Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Can We Get School Accountability Policy Right?

By Guest Blogger — November 30, 2018 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

For another week, Rick will be out discussing his new edited volume, Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned. While he’s away, several of the contributors are stopping by and offering their reflections on what we’ve learned from the Bush-Obama era. In this final week of guest bloggers, you’ll hear from Deven Carlson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma. He’ll be sharing thoughts on the evolution of testing and accountability, the unintended consequences, and whether we can ever get testing and accountability “right.”

We’ve learned a good deal about accountability policy in the past 15-plus years. We’ve learned lessons about the politics of accountability, the test score increases generated by accountability systems, and the unintended legacies of the accountability era. In light of everything we’ve learned over this period, it is reasonable to ask whether we could ever get accountability “right"—whether we can design and implement systems that both achieve our collective goals and command broad, long-term political support.

To get to the bottom line, no, I don’t think we can get accountability right. I’m pessimistic on this score for two main reasons.

First, the accountability era made clear that we, as a nation, don’t agree on the purpose of K-12 schooling. Or, at least, we don’t agree on the ideal balance of the various things we want schools to do. I see this as perhaps the most important lesson of the accountability era. Some folks want schools to primarily focus on developing skills, particularly in reading and math, that will prepare students for success in college and the workforce. Others prefer a broader focus that helps students develop curiosity and a love of learning, with less explicit attention to college and career considerations. And between these two poles, you can find folks at nearly every point of the broad spectrum regarding the purpose of schooling.

Of course, tensions over the purpose of schooling are hardly new; they’ve existed as long as education itself. It’s just that No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—and the accountability era more generally—brought them to the surface by effectively privileging one conceptualization of the purpose of schools over any other. It privileged the viewpoint of those who see the primary aim of schools as developing skills to ready students for college and the workforce. Unsurprisingly, folks with different views of the purpose of schooling pushed back against accountability systems designed around reading and math scores. Although this pushback was, at least on its face, against the accountability systems, it was ultimately rooted in profound disagreements over the appropriate purpose and design of schooling.

Because it is impossible to imagine these value differences disappearing any time soon, it is difficult to imagine any accountability system that adequately balances all stakeholders’ priorities and addresses their concerns. Any accountability system would induce a constant stream of complaints about this provision being too strong or that requirement being irrelevant, just as has been the case over the past 15-plus years.

Second, I’m pessimistic that we can get accountability right because I don’t think we can design any system that gets everyone—states, schools, and districts—to behave as intended. It is a near-guarantee that any policy will leave open some loopholes or will create perverse incentives.

For example, right now there are some faint noises in the policy arena about incorporating measures of social and emotional learning into accountability systems. In one way, these noises make sense—most folks want schools to help students develop these sorts of skills. In another way, though, it isn’t hard to imagine how efforts to measure these skills and hold schools accountable for their development could go very poorly. Some things we want schools to do simply aren’t amenable to measurement, and trying to do so ends up creating many more problems than it solves.

So where does that leave us? Where do we go from here with accountability? It’s difficult to make detailed predictions, but two broad contours seem clear. First, it seems likely that the testing and reporting requirements mandated in NCLB—and reiterated in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—will remain in place. The existence of information on student and school performance wasn’t the problem during the accountability era, it was what we did with that information that proved problematic. Second, it seems likely that the NCLB-era accountability systems will continue the retreat that started under ESSA. Ultimately, we’ll probably reach an equilibrium where schools and districts produce information—on test scores and other topics—but are subject to few formal rewards or sanctions on the basis of those results. That is, we will transition from accountability systems to transparency systems.

Deven Carlson

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Trauma-Informed Practices & the Construction of the Deep Reading Brain
Join Ryan Lee-James, Ph.D. CCC-SLP, director of the Rollins Center for Language and Literacy, with Renée Boynton-Jarrett, MD, ScD., Vital Village Community Engagement Network; Neena McConnico, Ph.D, LMHC, Child Witness to Violence Project; and Sondra
Content provided by Rollins Center

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Hundreds of Conn. Bus Drivers Threaten to Walk Off the Job Over Vaccine Mandate
More than 200 school bus drivers could walk off the job in response to a vaccination mandate that goes into effect Monday.
1 min read
Rows of school buses are parked at their terminal, in Zelienople, Pa. Reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic means putting children on school buses, and districts are working on plans to limit the risk.
Rows of school buses are parked at their terminal, in Zelienople, Pa. Reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic means putting children on school buses, and districts are working on plans to limit the risk. <br/>
Keith Srakocic/AP Photo
Education Briefly Stated: September 22, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)