Education Opinion

The Letter From: What is Accountability in the Public Education Market?

By Marc Dean Millot — January 16, 2008 5 min read
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In the context of public education policy, accountability consists of standards, consequences and due process. If the purpose of accountability is to advance a social goal, all three elements must be present. Standards without consequences and due process amounts to reporting. In the absence of standards and due process, the implementation of consequences amounts to tyranny. Due process without standards and consequences defines a discussion group.

Accountability so defined is a problem throughout the public education market. In the case of public schools, we’ve put a nation-wide system in place. All schools are treated equally. NCLB accountability doesn’t work perfectly, but it’s a very good start. The challenge is making sure that it is improved as a means of accountability when many would “improve” the law by gutting its substance.

In the case of the organizations providing products, services and programs, accountability under NCLB looks good on paper, but hasn’t worked in fact. All providers are not treated the same. Those already in business enjoy de facto presumptions of efficacy, new firms face relatively high hurdles of proof; nonprofits enjoy similar advantages over for profits; rules are applied arbitrarily; and providers injured by government action have no means of appeal.

In the case of labor relations, we’ve had a system where process has favored the incompetent. The District of Columbia has pointed the way towards one that encourages tyranny.

In this election year, when every policy option is up in the air, it might be useful to talk about these issues in terms of first principles.School Accountability Under No Child Left Behind.

• In deference to the Tenth Amendment states set standards for what children need to know and be able to do in 4th, 8th and 10th grade, choose the tests that students will take to demonstrate proficiency, and created benchmarks that schools, disaggregated by significant subgroups groups of students, must meet to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) towards the law’s requirement for 100% proficiency by 2014.

• If schools or districts do not achieve AYP, they become eligible for improvement grants, students receive rights to seek space in other public schools and/or tutoring, and based on state decisions the school eventually becomes subject to some form of restructuring.

• The standards and consequences are applied equally to all schools, and schools and districts have an administrative process and criteria by which they can challenge decisions that they have not met standards or are not implementing the law’s consequent actions.

We can argue about the validity and utility of the standards, tests and consequences. We can bemoan the fact that some states are in a way penalized for adopting higher standards than others. We can argue about whether NCLB is the best way to meet the nation’s public education needs. We can argue that schools are not resourced equally to meet NCLB’s goals.

We can’t argue that NCLB offers a sham system of accountability. In each state, there are specific standards developed by educators, the tests for meeting those standards are known and uniformly administered, every school is subject to the same consequences for failure, every school has access to the same administrative appeals process. No school can fail to give some students the test, be excused from the consequences of missing a benchmark, or denied the appeals process.

Recognizing that there may be some exceptions, I do not agree with the general proposition that schools lack the financial capacity to meet NCLB. I think it is more often a problem of resource allocation. But whatever its legitimacy in the case against NCLB, the funding argument is not one directed at the accountability system per se. Most opposition to NCLB follows from the almost certainly accurate assessment of the leaders of public education’s traditional institutional interests that whether the accountability system is good, bad or neutral, their institutions cannot survive it without radical transformations of the internal power structures.

Regardless of this political reality, some opposition to today’s NCLB accepts the basic structure of accountability, but seeks to refine it. Changing the law’s Supplementary Educational Service provisions so that tutoring is made available only to student subgroups or students who fail to achieve proficiency; offering schools credit for improvements in student performance that expand upon the existing safe haven provision through value-added (growth model) schemes; moving the 100 percent proficient end point to 2020; or lowering the end point to 80 percent, may be favored by those who oppose any private involvement in public education and surely will shrink the market for school improvement services. Regardless of these interests, each proposal is legitimate on its merits. Not one of these ideas does violence to the principles of accountability as I noted at the start of this essay; arguably each might improves the system.

Reasonable people can argue about whether NCLB is the best way to give every child the best possible chance of succeeding as adults – enable each to reach his/her highest level of intellectual potential, contribute to our economy, make society a better place, and leave this world personally fulfilled. Maybe it could be better resourced. It probably could be improved against the criteria defining a good system of accountability. But at least NCLB offers the advantages of predictability. All schools in any state share one standard of success, one set of consequences for failure, and the same appeals process.

Next: Provider Accountability.
Efficiency is important to individual and organizational success. (Let’s hope that the right set of objectives have been selected.) Predictability is an important feature of efficiency. Without the stability offered by predictability there is no willingness to make the investments of time, money and people required to improve performance.

Assuming that NCLB’s definition of success (100 percent proficiency in key subjects by 2014) is a positive goal, public schools are the only actors in the public education market that enjoy predictability. For providers, NCLB’s research based and scientifically based research (SBR) provisions establish the accountability analog to AYP. But while the system of provider accountability looks good on paper, the Bush Administration failed to implement the law.

NCLB’s SBR standards have no firm meaning. Government disregards them for established providers but applies them to selected new providers, and offers similar preferences to nonprofits over for-profits. There is no process for appeal.

Listen to this as a podcast at School Improvement Industry Week Online.

Other relevant Podcasts at School Improvement Industry Week Online. Podcasts run 6-10 minutes and can be streamed on your computer or downloaded to an mp3 player.

AYP Regulation and Adaptive Management

Department of Education Management of Adequate Yearly Progress (Parts I-II)

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