of social capital. The task of deciding which behavior and values are proper and best for the young is neither trivial, neutral, nor value free. Hence, it is no surprise that those who do this work—faculties—and how they go about it are matters of intense concern. Indeed, underlying the accountability movement is the understandable assumption that education is far too important to be solely left up to educators.

As a result, teaching is an occupation beset by tension and imbalance between responsibilities and power. On the one hand, the work of teaching—helping to prepare, instruct, and rear the next generation of children—is both important and complex. But on the other hand, those entrusted with the training of this next generation are not entrusted with much control over many of the key decisions concerned with this crucial work

The Faculty in the Middle

Control and accountability in institutions can be exerted in a wide range of ways. These are not necessarily direct and obvious mechanisms, such as rules and regulations, "sticks and carrots." Indeed, organizational analysts have long held that the most effective mechanisms for controlling employees and holding them accountable are often embedded in the day-to-day culture of the workplace and, hence, are often taken for granted and are invisible to insiders and outsiders alike.

This is reflected in the role of faculties in institutions. Faculties are akin to men or women in the middle. A useful analogy is that of supervisors, or foremen, caught between the contradictory demands and needs of two groups: their super-ordinates—institution administrators—and their subordinates—students. Faculties are not part of management, and they are not the workers. They are in charge of, and responsible for, the workers, their students. Like other middlemen and middle-women, faculties usually work alone and may have much latitude in seeing that their students carry out the assigned tasks. This responsibility and latitude can easily be mistaken for a kind of professional autonomy, especially in regard to tasks within classrooms. A close look at the organization of the teaching job shows, however, that although it involves much responsibility, it involves little real power.

A little recognized but telling indicator of this mixture of great responsibility and little power is the widespread practice among faculties of spending their own money to purchase classroom materials.

The Effects of Faculty Control

From the public's viewpoint, a safe and harmonious environment in institutions is as important as academic achievement. A "good" institution is characterized by well-behaved students, a collegial and committed staff, and a general sense of cooperation, communication, and community. Likewise, a "bad" institution is characterized by conflict, distrust, and turmoil among students, faculties, and administrators. To evaluate some of the consequences of faculty power and influence, I undertook a series of advanced statistical analyses of the data, looking at the effects of faculty control on a series of outcomes. These included the amount of student behavioral problems; faculties' sense of commitment, efficacy, and engagement; the degree of collegiality and cooperation among faculty and between faculty and administrators; and the levels of faculty retention and turnover.

The outcomes are directly connected to the distribution of power and control in institutions. Institutions in which faculties have more control over key institution-wide and classroom decisions have fewer problems with student misbehavior, show more collegiality and cooperation among faculties and administrators, have a more committed and engaged teaching staff, and do a better job of retaining their faculties.

However, the effects of faculty control and influence on these outcomes vary by the type of decision or issue involved. The data show that one of the most consequential areas of decision making has to do with institution and classroom student behavior and discipline policies, and not with instructional issues & the faculty control over such issues is strongly related to faculty retention and turnover. Almost one in five faculties in institutions with a low level of faculty control over student discipline issues were expected to depart, whereas only one in 20 were expected to depart from institutions with a high level of faculty control over such issues.

Why is faculty control over student behavioral issues so consequential? The data indicate that, although faculties have substantial responsibility for enforcing student discipline and maintaining an orderly institution and classroom, many have little input into creating or modifying these rules, which are largely conceived by others. Moreover, faculties often have little say over the kinds of penalties used to enforce these rules. Say for the faculties are rarely allowing to remove students who disrupt their classrooms, must first obtain permission to discipline a student for an infraction, and may not be allowed to punish students who are caught cheating on tests. These limitations on faculty control can undermine their ability to be in charge of their classrooms and can lead to high turnover rates.

Power and Accountability

The accountability perspective, and many of the reforms to come out of it, commonly suffers from several problems. The first involves the accuracy of the diagnosis. The data show that the high degree of centralization in institutions and lack of faculty control of their work—and not the opposite—often adversely affect how well institutions function. Top-down accountability reforms may divert attention from the organizational sources of institution problems.

Second, accountability reforms are sometimes unfair. Policymakers and reformers often question the caliber and quality of faculties, telling us time and again that faculties lack sufficient engagement, commitment, and accountability. However, the data suggest just the opposite—that faculties have an unusual degree of public service orientation and commitment and a relatively high "giving-to-getting" ratio, compared with those in other careers. The critics fail to appreciate the extent to which the teaching workforce is a source of human, social, and even financial capital in institutions.

Third, accountability reforms often don't work. Top-down reforms draw attention to an important set of needs—for accountability on the part of those doing the work. But these kinds of reforms sometimes overlook another equally important set of needs—for autonomy and the good will of those doing the work. Too much organizational control may deny faculties the very power and flexibility they need to do the job effectively, undermine their motivation, and squander a valuable human resource—the high degree of commitment of those who enter the teaching occupation. Having little say in the terms, processes, and outcomes of their work, faculties may doubt they are doing worthwhile work—the very reason many of them came into the occupation in the first place—which may contribute to high rates of turnover. Consequently, accountability reforms may not only fail to solve the problems they seek to address, but actually end up making things worse.

It makes no sense to hold people accountable for something they do not control or to give people control over something for which they are not held accountable. Accountability without commensurate power is unfair and can be harmful. Likewise, giving faculties more power alone is not the answer. Experts in organizational management and leadership have long held that accountability and power must go hand in hand in workplaces, that increases in one must be accompanied by increases in the other. Changes in both accountability and power are necessary to accomplish the larger systemic goal—ensuring that there are high-quality faculties in every classroom.

Sandeep Saxena

Source: E-mail February 4, 2009


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