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Accountability in a Multiple-Faceted Program

Accountability in a Multi-Faceted Program

by Jan Goethel and Carol Gabler
Increasing partnerships means satisfying more partners. To do so, this volunteer literacy program has been clarifying goals and improving accountability systems


Twelve years ago, a small group of concerned educators formed a volunteer organization to meet the literacy needs of adults in three counties surrounding Eau Claire, WI. Affiliation with Literacy Volunteers of America, Inc., (LVA) provided training, materials, and structure. Through partnership with Chippewa Valley Technical College, a reading specialist was hired as executive director. What LVA-Chippewa Valley (LVA-CV) lacked in size, it made up for in enthusiasm. Accountability at that stage meant filing the annual report to assure the national organization that our tutors were trained and our numbers were rising. It seemed straightforward: we could see improvement in the basic skills of our students and that was enough.

The tutoring program grew rapidly in the first two years, and we soon felt the need to expand our services. The first step was to provide story time for preschool children while their parents were working on literacy skills. Then we began to form partnerships with the school district, the county human services department, and the YMCA to provide early childhood education for three- to five-year olds, parenting classes, child care for siblings, and transportation. Collaboration occurred piece by piece, but within six years from its inception, the simple partnership had evolved into a comprehensive family literacy program. In each partnership, we became accountable to other local agencies to provide the services that we promised, services that are diversified as the types of partners. The partnerships work only because we are satisfying needs on all sides. For example, the YMCA provides space for our preschool and reserves slots in its child care program for younger siblings. In return, we help the YMCA accomplish its mission of reaching out to all families in the Eau Claire area by recruiting from a population that otherwise might not become familiar with the facility. Everyone benefits from the partnerships, but the mutual responsibility - and the ensuing accountability - grows with each new partner.

The Challenge

LVA-CV now offers comprehensive services to more than 200 learners on an annual budget of $230,000. We have four full-time professional staff members, 20 part-time professionals, and an average of 100 volunteers at any given time. We offer adult basic education (ABE) and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), work experience, computer classes, certified preschools, licensed child care, transportation, and social services. We have 14 funders, and we are accountable to each of them. A highly charged organization like ours is not unlike a hyperactive octopus. The complexity of the program forces us to be vigilant about what our many arms are doing.

We are accountable, first of all, to our students and tutors. With students, we seek to ensure that they are satisfied both with the program and with the skills they are gaining. As students' needs change, we change our approach and what we offer. When welfare reform in Wisconsin moved recipients quickly to work, our learners needed more flexible programming, so we initiated evening classes and literacy services in the workplace. They needed computer skills to be employable, so we added computer labs. We responded to their desire for citizenship by adding classes that help them prepare for the examination.

We are accountable to our tutors, promising them adequate training and ongoing support. Frequently evaluating the tutor training format, evaluating the competencies in which we train tutors, and surveying tutor satisfaction are all ways in which we ensure that we are doing what we set out to do. Tutors are vital to our program; we use such means as periodic tutor refresher sessions, conversation groups, and follow-up phone calls to help them feel part of the team.

We are accountable to our staff to ensure that they are not totally overwhelmed. With so many funders, all of them requiring data in different formats, paperwork is unending and unavoidably time-consuming. Standardization of the reporting process would certainly be welcome. We are starting to use Literacy Pro, a nationally recognized data base software. As our staff becomes accustomed to using this system, we will be able to document our outcomes in a more systematic fashion. At any given time, for instance, we will be able to know immediately how many student and tutor pairs are active, without going through all the files. In the meantime, we look for ways to share the responsibilities and simplify whenever possible. Recognizing the benefit of stepping out of our environment occasionally to see how others are meeting the challenge of accountability, we also support time for staff and board to participate in development opportunities at the local, state, and national levels.

We are, of course, accountable for the wide range of public funding we receive, from supplemental funding through United Way of America to program sustaining-contributions through Even Start. As a United Way recipient, for example, we have to measure program and client outcomes to satisfy their growing focus on accountability. We are accountable to our collaborative partners, to the business community that supports us, and to the private citizens who donate money. Whether funding is public or private, we must demonstrate effective and efficient use of it. We do this via annual budget reviews and external audits.

Ensuring Continued Improvement

Even in our earliest stages of expansion, the Board of Directors recognized the hazards of unplanned growth and, over a two-year time span, formulated a strategic plan. This lengthy document defined our mission and provided a framework for growth and improvement. The strategic plan was a clear statement of what we wanted to accomplish. Less clear, however, were the issues of how we would do that, and how we would measure our success. Evaluation was a somewhat neglected area, since money was more likely to be spent on implementing and maintaining programs. Realizing that we lacked the expertise and capacity to measure our impact satisfactorily, we hired an outside evaluator to help us untangle our goals and objectives and overhaul our evaluation methods. The evaluator worked with staff members and Board committees to specify goals and outcomes so that the data we gathered would be relevant to those outcomes. At times we wished he would just leave us alone and let us do our jobs, because initially this just seemed like more work.

Gradually, the benefits of revising our accountability process became apparent. We began to see how much time we could save by streamlining the competencies we hope to deliver, and how we could lessen confusion by clarifying our roles. The evaluator had each committee work through its own outcomes, determine who was responsible for each task or area, and list what kind of data were needed to show evidence of those outcomes. This process has helped in the recruitment of students. Once we recognized that responsibility for recruitment was shared by several entities - the teaching staff, the program and planning committee, and the public relations committee, which oversees all media promotions - we could prevent duplication. Coordinating efforts across committees also resulted in the creation of a program-wide calendar that indicates deadlines, who is responsible for what, and what evidence is required to indicate success.

With the help of the evaluator we reviewed and revised our original strategic plan, resulting in a more practical working document. Although our first evaluator has moved on, his advice remains: "To be accountable, you have to define what you are trying to do, then provide evidence to show that you have done it. You can't show improvement in something unless you have defined exactly what you were trying to improve."

Application of the strategic plan has of necessity involved the whole organization. Over the past two years, our volunteer Board of Directors and the staff have again revised the plan. Under the guidance of a new evaluator, committees are studying all the programs to see if they comply with the current strategic goals. The program and planning committee compiled a set of criteria to be applied to each program. By using this questionnaire, the committee responsible for planning and implementing Reading is Fundamental (RIF) events evaluated their efforts in relationship to the strategic goals. They determined that the entertainment format was a lot of fun but did little to promote reading in families, as was intended. The action plan led to changes in format that put the emphasis back on reading.

When applying the strategic plan to their academic programs, instructors define their own personal goals and devise personal action plans. One preschool teacher, for example, had as her goal to help the children understand the world of work. Her action plans included reviewing and selecting appropriate computer software and taking the children to visit a site where many of their parents worked. She set her own time line and determined how she would measure success.

National Emphasis, National Support

In LVA-CV, as in all programs that receive public funds to deliver literacy services to adults, the challenge of accountability has truly come to a head with the 1998 Workforce Investment Act. Title II of this mandate calls practitioners to accountability and continuous improvement. LVA-Chippewa Valley has found some guidance at the national level as we've strengthened our accountability efforts. Literacy Volunteers of American has an accreditation initiative currently under way that establishes quality and accountability standards for volunteer literacy providers. Meeting all the criteria for accreditation will reinforce the evaluation process already happening within our affiliate. One of our Board members attended the national training and will guide us as we prepare for accreditation later this year.

Another important national connection has been our participation in What Works Literacy Partners (WWLP), an assessment project sponsored by the Lila Wallace Readers Digest Foundation. Representatives from LVA-CV meet twice yearly as members of a network of researchers and practitioners to formulate better ways to measure actual student outcomes and student satisfaction and link them to instructional practices and program design. LVA-CV and all the WWLP partners benefit by learning improved methods of collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data that measure learner progress.

Participation in this effort has given us the tools and also the energy to further our own efforts at accountability. It has also boosted our energy and motivation. In one instance, the LVA-CV participant learned the hard way that if you don't ask the right questions, you won't get the results you need. In other words, you can feed myriad statistics into a computer and churn out results, but they won't be relevant unless you first determine what factors are most pertinent to the organization's needs. One example would be the correlation of outcomes to students' individual goals, rather than just test results. Students preparing to take the written driver's exam will not necessarily show improvement in overall reading ability yet may still accomplish their goals. Ours is a diverse population, with varying needs and goals. Lumping diverse cases together too narrowly for the sake of numbers is neither relevant nor effective.


Accountability is nothing new. Nor is it something that can be done once and forgotten. As a nonprofit organization constantly in search of funding, the accountability challenge is with us every day. We've come a long way at LVA-CV in our accountability efforts. Strategic planning has helped us establish a healthy cycle of planning, doing, and reviewing, and in the process a few memorable facts have emerged:

We are accountable to all with whom we have exchanged promises or expectations. Every transaction, whether personal or business, implies making good on that promise or meeting that expectation. Clearly demonstrating effective delivery of literacy services helps us recruit students, obtain grants, secure partnerships, persuade businesses to offer literacy services, even influence legislation.

There are only so many hours available in a day. We can't add to the clock, so we must find other ways to make time for strategic planning, make time for staff to meet and resolve issues, make time for the person responsible for the finances to focus on that challenge, away from the constantly ringing telephone.

Careful planning now saves time and money later. We must force ourselves to sit down and plan, and then after we've carried out the plan, to sit down again and measure our progress. We at LVA-CV are a nurturing group by nature. We must not feel guilty if we are not providing direct service at every moment. It is also important to evaluate where we've been and where we want to go.

About the Authors

Jan Goethel is a freelance writer who has produced numerous literacy-related publications, including The Path to Family Literacy (Steck Vaughn, 1996), co-authored with Carol Gabler. An active volunteer, Ms. Goethel serves as writing consultant and publications manager for LVA-Chippewa Valley.

Carol L. Gabler is an adult basic education instructor for Chippewa Valley Technical College, assigned to be Executive Director of LVA-Chippewa Valley in Eau Claire, WI. She is also Wisconsin's liaison with LVA, Inc. Ms. Gabler has a master's degree in education with specialization in reading.