Accountability Opinion

Accountability Via Transparency

By Chester E. Finn Jr., Bruno V. Manno & Gregg Vanourek — April 26, 2000 13 min read

Charter school discussions are saturated with talk about accountability. Some view it as the third rail of the charter movement, others as the Holy Grail. Some fear it will undermine charter schools. Others see it as a desirable but unrealistic goal. We believe there is a way to piece together the puzzle of charter accountability, a way with large implications for U.S. public education.

Today’s modal form of public school accountability depends on rules and compliance: Make schools follow lots of regulations, micromanage their activities, and ensure that enforcers and bureaucratic controls keep anyone from doing anything untoward. When something goes awry, another regulation or enforcer is put in place to ensure that such a thing never happens again.

The language of accountability-via-regulation is the only one that most school systems speak. It’s also the one that many people have in mind for charter schools. That will only make charter schools like conventional schools, crippling their potential to be different.

Charters invite a different approach: accountability propelled mostly by public marketplaces in which a school’s clients and stakeholders reward its successes, punish its failures, and send it signals about what needs to change. The main function of such a system is to furnish parents, policymakers, taxpayers, and others with plentiful information about each school’s workings and effectiveness so that good schools can be found and sustained while bad ones can be repaired or removed.

This approach to school accountability we call accountability-via-transparency—a regimen where so much is visible in each school that its watchers and constituents (including families, staff, board members, sponsor, the press, rival schools, and others) routinely “regulate” it through market-style mechanisms, rather than command-and-control structures. If flaky people are operating a school with a weird curriculum, or money is squandered or test scores are sagging, this is no secret. Either the school shapes up or it finds itself without students (or its charter renewal). Conversely, a school that works well will find people beating a path to its doors. Such an approach to accountability should also guide the relationship between charters and their sponsors and should inform the statewide charter program.

The charter study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education depicts various ways in which states now tackle the charter-accountability challenge. Some have a centralized, statewide approach, others a market-based strategy, and still others a district-managed framework that relies on local accountability augmented by statewide tests. In 1998-99, charter schools reported external monitoring in the following areas: school finances (94 percent); compliance with state or federal regulations (88 percent); student achievement (87 percent); student attendance (81 percent); instructional practices (63 percent); school governance (56 percent); school completion (47 percent); and student behavior (44 percent).

Charter schools use various types of assessment methods to report on student achievement: Ninety-six percent use standardized tests, though a larger group of schools use norm-referenced (86 percent), rather than criterion-referenced (62 percent), assessments. Many also use student demonstrations of their work (89 percent), student portfolios (81 percent), and performance assessments (74 percent) to augment test scores.

Looking across the present landscape, we observe some good examples of imaginative strategies and sound systems, but we also see an unhealthy preoccupation with school closures (59 charter schools, about 4 percent of all schools that have opened) and a strong proclivity to revert to public education’s familiar command-and-control approach. If the charter movement is to succeed, we believe it needs a different and subtler concept of accountability.

Charter schools in particular and public education in general would benefit from something akin to the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, or GAAP, by which private-sector firms (and many nonprofit organizations) report their fiscal activities and results using standardized taxonomies and independent audits embodying uniform definitions and common categories. We’d call these “Generally Accepted Accountability Principles for Education,” or GAAPE, borrowing the virtues of the accounting field while recognizing differences between schools and private firms and going beyond financial matters.

And as in arms control, the credo of such an accountability system is “trust, but verify"—that is, trust must be backed by hard evidence and reliable information.

Schools are rarely good at holding themselves accountable.

With schools, as with private firms, there is a bottom line, but it’s not a simple one. The goal of the commercial sector is profitability. But in education, student achievement is paramount, though it is not the only product of a good school—consider also the fostering of citizenship and character—and it is not the same in all schools. A school working with disabled youngsters or former dropouts may be more successful than an advanced “science/math” school, even though its test scores are lower. Thus the “bottom line” isn’t as easy to track and compare in education as in the private sector. This is all the more reason for maximum feasible transparency.

GAAPE should function at three levels: the individual school, the charter sponsor, and the state. Schools are rarely good at holding themselves accountable. Indeed, the very concept of charter schools is a bargain in which schools are given ample freedom to design their education programs, but then are monitored and evaluated by their chartering agency based on their results. Meanwhile, the state should oversee the whole process by tracking trends, looking for red flags, and amending the charter law when it becomes apparent that it has deficiencies. For accountability to work, all three levels must be engaged and be reasonably congruent.

Level I: The school routinely and systematically discloses complete, accurate, and timely information about its program, performance, organization, and finances.

Educational achievement. The school makes public the academic indicators whereby it tracks its progress toward its goals and information regarding its progress to date. It includes its student standards, its curriculum and instructional methods, and the results of pupil assessments, disclosing enough about those assessments that readers can easily compare this school’s achievement with other schools’. Achievement is reported in absolute terms (student performance vis-à-vis the school’s standards), in value-added terms (how much more they know at the end of a year than at the beginning), and in comparative terms (in relation to district, state, or national norms or standards or the performance of other schools and students), broken down by demographic categories (for example, gender, ethnicity, and family income).

Fiscal soundness. The school undergoes an annual financial audit by a qualified firm, using generally accepted accounting principles, and makes public the results. This audit is vital for appraising the school’s solvency and for informing its constituents about its spending.

Organizational viability. The school provides public information on its governance system, the demand for services (number of applicants, number accepted, waiting list), student and staff turnover, discipline issues, and other indicators of constituent satisfaction or dissatisfaction. It holds regular, open board meetings, making public (in advance) their time, place, and agenda, later making public the minutes. The school also makes available detailed information on staff policy, qualifications, and practices, including nonconfidential portions of its staff contracts.

Compliance with the law. The school publishes aggregate information about the gender, age, race/ethnicity, English-language proficiency, and disabilities of its students. To the extent that laws and regulations are applicable, the charter school shows how it’s complying with them, including, but not limited to, local health and safety codes as well as anti-discrimination norms.

Charters and their sponsors should agree to the contours of an accountability plan before a school opens. Once the school opens, that plan should be developed further and its accountability mechanisms should include timely disclosure of information to pertinent audiences. At minimum, an annual report is called for, but good schools do more. All the information could appear on a well-tended Web site.

Charters and their sponsors should agree to the contours of an accountability plan before a school opens.

Level II: Charter sponsors routinely disclose complete information about their criteria and procedures for school approval, monitoring, intervention, and renewal, and supply comparable information about each school for which they are responsible.

Charter approvals. The sponsor publishes its procedures, criteria, and timetables for reviewing proposals, including how it will verify the fiscal soundness, good character, and crime-free records of individuals associated with would-be schools. It makes all applications available for public inspection and comment. If the sponsor rejects an application, it provides the applicant with a written explanation. If it gives conditional approval, it makes public the terms and conditions needed for final approval. If it approves an application, all subsequent charter and contract documents are made public.

Monitoring schools. The sponsor arranges at least annual visits to each of its schools, and obtains a written report from every visit. The school has an opportunity to reply. The composition and mandate of the site-visit team are disclosed, as are all nonconfidential portions of the written report and the school’s response. The sponsor will obtain from each school, and make public, an annual report that contains at least the information outlined in Level I. Schools in difficulty. The charter sponsor has well-formulated public criteria and procedures for monitoring its schools and, when appropriate, intervening if a school fails to demonstrate satisfactory progress toward its goals or shows signs of severe educational, organizational, or financial malfunction.

Charter-renewal process. The sponsor has an orderly, sensible procedure for considering the renewal of its charter schools, including opportunities for public comment. The sponsor discloses its timetable, procedures, and renewal criteria, including an appeals process in the event of disagreement. All elements of the review process are visible (except any that involve confidential matters). Whatever process is used should result in a recommendation for renewal, conditional renewal, or nonrenewal, which recommendation (and the reasons for it) is presented in timely fashion to the school for its comments. A final decision is made at least six months prior to the expiration of the charter.

A careful application process is the first step in establishing the conditions for charter school success. Next, a sound monitoring plan includes means for spotting warning signals of schools in distress. Once it spots a malfunctioning school, the sponsor should have a menu of remedies, from warning the school to closing the school and arranging the timely transfer of students to other schools. Typical criteria for renewing a charter include satisfactory progress in meeting academic and other school goals, fiscal probity, and compliance with applicable laws. A special panel may be helpful in reviewing renewal requests and advising the sponsor. Outside reviewers are useful where the sponsor was forced against its will to grant the charter-for example, a hostile local board that was overruled “on appeal.”

Level III: The state routinely discloses complete and accurate information about its overall charter program, and obtains regular audits and evaluations of that program.

Program data. The state annually reports information about its charter schools, including their number, age, origins (new school, former public school), duration of their charters, and identities of their sponsors and operators; numbers and characteristics of students enrolled; the academic achievement of pupils with respect to state standards (as measured on tests or other assessments); state funds expended on charter schools; laws and regulations that charter schools must obey, information about compliance with them and about waivers granted to charter schools; data on student and staff attendance, attrition, and turnover; information on discipline problems; data on charter applications and renewals submitted, approved, and denied by charter sponsors; and information on actions taken by charter sponsors with respect to schools in difficulty.

Audits. The state arranges for and publishes timely audits of this information by individuals or organizations with no stake in the success or failure of the charter program and no role in its management.

Evaluations. The state also arranges for independent evaluations of the quality, efficacy, efficiency, and impacts of its charter program, publishing the findings of all such evaluations. Questions to be addressed by evaluators include how the academic achievement of the state’s charter schools compares with that of its regular public (and, where possible, private) schools; the organizational viability, governance, and fiscal soundness of the state’s charter schools; their compliance with pertinent laws and regulations; efficacy of the state’s management of its charter school program, including soundness and transparency of its accountability processes; a classification of the organizational and educational characteristics of its charter schools; an appraisal of their handling of at-risk children, including admissions, services provided, and evidence of results; and an appraisal of the nature and extent to which charter schools are affecting “regular” public and private schools.

States should systematically compile and publicize an array of information about their charter schools and charter programs. Accounting firms, working with experts on education data, should undertake the audit duties. More than one evaluation should be commissioned, with evaluators coming from outside state agencies. It’s also important to include out-of-state experts to counter any in-state biases, and laymen to offset any educator biases.

GAAPE is a new way for charter schools, sponsors, and states to assemble the accountability puzzle. To us, the key to accountability in America’s schools is transparency.

The key to accountability in America’s schools is transparency.

This means bulldozing the walls that surround vital information about school performance and sharing that information with the world. Pushing it out, not making people tug.

According to the federal charter study, the foundation of charter accountability is “internal” accountability. Like James S. Coleman’s path-breaking concept of “social capital,” this refers to the productive daily relationships and shared expectations that exist between staff and parents and that make the school work well for students. This internal principle also forms the basis for external accountability—the school’s obligation to keep its commitments to others, especially its sponsor and its private supporters. We believe that transparency can facilitate and inform internal accountability, and that it is what makes external accountability possible.

Much remains to be done on the accountability front throughout U.S. education. But the country stands to learn from the charter experience what education accountability can actually mean, why it matters, and how—besides regulatory compliance—it can be achieved in public education. If the charter movement accomplishes only that, it will have been a worthwhile undertaking.

A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2000 edition of Education Week as Accountability Via Transparency


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