Instructional Leadership in Action

Reciprocal Accountability: How Effective Instructional Leaders Improve Teaching and Learning

by Stephen Fink on Jan 21, 2014

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So much has been written about school leadership, what can possibly be new?  Truthfully there is little “new” in the school leadership concept of reciprocal accountability. However, reciprocal accountability is largely absent in the daily practice of many school and district leaders. 

Simply stated, reciprocal accountability means that if school or district leaders are going to hold teachers or principals accountable for something, then those leaders have an equal responsibility to ensure that teachers and principals know how to do what they are expected to do.  Practically speaking, this concept means that calls for educational accountability must go hand in hand with the organizational capacity-building that gives teachers and leaders the expertise they need to support high achievement for all students.

Reciprocal accountability is taken for granted by highly effective teachers.  The most effective teachers not only have deep knowledge of subject matter, but they know each of their students as individual learners, differentiating their instruction accordingly so that each student meets the stated standard regardless of the student’s starting place.  Effective teachers understand that they cannot expect students to demonstrate learning for something that has not been successfully taught.

Just as teachers need to know their students as individual learners, principals need to know their teachers as individual learners.  Effective principals also use a variety of assessment tools and techniques to understand teachers’ strengths, weaknesses, learning styles and needs.  Effective school principals understand that if they are to hold teachers accountable for high quality teaching, they need to ensure that teachers have the knowledge and expertise necessary to meet those expectations.

This brings us to the role of school district leaders.  Just as teachers need to know their students as individual learners, and just as principals need to know their teachers as individual learners, effective district leaders need to know their principals as individual learners and understand their role in developing the expertise of their principals.  The primary measure of district leaders’ effectiveness must be the extent to which teachers and leaders are improving their daily practice.  To hold themselves and the system accountable for high-quality learning for every student, district leaders must create a clear through-line connecting a vision for student learning to the school improvement agenda, the professional learning needs of teachers and leaders, and ultimately the quality of teaching practice.

This “through-line” is not some abstract construct.  It is an embodiment of reciprocal leadership practices that build critical knowledge and skills at each level of the organization.  A great example of reciprocal leadership in action can be found in Teton County, Wyoming, where district leaders took on the challenge of eliminating long-standing academic achievement gaps by building their own expertise as well as the expertise of their teachers and principals.  District leaders did not simply outsource the professional development of their teachers.  Instead they rolled up their sleeves and learned alongside their teachers so that they knew how to differentiate support for every teacher.  Just as in Teton County, school and district leaders across the country are beginning to understand how to lead for instructional improvement in reciprocally accountable ways.  While many state policymakers are continually drawn to accountability measures that rely on sanctions and rewards, effective school and district leaders know that true accountability can only be attained when teachers have the necessary knowledge and skills to improve student learning.  Effective leaders understand they cannot simply mandate improvement; they must hold themselves reciprocally accountable for that improvement!

This article was posted originally on the Microsoft Partners in Learning Network website.

About the author: Stephen Fink

Dr. Stephen Fink is affiliate professor of educational leadership and policy studies in the University of Washington College of Education. He served as the founding executive director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) from 2001 to 2018. Dr. Fink is co-author of Leading for Instructional Improvement: How Successful Leaders Develop Teaching and Learning Expertise.

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