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 / Summer 2006 / Issue 43(originally published by Booz & Company)


William G. Ouchi: The Thought Leader Interview

Autonomy and Accountability

S+B: In your book, you name two other key elements: the “burning focus on student achievement” and making everyone accountable for student performance.
They’re very important. You can have a great decentralized system, but if you don’t focus everyone’s attention on student achievement, performance will not go up. This means that principals cannot have tenure. Their continued employment and compensation should depend on whether or not students achieve.

S+B: What about teacher tenure?
To me, teacher tenure is a good thing. American businesspeople tend to blame tenure and teachers unions. That’s a mistake. People don’t go into teaching to make money. Scratch the most cynical, battle-scarred teacher, and the idealist is still there. And that’s what’s going to save us. Teachers support new ideas when they prove out. Richard Stutman, the president of the Boston teachers union, had led opposition to our pilot schools there because he opposes differential teachers’ pay. But he was quoted in Education Week in January 2006, saying, “We are committed to what works well. We see the need for pilot schools to grow and expand.”

S+B: Your views on accountability were linked with U.S. Secretary of Education Rodney Paige, who was superintendent of the Houston school district when you were researching Making Schools Work. Inevitably, you’ve been associated with Secretary Paige’s program “No Child Left Behind,” where schools are judged by the performance of their students on national standardized tests. And that’s put you in the middle of a firestorm.
I think the firestorm has subsided somewhat. People were willing to write off examples of success in Houston and Canada, but now when they see the effect of accountability in Boston, Chicago, and New York City, they have to take it seriously.

The issue at the heart of this is balancing autonomy with accountability. It’s just like in a business. What allows a huge company to give a division general manager autonomy? It’s the fact that you can measure profit and loss, never with perfection, but pretty clearly. Then, if you’re a central office bureaucrat and you order a division manager to do something contrary, he or she can reply, “I’m maximizing profit right now. Are you saying you want me to sacrifice profit?” No bureaucrat can withstand that argument.

So for a school system to succeed, there must be a simple, unassailable measure of performance. In the Edmonton approach, which became our model, there were three legs of the accountability stool. First is the measures of student achievement on standardized tests, which is now legally required in the U.S. under No Child Left Behind. Second, they must stay within budget. In other words, if a school runs a deficit, the principal must repay that money out of his or her own budget in the future. If he runs a surplus, he or she gets to keep and spend it in that school in future years.

And third, there must be some other kind of consumer transparency as well. In Edmonton, every child in grades 1 through 12 fills out a simple, two-page anonymous questionnaire every year. “Is the school safe? Do you like coming here? Are the teachers trying to help you? Do the other children make fun of you? Do you use computers in class?” Teachers, custodians, and other school employees fill out other questionnaires: “Is the school building properly maintained? Are there adequate books and materials? Do you have adequate opportunity to influence the decisions that affect your work? How would you evaluate the leadership provided by your principal?” And parents have theirs: “Is the school welcoming? Is it properly maintained?” Principals fill out questionnaires about the responsiveness and quality of service they get from the central administration and its staff. All of these results are published publicly.

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