Education Opinion

How To Build a Next Generation Accountability System

By Peter Greene — November 19, 2014 6 min read
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Educational Thinky Leaders have been taking up the subject of next generation accountability standards in a manner reminiscent of a matriarch who realizes that her son is a hopeless failure and she’d better invest her hopes in her grandchildren. I am happy to chip in my two cents. Let me propose the questions to ask on the Path to a Perfect Accountability System.

What Is It For?

People of good faith can disagree about some basics of human nature. Some of the disagreements about accountability systems stem from whether or not you believe that human beings only do good work when someone is watching them like a hawk, ready to pounce at the inevitable slacking off and sloppy mistake-making. This is not a view of human nature I share, but I understand that there are reasonable people who believe that humans work well with the presence of monitoring and the threat of punishment.

But reading articles like this CAP/CCSSO piece, I realize that we may not all be on the same page about what an accountability system is even supposed to do. Parents, for instance, might assume that an accountability system is a way for them to know how things are going over at My Neighborhood School. Apparently this is not correct.

Accountability systems provide the underlying structure for school and district support and improvement.

So, accountability is the foundation of all education systems? The CAP/CCSSO piece states that an AS should include systems for development of the teaching profession. A summer summit co-sponsored by Fordham Institute and CRPE discussed the ways in which testing should drive instruction and curriculum.

Read enough of these articles and it becomes clear-- when these folks say “accountability system,” they actually mean “management system for establishing complete control of all aspects of education.” This is not accountability as a means of letting people know what’s going on. This is accountability as a means of establishing and maintaining control over every phase of the process. This is not “We want to see how things are going.” This is not even “We will check to see if you kept your promise.” This is “We want to force you to do what we want you to do.”

For those of whose background is educational rather than corporational, this is not an obvious meaning for “accountability.” So step one for a NGAS should be to discuss exactly what the system is supposed to do. Is it meant to provide information, meant to show that people followed through on commitments they made, or meant to enforce control? Because if it’s the last, we’re not really talking about acountability, and we might as well stop pretending.

To Whom Will We Be Accountable?

To design the NGAS, we’ll need to know who will be reading the reports. Is this accountability to parents of students at a particular school? Is it accountability to the taxpayers who pay the bills? Is it accountability to state and federal regulators, or bureaucrats, or thinky tank operatives?

If we’re being accountable to parents, then we need information that is detailed but understandable. Some reformsters argue for a single score or grade for each school, but that’s not accountability. It does not answer a parent’s “How is my child’s school doing?” question, nor is it meant to. The single metric approach is about providing simple information for parents who are school shopping. This is a marketing tool, not an accountability system.

I’m a big fan of accountability to parents, and the best system for that is transparency. Can your parents log on and see every grade for every assignment, and then call or email the teacher to ask any questions? Do teachers communicate with parents about what they’re doing and why? I’m not sure how much more accountable to parents you can be.

Likewise, I’m a big fan of accountability to taxpayers. For instance, I would love to see every charter school’s budget numbers available for all taxpayers to see. I think people should know just how much taxpayer money K12 spends on billboard and popup ads instead of teaching students. I think every school that takes taxpayer money should do an annual report saying “This is exactly what we spent your money on, and why.”

Why bureaucrats must insert themselves into this loop is less clear to me. There is the longstanding theory that parents and taxpayers are stupid and all traditional public schools are liars, so it’s necessary for the wise and upright bureaucrats to get the Truth and ‘splain it to all the simple common folk. Pretty sure that theory’s bunk. Meanwhile, the next time somebody wants to complain about the way education staffing has ballooned since the seventies, they should launch a study of how many district employees have been added just to deal with government reports and paperwork.

The key question here-- if the schools are providing a transparent thorough accounting to their parents and their taxpayers, what is it that bureaucrats still need, accountability-wise?

What Will We Be Accountable For?

The single largest problem with the current wave of accountability systems is that once you sweep away all the high sounding verbage about high standards and great education, you find that our current system holds teachers and schools most accountable for one thing-- standardized test scores.

Is that really what we want schools held accountable for? Are parents yelling, “I don’t care what you do for my whole child or her curiosity or imagination or well-being or happiness or skills or individual development. I don’t care if she becomes a well-rounded individual who is happy and healthy and ready to find her place in the world. But she damn well better score high on a standardized reading and math test!”

To claim that the Big Test can measure all those other things, or even to insist that a standardized test can reveal an eight year old child’s college readiness is simply ludicrous. It’s insupportable (and to date, unsupported).

If we are going to be accountable to taxpayers and parents, the first obvious step is to find out what they want to know. The current government stance of, “We’ll tell them what they want to know” is unbecoming of a democracy. We should ask. In fact, if we really want a great next-generation accountability system, let’s make it individualized. Parent A cares more about social development than art and history. Parent B cares more about music programs than phys ed. Parent C is all about the STEM. Why couldn’t we develop a method for each of those parents to see the information that emphasizes what they care about in their child’s school?

The trick here would be to actually capture meaningful information. Currently we don’t know much about how to collect meaningful data, so we collect meaningless data and wrap the pig in shiny paper and try to sell it as a unicorn.

Let’s say we want to hold bakers accountable for making great cupcakes, and to make sure the system has teeth, we announce that bakers who fail will be fined, put out of business, and put in the stocks. Then, instead of talking to customers or bakers, we decide that we will measure the cupcake’s springiness. We can’t be surprised if bakers start carving cupcakes out of foam.

Right now education is stuck with the Common Cupcake Springiness Standard. If anyone is serious about a real next generation accountability system, we need to back the truck up and start over by answering some of these questions.


The opinions expressed in View From the Cheap Seats 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.