On Accountability: ‘In Theory, There Is No Conflict With Autonomy’

November 12, 2019 4 min read

Education Week: To what degree does the desire of political policymakers for accountability endanger the open, child-oriented elementary school?

Benjamin Bloom: You mean the use of tests?

E.W.: The use of tests by political policymakers to tell the voters that the scores are going up or that 30 percent of the 3rd graders in the state failed.

Dennis Gray: In theory, there is no inherent conflict between accountability and professional independence, autonomy, flexibility, and so forth. The conflict comes in the choice of means by which accountability will be demonstrated. We, of necessity, are driven to choose the most economical means and those are standardized tests-usually norm-referenced rather than criterion-referenced, because they are cheaper to develop.

The means of accountability that we would all be happy with as professionals are very costly. If I were a legislator, I would ask myself, do I want to spend my money on costly measures of accountability or keep that tab low so that I can have more dollars left over for the direct intervention with kids?

Terry Peterson: But you have to realize that it is public money and the public is going to want control one way or another. We need, however, to promote the notion of multiple indicators. Don’t just get locked into a test. Look at dropout rates, look at retention.

We included about 15 different indicators in South Carolina’s reform package, but it took awhile. A lot of people just wanted a test score. But we made an analogy to the economy. We said, how do you look at economic indicators? You don’t say the economy is a 7, you say 10 indicators are up, 15 are down. You look at multiples. You can satisfy the need for accountability in a very responsible way by using multiple indicators and making sure the tests match the curriculum.

Providing accountability later in the educational process lets you talk about freeing things up at the beginning. For example, we put a lot of money into extra instruction and the basic skills--$60 million for extra help with kids. At first, legislators wanted it all for summer school or for pull-outs, but they bought the notion that if we are going to look at what happens later in the process, the schools have to have the freedom, flexibility, and resources to deal with problems earlier in the process.

Mr. Bloom: Michigan had a very effective testing program in which for arithmetic they had X number of major objectives, and so on. For reading, they had a set of tests such that you could show the results for the whole state, you could show it for a particular school, or you could show it for a particular teacher.

So the test was informative to the teacher. Where the children were not doing well on particular objectives, the teacher could do something about it. Instead of using a test primarily to report to the public about how good things are or how bad they are, you are able to use it in a great variety of ways. And the objectives were set by the teachers rather than some test-maker.

Mr. Peterson: The South Carolina test has enabled us to look at teachers and principals. We seem to make no progress in the junior-high years. So we have been able to go back and look at the curriculum, the response on the items, the textbooks, and determine that the higher-level thinking skills just hadn’t really been addressed in any systematic way. And everybody is pitching in and saying, ''How can we deal with this?”

Patricia Carini: The business of how we do the evaluation and what we are looking for when we evaluate reminds me of a parallel issue about curriculum.

The testing we do and the evaluation we do and the accounting we do are all tied to an industry that created the curriculum materials. We have just zillions of textbooks and curriculum materials, and we have tests that are tied to the publishers and the publishers’ materials. And our curriculum is being dominated by that.

Patricia Browne: I think it is that people need to be trained in how to use tests. If they are used for diagnostic values, that is all well and good. If they are never used as a sole criterion in making decisions, they can be very useful.

E.W.: How should parents view the question of accountability? You are talking about child-centeredness and the kind of teaching that develops each child. On the other hand, you have state officials saying that they will raise the per-pupil funding, but you have to raise your reading scores across the board.

Joan Jeter-Slay: Interestingly enough, when you find a school where the measurements are good, where people have learned basic skills, and the parents are fairly satisfied with what their children have learned, the caring and other kinds of qualities are also there.

E.W.: So you can have both?

Ms. Slay: You can have both. It is unfortunate that states put their incentives in a way that keeps teachers from doing things. But you can have both.

We ask parents, ''What is a good school?” And they come up with the same thing that is revealed in effective-schools research. And they are always really surprised when we tell them that. “You mean the professionals agree with this? Then why aren’t they doing it?” In poor urban areas, you can’t have the measurable achievements without the other qualities. I don’t see that as a tension, except in the way that it has been implemented.

A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 1986 edition of Education Week


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