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Guest Blogger Bruce Fuller: The Benefits and Dilemmas of Centralized Accountability

By Eduwonkette — August 27, 2008 5 min read

Bruce Fuller, sociologist and professsor of education and public policy at the University of California - Berkeley, has co-edited a new book, Strong States, Weak Schools: The Benefits and Dilemmas of Centralized Accountability. Below, he provides a Q&A on the book’s findings.

Q. Media reports summed-up your findings by saying that teacher responses to the No Child Left Behind Act and state accountability efforts have been “haphazard”, and teachers are feeling demoralized. Didn’t we know this already?

A. We do know that teacher associations are eager to revamp No Child following the November elections, and even recraft Washington’s role in education. And the Bush Administration, business groups, and some civil rights advocates claim that No Child is working.

The seven research teams that came together to produce Strong States, Weak Schools set the stage by first showing that student achievement has inched up at a glacial pace since No Child was enacted in 2002, even slowing progress observed in the 1990s, as state-led accountability and school finance reforms were successfully pursued. Progress is more discernible in certain states.

But few researchers have hung out in schools, interviewed teachers and principals, and asked how front-line educators interpret new accountability regimes. This includes how teachers try to address state curricular standards, how they might use more textured data on what students are learning (or not), and the extent to which principals (and their district superintendents) motivate their teachers to focus on improving their pedagogies.

Earlier ethnographic studies tended to be conducted by scholars with a priori agendas, hoping to detail how teachers feel overly controlled by accountability measures, or how teachers held deep affection for them. Instead, our seven contributing teams probed different parts of the implementation elephant. Do front-line educators in elementary versus secondary schools hold different viewpoints? Do exit exams prompt different responses inside our high schools? Do the rules and tools of accountability programs operate differently to boost average student achievement, in contrast to factors that narrow racial gaps inside schools?

Q. So, does teacher resistance to top-down accountability programs help to explain the tepid gains in student test scores?

All seven teams found that teachers and principals have redoubled their efforts to assist low-performing students, in part because of accountability programs advanced from either state capitals or Washington. The spotlight placed on how student subgroups are doing, the availability of richer data on individual student competencies, and the threat of sanctions are motivating teachers to buckle down and collaborate to devise new pedagogical approaches and build stronger relationships with students.

Yet two factors constrain whether teacher responses are coordinated and effective over time. First, the RAND study, led by Laura Hamilton, found that the attention that teachers pay to curricular standards, whether they study student data, and the value they place on accountability pressures vary enormously within schools. The good news is that teachers in poor communities are not more or less responsive to accountability rules and tools, compared to those in middle-class neighborhoods. The bad news is that teacher responses are highly variable and eclectic within schools. This suggests that relatively few principals motivate their staff to pull in the same direction and employ new training and data tools that accountability programs often support.

Second, the uneven leadership of district superintendents and the stickiness of school institutions – especially high schools – tend to disempower principals. Tom Luschei and Gayle Christensen probed deep into these dynamics, hanging out over time in a few districts. They found that district leaders often respond to accountability demands in ritualized fashion, failing to work intensively with their principals to mobilize rules and tools. Two studies of high school responses, appearing in Strong States, Weak Schools, detail how growth targets, program improvement triggers, and exit exams turn teacher attention to low-achieving adolescents. But these individual-level responses rarely lead to innovative structural change in balkanized high schools.

Q. What is working to motivate teachers and raise student achievement, then?

Two studies in the book offer insights here: Melissa Henne and Heeju Jang examined what worked in 111 California elementary schools as they variably succeeded in closing achievement gaps between Anglo and Latino students. They show that disparities narrow when teachers report that their principal motivates staff to focus on raising achievement and delivers tools that make everyone feel efficacious. This is not simply a mechanical process: more equitable schools have teachers who report strong, respectful relationships with their principal and colleagues.

And Soung Bae went deeper into a California school district that had narrowed ethnic achievement gaps over time. She discovered district leaders who banked heavily on inservice teacher training – hammering on state curricular standards and inventive pedagogies. Then, district staff followed teachers back into their classrooms to provide ample clinical follow-up.

Q. So, what do these implementation studies say to state and federal policy makers who will soon be debating changes in accountability programs?

Pay attention to what motivates teachers, who, like other professionals, seem eager to pursue shared goals if they are trusted to improve their craft. The link between district staff and principals appears to be key. If district leaders are simply messengers of government – with little agility in adapting to rules and mobilizing tools – then their principals will have less capacity to motivate their teachers.

Teachers do report enormous dissatisfaction, at least in California, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, in being forced to ignore certain subjects and topics if they do not appear on state tests. Somehow, policy makers must face the sharp-edged dilemma of simplifying tests and the curriculum, while recognizing that tying the hands of teachers may erode everyone’s motivation.

All seven empirical studies can be viewed here.

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