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Published in Print: May 14, 2008, as Accountability That Works

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Accountability That Works

The Four Pillars of a New System

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Teachers understand the importance of accountability and they embrace it. But an accurate and fair school accountability system remains elusive.

—Illustration by Lucinda Levine for Education Week

All too often so-called “accountability” systems are used to fix blame, rather than to fix schools. Unfortunately, this is the situation in my own district of New York City, where Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein’s administration has instituted a simplistic accountability system that awards a single grade to each school based almost entirely on standardized-test scores.

Test scores are important, of course, but they should be only one part of a broader evaluation that considers the many aspects of the educational experience that make a school a place where educators want to work and parents want to send their children. In addition, a fair accountability system must recognize that responsibility for a school’s success rests not just with teachers and other front-line educators, but also with central district administrators and policymakers in the city, state, and federal governments.

What troubles me most about today’s accountability efforts is how narrowly success is defined and measured—not only in New York City, but also in districts across the country trying to meet the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The single-minded focus on standardized tests has dictated an impoverished curriculum and pushed out other evidence of learning. Accountability has become a “gotcha game”—designed to blame and punish, rather than to build capacity for improvement.

The New York City accountability system is a perfect example. It brands each school with a single grade, like a scarlet letter, that offers little hint as to how the school can do better. To address these shortcomings, the union that I head, the United Federation of Teachers, has proposed an accountability system based on multiple measures of student achievement and school success. It presents a more balanced picture of the strengths and weaknesses of each school, where it is succeeding and where it needs help. It focuses on what makes a school not only academically successful, but also safe, collegial, and well supported—one that educates not only every child, but the whole child.


Our proposed school evaluation rests on four distinct pillars: academic achievement; safety, order, and discipline; teamwork for student achievement; and central-administration accountability. The information for making judgments would come primarily from three sources—available hard data, reports of highly trained independent teams who observe and evaluate schools on-site, and the results of a comprehensive survey of parents, teachers, administrators, and students.

In the first pillar, academic achievement, we would examine the contributions schools make, no matter where their students begin, by including both the absolute academic achievement and the amount of progress the school has helped its students make on standardized tests. These measures would make up two-thirds of the grade.

Further, we wouldn’t look only at a single year of achievement—a too-brief snapshot in time with natural ups and downs—but at multiple years. Social scientists agree that much of the variation in test scores over a single year is random, without any particular significance, so it would be unfair to tie a school’s reputation and fate to one year’s data.

Accountability has become a ‘gotcha game’—designed to blame and punish, rather than to build capacity for improvement.

Curriculum and instruction would account for the remaining third of the score for this all-important academic pillar. A robust, well-rounded curriculum must go way beyond prepping for standardized math and English tests, or even beyond teaching those subjects rigorously. It must include history and civics, science and technology, art, music, and sports. As E.D. Hirsch Jr. points out, true reading comprehension grows from a foundation of content knowledge, not from test-prep drills.

Using hard data, teacher and parent surveys, plus the findings of an independent evaluation team, we propose to assess the school’s curriculum and instructional program. Is it rich and comprehensive? Does it address the needs of the whole child, including the need all children have for the arts and physical education?

By broadening the measure of academic excellence, we would maintain a role for standardized tests in assessing how well a school is doing by its kids—while balancing those test scores against the many other factors that constitute a successful school.

Safety and order constitute the second pillar. A safe, secure environment is a threshold issue for any school. Although New York City’s department of education omits this critical factor from a school’s evaluation, it is one of the first things parents look for. They know it is indispensable, if teachers and students are to focus on teaching and learning.

A constructive school accountability system must provide a road map for improvement.

To measure school safety, we propose to use the results of teacher, parent, and student surveys; statistics on crimes committed in schools; and on-site independent inspections. The evaluation team’s goal would go beyond basic safety to determine whether the school has a thoughtful, cohesive approach to student behavior that brings out the best in kids.

Teamwork for student achievement is our third pillar. Schools excel when all the adults in the school—teachers, parents, and administrators—work together, establishing common goals and sharing best practices. Our accountability system would look for indicators of strong collaboration. Is the school leadership team engaged in developing the school’s education plan? Is there a functioning PTA? Does the school retain its experienced, accomplished teachers? Do the principal and staff have meaningful, not pro forma, consultations?

The fourth pillar, central-administration accountability, is, not surprisingly, absent from the New York chancellor’s school reports. Accountability flows in two directions—from the school to the central office, and from the central office back to the school. Both must fulfill their complementary responsibilities to ensure that students learn and achieve.

This pillar would assess whether the district provides schools with the resources, support, and oversight they need for success. Indicators here would respond to such questions as: Are there enough teachers? Are there sufficient custodial services? Is there an adequate supply of textbooks? Is the school equipped with science labs? Computers? A library? Does it provide meaningful professional development for its faculty? And, finally, is the city’s department of education exercising responsible oversight by ensuring that the school is in compliance with city and state regulations?

Just as every conscientious teacher suggests ways for students to improve when she grades their work, a constructive school accountability system must also provide a road map for improvement. Parents, teachers, and administrators should use a school report to set targets and identify resources for improvement in the coming year. These might include better test scores, as the current progress reports do, but even high-scoring schools may need to work on such things as a stronger student code of conduct or more parental participation or specific professional-development needs.


The system we’re proposing is a combination of common sense, good education, and sound business practices. Our accountability reports would provide a fair, accurate, and understandable overview of what’s going on in each school, the problems each school is facing, and the causes of and possible remedies for those problems. They would offer every school the tools to continue to improve year after year.

If we get this right in the nation’s largest and most diverse school system, chances are it can serve as a model for other school districts. And teachers, school administrators, elected officials, parents, and the taxpaying public then can find common ground in an accountability system that works for us all—and most especially for the children.

Vol. 27, Issue 37, Pages 26,32

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