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Published in Print: October 6, 1999, as Lawmakers Debate Accountability's Meaning

Lawmakers Debate Accountability's Meaning

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Holding states and school districts accountable for federal education dollars once meant keeping track of how they spent the money. But when the word "accountability" is uttered by federal politicians these days--as it so often is--it's much more likely to concern educational results than bookkeeping.

Accountability is expected to play a central part in the emerging debate this year and next over reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main federal law affecting K-12 schools.

The term is being invoked by politicians across the ideological spectrum, from President Clinton--who made it a centerpiece of the ESEA plan he released in May--to conservative Republicans in Congress. Also, the GOP presidential front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, put accountability at the core of his first major campaign speech on education. ("Bush Zeroes In on Accountability for Federal K-12 Funds," Sept. 8, 1999.)

The trouble is figuring out exactly what accountability means. And that depends on whom you ask.

"People know the word, and they know how to say the word, but the question is: Is the substance behind it?" said Amy Wilkins, a senior associate at the Education Trust. The Washington-based group, which promotes higher achievement for poor and minority students, is pushing aggressively to expand accountability in the ESEA.

Ms. Wilkins argues that any effective accountability program must reward success, provide support to those struggling to improve, and penalize those school districts and schools that, even with substantial support, cannot or will not improve.

"It means different things to different people," acknowledged Vic Klatt, the education policy coordinator for the Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "We support accountability, but we have to be somewhat [cautious] ... given the limited federal role" in education, he said.

Building on 1994

The last ESEA reauthorization, in 1994, took ambitious steps on the accountability front. It required that states and districts receiving federal dollars through the ESEA set up systems of standards and aligned assessments, and that they begin to make measurable progress in improving the educational achievement of all students.

Much of that work is still getting under way, and many new accountability measures will not kick in for several years. Even so, President Clinton's ESEA proposal looks to build on the 1994 demands in several areas, including requiring that states end the social promotion of academically unready students, phase out the use of teachers with emergency certification, and ensure that schools and districts have sound discipline policies. It also would require performance "report cards" at the state, district, and school levels.

In addition, each state would be required to set aside 2.5 percent of its allocation under Title I of the ESEA to help turn around persistently poor- performing schools. Districts with such schools would be required to take at least one of several corrective actions, such as implementing a research-based curriculum in a school, reconstituting the school by overhauling its staff and practices, or closing it down and allowing its students to transfer.

Under current law, many of those corrective actions are mentioned as options for states and districts, according to Michael Cohen, a senior adviser to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. But under the Clinton administration's new proposal, if schools continued to fail, "we are requiring that a different set of actions be taken, and that those actions be fairly consequential," he said.

Meanwhile, late last week, the House education committee unveiled a bipartisan plan to overhaul Title I--which targets federal aid to disadvantaged students--that builds on the standards-based framework of the 1994 reauthorization. The draft bill released last week proposes several new accountability measures, including requirements for state, district, and school report cards and a requirement that states demonstrate increased achievement for separate subgroups of studentssuch as the economically disadvantaged and minorities. It also would require that all students demonstrate academic proficiency based on state standards within 10 years.

House action this summer on the proposed Teacher Empowerment Act--the first piece of the House Republicans' ESEA legislative agenda--gave some clue of the congressional appetite for accountability.

Rep. George Miller

Rep. George Miller of California, the second-ranking Democrat on the Education and the Workforce Committee, pushed to win inclusion of a number of accountability requirements in the plan, which was approved in July by a vote of 239-185. For example, the bill would require that all schools have "fully qualified" teachers by 2004. The House bill defines that as teachers who are certified or licensed to teach in their states, and, for the middle and high school level, either majored in the subjects they teach or passed competency exams in them.

In an interview, Mr. Miller contended that, for too long, federal money has not been accompanied by a demand for educational results. "I just don't think we can look the federal taxpayer in the face any longer and tell them we're not" going to require results, he said. "The game is over."

Some Republicans oppose making accountability too prescriptive from the federal level. They point to the proposed Academic Achievement for All Act--known as the Straight A's legislation--introduced by GOP leaders in both the House and the Senate, as a way to increase accountability and flexibility simultaneously.

Under the Straight A's plan, a state that chose to participate would enter into a contract with the secretary of education spelling out its expectations for improving the achievement of all students, including the lowest-performing students. If the state failed to show satisfactory progress toward its goal in five years, it would lose the flexibility and possibly some administrative funds. If the state exceeded its goal, it would qualify for a cash bonus.

Critics say that approach would not provide real accountability.

"That's ludicrous," Ms. Wilkins of the Education Trust said. "Here's a bag of money. We'll check in with you in five years."

And some say, politically, a secretary of education would have an impossible time retracting flexibility once it had been granted.

Adequate enforcement may be one of the biggest challenges to any method of heightened accountability. Last month, the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, a private watchdog group, issued a report arguing that the Department of Education has a poor record of enforcing existing provisions of the ESEA. ("Civil Rights Group Decries Implementation of Title I," Sept. 22, 1999.)

Others urge a broader emphasis in the accountability debate.

Arnold F. Fege, the president of Public Advocacy for Kids, a nonprofit consulting firm, said that, in politics, the meaning of accountability can become oversimplified. "Accountability really has been reduced to testing," he said.

"We need a much more refined and thorough definition of accountability" that goes beyond teachers and students, added Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education and a former assistant secretary of education in the Bush administration. "What's the accountability of the school board, the superintendent, the parent, the principal," and even the voter, he said.

Vol. 19, Issue 6, Pages 26,31

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