Is it wise (or fair) to ratchet up the mandates that leaders face from state and federal governments while ignoring their obligations to others?
Accountability for public school leaders is all the rage. First we devised standards to make teachers answerable for student outcomes. Then we expanded testing so that students would take responsibility for their accomplishments and failures. Now the big goal on the accountability agenda is to require principals and superintendents to answer for the performance of the schools under their guidance. But will another round of defining responsibilities and setting standards improve schools? Is it wise (or fair) to ratchet up the mandates that leaders face from state and federal governments while ignoring their obligations to others?
The idea that public school leaders owe a justification for why schools succeed or fail comes from reform advocates, often education outsiders, promoting a particular vision of change. Each such reform vision would realign school and district leaders’ responsibilities in particular ways, usually deputizing them as representatives, salesmen, or instruments of the advocate’s goals. The reformer typically describes the newly imagined accountability as if all other responsibilities on leaders’ shoulders could be ignored.
Missing from the debate is a view that takes the perspective of the leader. Looking at accountability from the inside, as it is experienced in a school or district, reveals that public school leaders already face multiple, simultaneous obligations that often conflict.
School and district leaders respond to at least five distinct types of external accountability. Each requires that they behave differently:
- Political accountability to local constituents is one of the oldest forms. It is reflected in elected school boards, parent advisory councils, and parent-teacher associations, but also in requests from individual parents, teachers’ unions, and local civic and business groups. Increasingly, public school leaders have also been liable to the legislators, governors, and judges who wield state and federal authority to establish schools, delimit their legal status, and determine the mix and level of taxes that support them. Education leaders are acutely aware of these cross-cutting political obligations. In response, they are anxious to develop skills in coalition-building, creative mediation, and influencing political decisionmakers.
- Bureaucratic accountability asks school and district leaders to meet the procedural requirements of the many agencies that regulate schools, in exchange for the resources and legitimacy that these agencies can distribute. State and federal departments of education put public school leaders under obligations as if they were intermediary subordinates in a large hierarchical organization; leaders are required to justify to these new superiors any deviance from prescribed behavior. In reaction to the perceived weaknesses of procedural compliance, the last decade has also seen a growth in mandated demonstrations of specific outcomes—usually test scores— dubbed the new bureaucratic accountability. Both procedural and outcome- based assignments require leaders to be loyal functionaries and informed advocates for these agencies.
Looking at accountability from the inside reveals that public school leaders already face multiple, simultaneous obligations that often conflict.
- Professional accountability stipulates that leaders account for their decisions and actions in intellectually and educationally defensible terms. While professional consensus shifts with research evidence and the times, it is nevertheless taken for granted that principals and superintendents will bring crucial knowledge and the wisdom of their own professional experience to the organizations they lead. Principals and superintendents feel this pinch in the recently accelerated anticipation that they will become the agents of instructional change. In fulfilling these obligations, leaders are charged with helping teachers and parents understand the connections between research and practice, functioning as expert educators and as organizational transformers.
- Market accountability is increasingly experienced by school and district leaders as they compete with one another for students, government aid, philanthropic grants needed to top up their budgets, and bonuses. Some of this competition pushes them to mimic corporate-like management strategies that stress efficiency and cost containment through outsourcing and privatization. Other market advocates encourage them to pay special attention to pleasing their “customers,” defined variously as parents or the corporate consumers of their educational “product.” When responding to such exhortations, school and district leaders are supposed to be efficient managers and creative entrepreneurs.
- Moral accountability for school and district leaders is, in one sense, no different from that which all humans face: behaving consistently with our deepest values. But public school principals and superintendents also bear an ethical responsibility to foster decisions that enhance the life chances of every child, not simply the responsive few; and to redress a wide array of social inequities in our society. Americans have long given social-justice responsibilities to their public schools, and the moral language of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 has not diminished them.
In this link between the purposes of education and its practice, public school leaders are expected to act in an ethical and trustworthy manner. They also are expected to inspire behavior in teachers, parents, and students that reflects our collective vision of equity and fairness.
Leaders experience these multiple accountability claims simultaneously, making their task of creating coherence out of mixed signals vastly more complex than it appears to most reform advocates. To make matters worse, these obligations often conflict. A few examples should clarify:
Political accountability conflicts with bureaucratic accountability when local constituents insist on greater involvement in decisionmaking while education agencies require that schools implement standardized programs. For instance, New York City parents, accustomed to choosing their children’s schools with care and having a voice on systemwide policies, have been in an uproar over a mandated reading and mathematics curriculum that about 1,000 of its nearly 1,200 schools must adopt. These conflicting pressures push school and district leaders in opposite directions. The compromises that will result when Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein permits school-by-school exceptions to mollify vocal parents undermine the credibility of the curricula and leave parents even more suspicious of school leaders.
Professional accountability clashes with bureaucratic accountability when agency functionaries ignore or mistrust professional standards of good practice. For instance, at least 27 state education departments threaten to quickly impose sanctions on low-performing schools (or students) if they do not raise their test scores in short order. Until sanctions are administered, most schools leave local educators to figure out how to raise scores with existing resources. Yet current professional standards encourage leaders to build the instructional capacity of teachers and the self-confidence of low- achieving students, both of which take new resources and much time. The too- frequent compromise includes both teaching to the test and educational triage in which school and district leaders show quick improvements by focusing limited resources on students whose tests scores are very near the mark, a strategy that meets neither goal.
While reformers demand more external accountability, a small but growing body of evidence suggests that schools where children really learn feature a strong sense of internal accountability.
Market accountability competes with moral accountability when experiments in mission-driven and market-based schooling—like charter schools—confront the ethical obligation to educate all students, including those with disabilities. Legal or bureaucratic attempts to resolve these tensions are less successful than it first appears, and the results vary widely. States like Arizona, where charters function highly independently, put a premium on competition and charter school survival, creating disincentives for enrolling special education children. Others, like Connecticut, mandate links between charter schools and districts for the provision of special education services, encouraging families to apply to charter schools, but leaving district administrators and school heads with open-ended responsibilities. In both cases, school leaders must create coherence from the incentives and ambiguities that result often only after the first special education student is actually enrolled.
These examples, and many others like them, make it obvious that increasing leaders’ accountability is a nostrum unlikely to improve public education. Leaders already face many competing obligations. Making any one of them stronger simply adds to the confusion and courts unforeseen and unintended consequences. Moreover, the use of rigid rules and strong external sanctions implies weakness, not the inherent strength of the important goals being sought. Powerful accountability is more clearly demonstrated when influence is understated and models are voluntarily copied.
While reformers demand more external accountability—more testing, more choice, more community control, more training—a small but growing body of evidence suggests that schools where children really learn feature a strong sense of internal accountability. The principal, teachers, and families share an expectation of strong performance, definitions of the practices that meet ambitious goals, and mutual obligations to monitor their performance. Such schools are always exceptional, but they suggest that reformers might have gotten the problem backwards.
The challenge for improving public schooling is less about strengthening any one of the many external accountabilities that educators face, and more about building an internal consensus at each school over a common direction and the obligations that principals, parents, teachers, and students have to one another.
Dorothy Shipps is an assistant professor in education leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. William A. Firestone is a professor and the director of the Center for Policy Research in Education at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. He co-chairs the Task Force on Developing Research in Educational Leadership, established by Division A of the American Educational Research Association. This essay is adapted from the task force’s working paper.