J. Richard Dewey

J. Richard Dewey, PhD, is a university teacher. His 38-year career encompasses service as a math teacher, athletic coach, assistant principal, and principal.

Doing the Right Things Right: Building Capacity, Quality Control, Fidelity, and Accountability

“What drives your school improvement efforts—evidence of best practice or the pursuit of universal buy-in?”

This question is posed by Dr. Richard DuFour in his article, “In Praise of Top-Down Leadership.” He then proceeds to answer that question as he reflects on ubiquitous research advocating for simultaneous loose-tight leadership within organizations in pursuit of high performance. He channels the work of Robert Waterman and Jim Collins, who reframe it as directed empowerment and a culture of discipline within an ethic of entrepreneurship. Toward that end, we are reminded that great leaders don’t just do things right, they DO THE RIGHT THINGS RIGHT! Further, they clearly articulate the RIGHT THINGS and create a culture and structures that support building capacity, quality control, fidelity, and accountability.

As I work with schools across North America on their continuing capacity-building efforts to function as high-performing professional learning communities, the #1 Essential Question we address is: 

  1. As we develop our simultaneous loose-tight journey, on which priorities are we going to be tight?

Of course it is well documented that the six characteristics of high-performing PLCs, the three big ideas that frame the PLC journey, and the four critical questions of learning that drive the work of PLCs provide us the necessary guidance toward getting tight on the right things. At the same time, we need to expand our essential questions to include:

  1. What are the specific conditions we expect to see in every grade and department?
  1. What must we do to build the capacity of people throughout the school to create these conditions?
  1. What indicators of progress will we monitor?

It is the process of answering these additional essential questions that drives the building of capacity, quality control, fidelity, and accountability. Addressing all four essential questions effectively narrows the knowing-doing-being gap that frequently festers in schools that may otherwise be content to simply “Do PLCs” every Thursday morning as a surrogate for actually being a PLC every day and all the time!

In responding to Essential Question #2, leaders must bring to life the exemplars of the six characteristics and three big ideas, plus what it looks like when the critical questions of learning are being answered effectively. We support adult capacity building when we help everyone consistently make connections between the words that we use and the actions that unfold. This is how we bring meaning and quality control to our efforts.

This behavior then guides us in responding to Essential Question #3, as leaders explicitly, intentionally, and publicly celebrate the behavioral anchors, declaring, “This is what we expect and this is what it looks like at our school when it is happening!” High-performing PLCs consistently and overtly maintain a high level of transparency where high performance exists and where pockets of professional growth are unfolding. They sponsor collaborative walkthroughs and/or fish bowl sessions to provide every adult learner an opportunity to see these anchors in action. Leaders then take Joan Richardson’s advice and encourage their teammates to “act their way into a new way of thinking, rather than think their way into a new way of acting” on the journey toward fidelity. And, it is this expected behavior that we will monitor toward accountability.

Of course, just as we benchmark student learning on our journey to “all means all,” we likewise must be responsive to Essential Question #4 and recognize the similar benefits of benchmarking adult learning on our parallel journey toward accountability. Just as performance-based student learning targets can be measured and tracked using the power of rubrics, so can performance-based adult learning targets. Powerful adult benchmarking rubrics and related tools can be found throughout Learning by Doing, the popular and well-used handbook for the PLC at Work™ process. I have worked with many schools committed to accountability that have well-established game plans in place to benchmark adult learning multiple times throughout the year using these rubrics and tools.

It is important to note that leaders must likewise be responsive to the reciprocal accountability that rests upon their shoulders. As noted by DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, and Many in Learning by Doing, this includes:

  1. Building the capacity of the guiding coalition to lead the PLC process at the site.
  1. Turning leadership team meetings into a collaborative and collective effort to both celebrate and amplify positive deviance (rehearse and role-play), and identify and resolve any implementation challenges.
  1. Each leadership team member is called upon to present regular progress reports to the administrators and to their fellow leadership team members on how implementation is proceeding.

Indeed, “What gets monitored, gets done!”


DuFour, R. (2007, November). In praise of top-down leadership. School Administrator, pp. 38-42. Retrieved from http://www.allthingsplc.info/files/uploads/InPraiseofTop-DownLeadership.pdf

DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. W. (2010). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work™. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Richardson, J. (2004). From the inside out: Learning from the positive deviance in your organization. Oxford, OH: National Staff Development Council.

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