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

Two Unintended Legacies of School Accountability Policy

By Guest Blogger — November 28, 2018 5 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.”

Politicians promised us that combining standards, testing, and accountability would transform our nation’s education system. This policy solution was going to ensure that every state would have world-class standards, that every classroom would be staffed with a highly qualified teacher to help students reach these standards, and that holding schools accountable on the basis of assessment results would guarantee that every single student would be proficient in reading and math. Obviously, this rhetoric was chock-full of gross overpromises. At the time, policymakers likely viewed these exaggerated promises as entirely unproblematic, perhaps even beneficial—they were setting high expectations for each and every student.

Looking back, however, it is clear that policymakers’ tendency to set unrealistic goals was, in many respects, quite counterproductive. By going to great lengths to establish such lofty expectations for accountability policy, its supporters were effectively ensuring that it would ultimately be judged a failure—no conceivable education policy could come close to achieving the goals that supporters initially set out. Even though any fair reading of the research literature makes clear that accountability increases test scores, the size of those gains pales in comparison to the expectations that policymakers established. Taken on the terms of its proponents, accountability policy was bound to fail. And most folks believe it did.

But what if we don’t take it on those terms? What if, with the benefit of hindsight, we consider accountability policy in terms of its lasting legacies? What might that look like? Interestingly, the aspects of the accountability era that seem likely to exert long-term influence on our education system were hardly mentioned at the outset of the era—they are unintended legacies. I see two major unintended legacies of the accountability era, one that I judge to be a net positive and the other not.

First, the accountability era sparked the creation of state and local data systems and increased capacity to analyze the data in those systems. These data systems were initially considered as little more than a means to an end, containing the information we would need to hold schools and districts accountable. With the passage of time, however, these data systems have come to be recognized as a valuable end in and of themselves. They’ve been instrumental in shining a spotlight on the performance and outcomes of different student groups. Even with the emphasis on sending power back to the states in negotiations over the Every Student Succeeds Act, efforts to scale back data collection and subgroup reporting requirements were a complete nonstarter.

These data systems have also facilitated something of a “golden age” in education policy research. We’ve learned an incredible amount about our education system in the past 15-plus years, with recent research demonstrating the powerful effect that same-race teachers have on students, the importance of teachers in shaping all aspects of students’ lives, and the value that families place on different school characteristics, among innumerable other topics. This significant knowledge accumulation would not have been possible without the data systems that emerged from the accountability era.

Although I view these data systems as a net positive, they haven’t been all peaches and cream. To the chagrin of those who value a well-rounded education, they enabled the hyper-focus on reading and math scores that defined policy discussions during the accountability era. And they’ve contributed to misguided efforts to frame any and all educational decision-making as evidence-based. Don’t get me wrong, evidence is a hugely important consideration in policy decisions. But many issues in education are ultimately value-based, and the tendency to try to debate these issues entirely “on the evidence” prevents us from discussing differences in underlying values—this sort of discussion is a vital component of democratic debate. So, there are very real downsides to these data systems, but I believe the benefits of these systems easily outweigh the downsides.

The second unintended legacy of the accountability era is decidedly less positive. Accountability policy incentivized schools and districts to implement at least three counterproductive policies and practices. First, it contributed to the substantial increase in testing that occurred over the past 15-plus years, ultimately reaching a level that many folks believe to be excessive. Second, many schools significantly narrowed their curriculum, scaling back art, music, and social studies to increase instructional time in reading and math. Third, teachers were incentivized to select pedagogical practices and focus instructional efforts in order to maximize test scores.

As rigid accountability systems become a relic of the past, schools and districts will continue to be faced with the task of weeding out the counterproductive, accountability-induced policies and practices. Should they scale back testing? Rebalance the curriculum? It will take a long time for schools to fully rid themselves of the undesirable vestiges of the accountability era, likely much longer than it took for these practices to ensconce themselves in school culture.

Together, these unintended legacies illustrate the difficulty—impossibility, even—of predicting the full range of policy effects. The intended legacies of a policy often don’t come to pass, while aspects of a policy that policymakers saw as a means to a broader end, or didn’t even anticipate at all, end up as the factors that we appreciate or impugn 20 years down the line. They are the unintended legacies.

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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

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.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
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.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
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.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

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 Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP
Education Massachusetts National Guard to Help With Busing Students to School
250 guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans, as districts nationwide struggle to hire enough drivers.
1 min read
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass. Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, activated the state's National Guard to help with busing students to school as districts across the country struggle to hire enough drivers.
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass.
Michael Dwyer/AP
Education FDA: ‘Very, Very Hopeful’ COVID Shots Will Be Ready for Younger Kids This Year
Dr. Peter Marks said he is hopeful that COVID-19 vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds will be underway by year’s end. Maybe sooner.
4 min read
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021. On Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, Marks urged parents to be patient, saying the agency will rapidly evaluate vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds as soon as it gets the needed data.
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021.
Jim Lo Scalzo/AP