Educational Accountability and the Road to Abilene

The Abilene Paradox, or “The Road to Abilene” as it is often called, describes how a group of people collectively can decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of any of the individuals in the group [1]. This principle is commonly illustrated in an anecdote about a Texas family that undertakes a long drive on a hot and dusty day to a diner in Abilene, when in fact no one really wanted to go in the first place. In one form or another, it’s happened to us all. We subject our individual beliefs to the collective groupthink either because we don’t want to raise an objection or we don’t have a better idea. Management by Agreement is what Jerry B. Harvey called it. He’s the author that introduced the Abilene Paradox.

It’s one thing to ruin an afternoon with family or friends by taking an ill advised road trip. It’s a completely different thing to send the entire educational community in the State of Wyoming down The Road to Abilene. No one would argue that improving the performance and accountability of Wyoming schools is a bad idea. School accountability and student performance is certainly the focus (read groupthink) of legislators all over country. But if we’ve learned one important lesson from NCLB, it’s that teachers and schools aren’t afraid of accountability…they’re afraid of flawed accountability. It impacts education; most significantly by changing instruction. We’re all teaching to the test and everyone knows it. We have to in order to avoid the sanctions. And to make matters worse, Wyoming teachers are teaching to a SIGNIFICANTLY FLAWED test.

Our legislators have an unprecedented opportunity to build an accountability system from the ground up. One that makes sense. One that uses good measures. I’ve watched a lot of the legislators on the various education committees in action. These are bright, caring, dedicated public servants. I know they want to find a fair way to assess the performance of our schools. We’re counting on them to get this right. But what did we do? We borrowed a model from Kentucky. Really? We decided to begin the discussion by copying off of someone else’s homework? In our haste to get it done and join the myriad of other questionable accountability systems nationwide, we risk not getting it right. We can do better than that. My Dad always told me “measure twice, cut one”.

Speaking of measuring…. Dr. Alex Ayers, Associate Superintendent for Instructional Support in Campbell County, presented this document to the Senate Education Committee. It details the performance levels in various states required to achieve a skill level of Basic, Proficient, or Advanced. To be considered Proficient in Wyoming, you must achieve at the 49th percentile. To be considered Advanced in Wyoming you must achieve at the 94th percentile. Those same proficiency levels in Utah are the 28th and 67th percentiles respectively. In Wisconsin they are the 14th and 52nd percentiles. I don’t mind the State telling me we need to improve, because we do, but at least level the playing field.

The Educational Accountability bill implements the new system in two phases. The second phase calls for an advisory committee of educators to “provide information to the select committee as it deems necessary…”. Let’s hope they take the time to listen to Wyoming educators rather than rushing into the accountability fray just to say we’re doing it. I’m new to Wyoming, but I’ve always thought of Wyoming and its people as fiercely independent. I thought the accountability bill would reflect that. I thought our legislators would break new ground in defining how to equitably measure schools. They didn’t. They did however add us to a long list of States taking a long, dusty drive. Nothing against Abilene, I’ve never been there. But to be honest, it doesn’t sound like a great place to be.


About Jay Harnack

Superintendent of Sublette County School District #1
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