Education Opinion

Wish #4: Better Alignment of Accountability Systems to School Outcomes

By skoolboy — January 21, 2009 2 min read
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Here’s a little thought experiment: Suppose that, in addition to adequate yearly progress in literacy and mathematics, high schools had to demonstrate progress in students’ ethical behavior. Would the graduates of Far Rockaway High School in Queens in New York City be as proficient in their treatment of others as they are in math and literacy?

Victims of Bernard Madoff’s $50 billion Ponzi scheme might wish that Far Rockaway had spent more time on the development of its students’ non-cognitive skills as their ability to read, write and figure. Of course, we cannot tell what led Madoff astray, and his experience at Far Rockaway probably had little to do with it. But the thought experiment opens the door to a wish for accountability systems in education that are better-aligned with the diverse school outcomes we think are important.

What skills do employers value in their workers? A 2008 survey of members of the Society for Human Resources Management found that human resources professionals reported that some skills and practices were more important for experienced workers in 2008 than two years before. More than a third of the respondents reported that adaptability/flexibility; critical thinking/problem-solving; leadership; professionalism/work ethic; teamwork/collaboration; and information technology application had increased in importance in the recent past.

The story is not that different for the general public. Asked to allocate a total of 100 points across eight goals of public education, a sample of adults divided them up relatively evenly: basic academic skills (19%); critical thinking (15%); social skills and work ethic (14%); physical health (12%); preparation for skilled work (11%); emotional health (11%); citizenship (10%); and the arts and literature (8%).

Why, if the public and employers think that these are the most important goals of public education, have we constructed accountability systems that focus on a narrow subset of these goals – basic proficiency in literacy and mathematics? Part of the answer is that we had an existing technology for measuring literacy and mathematics proficiency – standardized tests of academic performance.

Richard Rothstein, Rebecca Jacobsen, and Tamara Wilder, in Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right, argue that if these broad goals are important – and skoolboy thinks they are—then we should develop measures of these goals, and incorporate them into accountability systems. One of the things we’ve learned about education accountability systems that rely on rewards and punishments is that educators respond to incentives, doing what they can to avoid punishments and to achieve rewards associated with a particular pattern of outcomes. Particularly when the inducements are high-stakes, we are liable to get precisely the outcomes that are to be rewarded and punished – no more, and no less.

Literacy and mathematical proficiency are extremely important skills for schools to cultivate, and it’s appropriate that accountability systems monitor students’ literacy and math performance and provide incentives for educators to help students achieve challenging performance standards. But it’s also critically important for U.S. children and youth to prepare to assume the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy that depends on a tacit social contract which binds us together, and we count on schools to do this and much more. Our wish is for accountability systems in education that are designed to measure and promote genuine growth and development in children and youth.

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