School & District Management Opinion

How to Fix Accountability in U.S. Schools

By Justin Baeder — July 20, 2011 4 min read
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The Atlanta cheating scandal has sparked a national debate about the wisdom of accountability based on high-stakes testing. As I argued in my last post, I don’t think tests themselves are the problem; it’s our accountability structures that need to be rethought. Here’s my take on what we should do to fix accountability.

Make it local.
No agency is more poorly equipped to hold schools accountable for their performance than the U.S. Department of Education. With nearly 100,000 schools in 50 states and other jurisdictions, federal-level accountability cannot be anything other than a clumsy tool.

But when students are accountable to teachers, teachers to principals, principals to directors and superintendents, and superintendents to their school boards and communities, accountability changes drastically. Face-to-face relationships permit a wholly different kind of accountability, one that involves giving an account for one’s efforts and performance, not just hitting a target.

Local accountability focuses on real and pressing issues, not abstract targets that hold little meaning or value to those responsible for reaching them. Local accountability solves the most pressing problems of the moment, and targets immediate barriers to higher performance.

Make accountability holistic.
One of the clearest warning signs in the Atlanta schools was the implicit (and sometimes explicit) message from supervisors to their subordinates: “Get those scores up by any means necessary—I don’t care how you do it; just get the scores up.”

When you are held viciously accountable to someone who doesn’t actually pay attention to what you’re doing, the incentive to cheat rises dramatically. An incredible range of bad behavior is possible in an environment of hands-off accountability: Teaching narrowly to the test; manipulating the tested population of students to exclude those least likely to do well; drilling students endlessly instead of teaching them well; emphasizing test performance to the exclusion of other indicators of quality education; and of course outright cheating.

But when you’re held accountable to someone who works with you closely and is in your school (or classroom or region) frequently, these temptations evaporate. When you’re routinely asked what you’re doing and why—not just whether you’re raising scores—accountability becomes a good thing. It becomes an opportunity to reflect, to clarify your thinking, and to learn from the success of others.

Give people credit for making a good effort.
This may seem counterintuitive if we’re talking about real accountability, but consider the alternative: If we hold people accountable for being successful 100% of the time, will they take the risks that are necessary for innovation and improvement?

I’m at the LearningForward conference in Indianapolis this week, and one of the keynote speakers was Mary Cullinane, Worldwide Director of Innovation for Microsoft Education. She said categorically, “A punitive environment will not allow for innovation. Period.” She talked about the role of failure in creating success—namely, that we need to be able to take risks if we want to make things better.

She asked the audience of educators how many of us felt free to fail in our jobs. Four hands went up, in a crowd of several hundred people. Point taken.

Define accountability more broadly.
As long as accountability is centered solely on test scores, it will produce distortions. But when we care about and pay attention to the impact we’re having on students’ lives, the kinds of jobs they are getting after high school, the kind of colleges they’re attending, the kind of writing they’re doing in elementary school, the way they treat each other in kindergarten—when we focus on more than just test scores, accountability can do what it’s supposed to do: recognize success and promote improvement.

Lower our expectations for what accountability can accomplish.
Many leading thinkers in education believed that the accountability movement would produce serious, sustained, substantial improvement in the education of our nation’s children. It turns out that holding people accountable solves some problems, like failing to pay attention to results and achievement gaps, but it doesn’t solve many others, like poverty, inadequate school funding, difficulties with teacher preparation and retention, quality leadership, parent involvement, and so on.

Everyone who gets a paycheck should in some way be held accountable for doing a good job. 10 years ago, we thought that accountability was the solution to virtually all of our nation’s education woes, but the large-scale experiment we call NCLB has proven just how little capacity accountability itself has to bring about real improvement. Rethought, accountability can do some good for our schools.

Holding educators at every level sensibly, locally accountable for the quality of their work is a good idea when it’s done right. It hasn’t been done right in this country, so it’s time to move in a new direction.

The opinions expressed in On Performance 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.