Commentary

Accounting for Accountability in the Curriculum

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Most educators, especially supporters of the public schools, are sick and tired of hearing about accountability. As with many ideas in education, it was introduced with spotlights and fanfare, analyzed in numerous special issues of professional journals, summarized at annual conferences, and trivialized by the press. In the process, it was beaten nearly to death--the only living remnant being the intensely debated issues of state-mandated minimum-competency testing of students and teachers.

But although state legislatures continue to adopt programs of competency testing, and educators debate what can and cannot be measured by a single instrument, the central idea of accountability itself has been lost.

There are many, complex reasons for this. But two of them are important because they suggest a modest proposal that could bring accountability back to life.

In calling for accountability, the public simply wanted public-school officials to admit that there should be a relationship between what schools intend to accomplish and what they actually accomplish, and further, to admit that there should be a relationship between what schools actually accomplish and what they say they accomplish. In the enthusiasm, or in some instances, paranoia, that accompanied the introduction of accountability, we forgot these messages. Educators simply failed to focus on the public's belief that the patrons of local schools are entitled to frequent, periodic determination of the extent to which the educational goals of their local communities are being met.

In addition, after all the rhetoric and debate, no practical method of providing the public with what it wanted ever proved to be compatible with the also-treasured concept of local control. So, at the same time that the public stood to gain by holding educators accountable, it also stood to lose control of its schools through some kind of state-mandated student-testing program.

In their unsuccessful attempts to reconcile these almost mutually exclusive demands, accountability and local control, educators have overlooked a very simple, widely accepted practice--that of a local, independent audit.

In many states, independent, certified public accountants audit the financial records of public-school districts. And in states with laws that require such an audit on an annual basis, the audit itself becomes an official record, with a summary of the auditor's findings recorded at public meetings. The public requires that school boards and public-school officials directly and precisely account for a community's financial investment in its schools. It is human nature to be tempted not to tell the whole truth when the truth promises to embarrass us. Financial audits, then, serve a simple but important purpose. An independent, professional accounting of a school district's funds is a community's assurance that local school officials will tell the truth about the district's spending and financial well-being.

Yet, while few of us would subscribe to the idea that superintendents or business managers should be allowed to audit their own financial records, we are entirely willing to permit them to evaluate the effectiveness of their own school system's curriculum and to assess the academic success of their pupils.

This inconsistency is unfortunate for several reasons. First, useful curriculum evaluation requires specialized knowledge in the use of techniques of testing and measurement. The average school professional is not an expert in their use. Second, public schools are closed systems. They are not comfortable places for people who go against the system's grain. Third, public-school officials are not likely to criticize themselves in public.

Curriculum evaluation now makes use of specific and sophisticated methods of testing and surveying, qualitative research, statistical analysis, and electronic data processing. Since most school administrators are not familiar with them, they make major curriculum decisions on the basis of hunches, whims, or, at best, information supplied by commercial producers of curriculum materials. It is no wonder that some public schools remain glued to a "saber-toothed curriculum" while others bounce from one curriculum fad to another without regard for their results. The public has not required its schools to conduct periodic, professional evaluations that make appropriate use of the quantitative and qualitative research methods known to curriculum specialists.

The public schools have long been closed systems. State regulation of credentials ensures that those who teach and administer schools come from within the system. There is little dialogue and practically no exchange of people and ideas between public education and business, for example. Given a choice, a school system would promote from within its own ranks and avoid contributions, evaluations, or criticism from outside sources. For the same reasons we require someone from outside the system to inspect a school system's financial records, we should also require someone from outside the system to evaluate whether a school is meeting its educational goals. An independent, professional evaluator would be able to assess objectively a school system's existing conditions and to compare them with conditions in other systems with similar characteristics and needs.

Finally, school officials seldom make public announcements on curriculum matters that are not positive. Most reports on curriculum or pupil achievement released by public schools are little more than advertisements for the school systems' teachers and administrators. Like advertisements, they are intended to make something look better than it really is through techniques of public relations. News releases written by school employees commonly turn the simple into the complex, oversimplify the complicated, draw conclusions without evidence, cite "experts" who are not expert, make extensive use of hyperbole, and end by stating that pupil achievement is equal to or above the national average. The purpose is always the same: Tell the public what makes you look good; do not tell them what makes you look bad. School officials are not evil, they are human.

Just as some states require independent, professional financial audits, the states should also require by law independent, professional, and periodic evaluations of public schools' educational programs.

Certainly the idea is not new. Because the public requires assurance that school buildings are safe, it requires inspection by qualified building inspectors from outside the system. Because the public requires assurance that health standards are maintained, it requires inspection of cafeterias and kitchens by qualified health inspectors from outside the system. Because the public requires assurance that transportation systems are safe, it requires inspection of school buses by qualified motor-vehicle inspectors from outside the system. If financial solvency, safety of buildings, cleanliness of food service areas, and safety of school buses are matters important enough to need inspection by persons outside the system, so is the effectiveness of a school system's educational programs.

Just how realistic is a proposal of curriculum audits? Can states ensure that schools have independent evaluations periodically without increasing the regulatory role of state departments of education? Are there currently available individuals or institutions with the requisite expertise and experience in the evaluation of educational programs? Do professional associations that can establish standards for evaluations and evaluators exist? Is the state of the art of evaluation of educational programs sophisticated enough to make it all worthwhile?

The answer to all of these questions is, emphatically, Yes! Legislation requiring independent, professional evaluations of educational programs should specify the use of private, qualified contractors who would be required to submit their findings in a public meeting. The use of private contractors also is not new. Schools often employ the services of other specialists--attorneys, certified public accountants, architects--on a part-time basis. Moreover, the use of independent curriculum evaluators obviates the need for the state departments of education to become involved and avoids the possibility of spawning standardized curricula.

Colleges and universities have both the personnel and material resources necessary to start the job tomorrow. They have expert knowledge of evaluation theory, testing, surveying, statistics, and electronic data processing already in daily use, although, unfortunately, it has been limited mainly to theoretical research, and not applied in a manner that directly benefits a large number of public schools.

Leading professional associations representing a variety of professional and political interests in public education, such as the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators, the National Education Association, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, and the American Education Research Association could easily form an ad hoc council responsible for developing uniform standards for evaluations and evaluators. These standards could serve as guidelines for state boards of education to use to issue professional credentials to evaluators.

All the ingredients for a system of independent, professional evaluations exist. The need for programs evaluation is obvious, and the resources are waiting to be put to use. All that is needed is the impetus.

Although the professional literature in public education no longer includes frequent treatment of accountability, the public still wants evidence that schools are accomplishing locally established, educational goals.

If independent, professional evaluations of educational programs, or curriculum audits, conducted periodically by qualified evaluators, were required by state law and made part of the public record, there would be several immediate, far-reaching benefits.

The public would not be likely to be misled. The closed system of public education would receive outside scrutiny. And public-school teachers and administrators would have to account to the public on matters that are fundamental to the existence of schools.

Vol. 01, Issue 19, Page 24, 18

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