Education Commentary

Accountability vs. Autonomy

By Mike Baker — October 31, 2001 7 min read
England's schools are emerging from the wringer of accountability testing just as American schools are being fed into it.

As America awaits the impact of the revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act, particularly the requirement for annual testing in grades 3-8, education reformers would do well to look across the Atlantic to see how similar changes have affected schools in England.

England’s schools are emerging from the wringer of accountability testing just as American schools are being fed into it. It is a cautionary tale.

The lessons are two-fold. First, before you get out the measuring stick, you must know what it is you want to measure. Second, you must guard against pushing accountability so far that it tips over into excessive central control and hamstrings teachers.

Just over a decade ago, the British government of Margaret Thatcher introduced mandatory testing in English, math, and science for school students at the ages of 7, 11, 14, and 16. The move arose from a sense of public crisis over student achievement similar to that felt by Americans.

Just as in the United States, the English reforms were opposed by the teachers’ unions and seen as a threat to the autonomy of schools and local school districts. Parents worried their children would be burdened by excessive testing, and liberal educators warned that regularly weighing the pig would do nothing to add to its weight.

But this opposition was briskly swept aside as Mrs. Thatcher set her laser-beam gaze on school reform. The changes were sweeping. Centralizing powers, the like of which no U.S. president could even dream of, were taken by national government.

Indeed, just as it is easier in the United States for a Republican president to extend federal powers over schools, similarly, only a Conservative administration in Britain could have achieved this. Critics would have denounced such reforms as creeping socialism if they had come from a left-of-center government.

Yet, these powers were the key to the success of the reforms. Margaret Thatcher could do what George H.W. Bush failed to do in 1991, namely, set national standards in all the main academic subjects. In fact, she went much further, creating a national curriculum detailing precisely what each child should learn in each grade.

England’s mandatory testing was designed as a form of handcuffs, chaining teachers to the national curriculum. Only this way could policymakers be sure the national standards were being followed.

To introduce mandatory testing without first deciding what you want to measure is a bit like regularly taking a tape measure to your child and being delighted when the numbers rise, only to find out later on that you have been counting the inches around the waist rather than from head to toe.

In countries where accountability measures have undermined teachers' autonomy, there is now a recruitment crisis.

The effective nationalization of England’s schools was maintained, even accelerated, under Tony Blair’s Labor administration. Like the current President Bush, Mr. Blair made education his domestic-policy priority, with his advisers describing school reform as “the progressive project.”

The Blair government’s first act after the 1997 election was to “name and shame” England’s worst-performing schools. It toughened the penalties for school failure by introducing the so-called “Fresh Start” policy, requiring failing schools to be closed and then reopened with a new name and new staff.

Mr. Blair narrowed the national curriculum further still, increasing the emphasis on math and English in elementary schools. Ambitious national targets were set for the annual test results and schools and school districts were judged against these targets.

The most audacious move was the creation of a “literacy hour” and a “numeracy hour.” These national templates for daily English and math lessons were set out in unprecedented detail, giving teachers a minute-by-minute structure for lessons and even telling them how to organize the classroom furniture.

American policymakers would be appalled at the prospect of the federal government intervening so directly in the running of schools. Yet England’s experience suggests they would be both right and wrong to take this view.

First, why would they be wrong? If England’s reforms had simply imposed mandatory testing without first setting the direction of curriculum reform, then they would simply have fossilized the existing faults of the school system. This is the big risk for the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act in America.

Britain once shared American fears about the political dangers of a centrally imposed national curriculum. Ten years on, those fears seem unnecessary. The curriculum is too public, and too imprecise, for politicians to use as a propaganda machine. And would it be any worse for an American national curriculum to be agreed on formally by Washington, rather than informally by textbook publishers?

While testing cannot be divorced from school standards, it should also cohabit with regular assessment of the quality of teaching. An important component of England’s reforms has been the creation of a national department for inspecting schools, the Office for Standards in Education, known as OFSTED, to check on teaching quality.

In its early years, OFSTED was almost universally hated by teachers. The presence of inspectors in the classroom was seen as threatening and punitive. Yet, while it was sometimes too heavy-handed, the existence of OFSTED meant it was possible to do more than just identify, and penalize, failing schools. It was also possible to explain why they were failing.

This is Britain's cautionary tale: Policymakers must involve teachers in the reform process, and accountability must be balanced by professional autonomy.

There have been real benefits from England’s decade of school reform. The standards of basic literacy and numeracy are undoubtedly higher. Failing schools cannot so easily hide poor performance from parents, and there has been a helpful examination of what does, and what does not, work in the classroom.

Yet, there has also been a downside, which stemmed from the punitive tinge to the reforms. “Naming and shaming” schools was a disaster; it was about as likely to achieve rehabilitation as throwing medieval miscreants in the stocks. It is now recognized that failing schools need more help and more money, not less.

There are also signs that parents feel the expansion of mandatory testing may have gone too far. A new government-inspired test for 17- year-olds, introduced last year, proved the final straw, provoking an angry reaction from students and parents, who now feel testing is obstructing learning. Once middle-class, suburban parents get restive, governments need to watch out.

The most serious negative aspect, though, arose because the reforms were done to, rather than with, teachers. The teaching profession has not been a stakeholder in the new curriculum or the new teaching methods. This has demoralized existing teachers and deterred many potential recruits.

The biggest threat to school quality in England today is a shortage of teachers so severe that some pupils have been put on short time. This trend is visible elsewhere. Parts of Canada and Australia have responded to similar concerns over student achievement by imposing greater accountability measures on schools.

Continental Europe, by contrast, has not traveled this path. So, in countries like France, Germany, and Sweden, teachers are still seen as highly esteemed professionals, taking responsibility for their own disciplines, much as doctors and lawyers do.

One pattern stands out. In countries where accountability measures have undermined teachers’ autonomy, there is now a recruitment crisis. In continental Europe, the problem is nowhere near as severe. In Germany, there is even a surplus of teachers.

So this is Britain’s cautionary tale: Policymakers must involve teachers in the reform process, and accountability must be balanced by professional autonomy. In the past, teachers in England had high autonomy and low accountability. The past decade has produced a tilt to an opposite imbalance: low autonomy and high accountability.

The result has been a demoralized and devalued teaching profession. England has now started to emerge from the rapids of school reform. There are sound structures in place for future progress; but just as the government hoped it could build on these new foundations, it was hit by the crisis of teacher recruitment.

What both the United States and the United Kingdom need is a balance: both high accountability and high autonomy for teachers. Not one or the other, but both.

The warning is there. Somewhere along the road of England’s school reforms, the policymakers took their eye off the ball. It is as if the football coach had worked out the most careful and detailed theoretical plays only to look up, on the day of the game, to find his players had lost interest and gone home with the ball.

Mike Baker is the education correspondent for BBC News in the United Kingdom and a former visiting professor at the Institute of Education, London University. His e-mail address is mike.baker@bbc.co.uk.