Accountability Opinion

Public Accountability

By Eva Gold & Elaine Simon — January 14, 2004 9 min read
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School improvement efforts need the active involvement of communities to succeed.

Accountability in education is not new, but since the mid-1980s, a new kind of accountability focused on student outcomes has dominated the discourse in public education. The public’s role in this new accountability is to use test- score results to rate and judge schools and school systems. The new accountability gives the public valuable knowledge about school performance, yet few options for participating in improving public education.

The Philadelphia-based Research for Action and the Chicago-based Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform recently conducted a national study that examines the work of community organizing groups and their education campaigns. Our study suggests that schools benefit when the public has a more robust role in accountability. We demonstrate that when parents, community members, and other stakeholders participate in demanding and developing solutions to the problems of public schools, improvement efforts are more successful. Such efforts are able to overcome some of the persistent obstacles to reform: ever-changing system priorities, competing political interests, and resource inequities, among others.

Community organizing groups work to create what might be called “public accountability.” Accountability that is “public” contributes to school improvement by connecting schools and their communities, by broadening the range of actors who take responsibility for school improvement, and by using a public, deliberative process to engage many different stakeholders and maintain the pressure for school improvement.

Accountability that includes the involvement of broad sectors of the public will be even more important in the next few years, as piles of data and other information, generated by standardized-test results and presented in report cards, ratings, and other formats, begin to mount. This flow of information will lack meaning unless the public is organized to better understand and act on it.

Our study provides valuable lessons about how to build public accountability. It shows that community organizing groups develop parent and community leadership, bolster social networks within and across communities and groups, and transform power relationships—all missing components in the dominant conceptions of accountability. We identified four primary strategies that community organizing groups use for creating public accountability. They are the following:

  • Creating public conversations. Public conversations bring the perspectives and the shared concerns of parents and community to the attention of those who work with their children and make education policy decisions. Community organizing groups are able to identify shared concerns through the sponsorship of multiple and varied types of meetings, both for individuals and small groups. Bringing the concerns into public view helps create momentum, pressure, and avenues for action.
Accountability in education is not new, but since the mid-1980s, a new kind of accountability focused on student outcomes has dominated the discourse in public education.

One form such public conversations may take is what we call the “accountability session.” At these events, large numbers of a community organizing group’s members turn out to let invited district and elected officials or candidates for office know their positions on important issues. In the spring of 2000, for example, Austin Interfaith, in Austin, Texas, held an accountability session just prior to local school board elections. Over 650 Austin Interfaith members and other interested citizens attended. When addressing the candidates, the group’s members raised issues such as the inadequate support for Spanish-speaking students; the threat of increased school size, resulting from plans for consolidation and school closings; and the inequities in funding across the district that made it difficult to attract and retain high-quality staff members in schools in low- income areas. They told personal stories to illustrate why these issues were important to them and to their communities.

Candidates were asked to respond to yes/no questions related to each of the issues raised. Austin Interfaith calls this “pinning” the candidates; it keeps the focus on their commitments. The local media reported on the candidates’ responses, making their commitments a matter of public record.

  • Monitoring practices, programs, and policies. Another strategy to build public accountability involves identifying discrepancies between the stated objectives of a school practice, program, or policy and the actual experience of low-income students, pushing for changes that alter the injustices, and monitoring the results. Community organizing groups do this by conducting research and reviewing data, both of which allow them to make judgments about the adequacy of programs and policies, the authenticity of improvement efforts, and the credibility of results.

The campaign of New York City’s chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform, or ACORN, to win more equitable access for low-income and minority students to high-quality academic programs is one example of this monitoring. When two NY ACORN members, one white and the other African-American, discovered that officials at their neighborhood elementary school did not provide them with information about gifted programs equivalent to what was given to parents at other schools, the organization began research into whether there was systemic discrimination in access to information about special programs. The group published its findings in a series of reports titled “Secret Apartheid” that documented such discriminatory practices. NY ACORN members also made what they learned public through rallies, meetings with school district officials, and media coverage. Later, the New York City schools chancellor publicly acknowledged the charges made in the ACORN reports, and responded by creating a policy for equal access to information and calling for a long-overdue survey of special programs in the city. NY ACORN has continued its monitoring and reporting of results.

  • Increasing participation in the political arena. Community organizing groups try to influence those in positions of power and authority to build the political will needed to improve schools in low- and moderate- income areas. Their efforts counterbalance other influences on political leaders to ignore the problems of schools in these neighborhoods.

To exert their influence, the groups use a mix of confrontational and relationship- building strategies. A case in point comes from California. In the mid-1990s, the California legislature passed a law providing funding for new school facilities, but only if local school districts raised matching funds. The Oakland Unified School District floated a bond for new school construction to take advantage of the available state money. But after scrutinizing that proposed bond, members of the Oakland Community Organizations rallied against it: It did not target school construction in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods where overcrowding, an issue that concerned the group and around which its local organizing committees had been working, was severe. Leaders from the OCO conducted a campaign to educate people in their neighborhoods about the bond and its limitations. They also met one-on-one with elected officials to explain their concerns. The bond was rejected, and the media attributed its defeat to the community group’s activity.

Although the Oakland group initially took a lot of heat for its role in having funds withheld from the district, the bond eventually was rewritten to give priority to construction in the neighborhoods where overcrowding existed. The OCO’s leaders again led a neighborhood education campaign, and the bond passed.

  • Building joint ownership and a relational culture. Community organizing groups have developed practices and processes that build a sense of joint ownership of children’s education. This helps make the culture that surrounds parents and school personnel one based on strong, supportive, and interdependent relationships.

These practices include individual meetings, events such as neighborhood walks, and also programmatic initiatives, such as parent-run after-school programs. With community organizing groups behind them, parents gain legitimacy in their interactions with professional educators. Over time, new relations of respect develop as teachers and parents find themselves working together around mutual concerns. A culture grounded in relationships is critical to the participation of parents and professionals in joint problem-solving.

If we are to realize a vision of public accountability, a fundamental shift has to occur in our definition of what constitutes public participation in the schools.

This was illustrated in Chicago, where parents who were leaders in the Logan Square Neighborhood Association fought for and won new buildings and building renovations for overcrowded and deteriorating school facilities. By the end of these advocates’ facilities campaign, many school professionals not only had gained respect for their perseverance, but also for the political attention they could draw to issues affecting the local schools.

One principal, who was also a member of the neighborhood association, saw a parent-teacher mentor program as the next step to deepening this relationship. The program places parents in elementary school classrooms, while providing them with leadership development and training in early-childhood education. Initially only a handful of teachers in a few participating schools wanted parent mentors in their classrooms, but now almost all teachers request them. Over 900 parents have graduated from the program, which has spread to seven schools.

Together, teachers and parents also have taken on the problem of school climate. Over the past six years, their joint efforts have led to a more intimate and respectful school environment, fewer disciplinary referrals, and improved student achievement.

Parent-teacher mentors often become leaders and co-decisionmakers with school staff members on local school councils and bilingual and other school committees, and sit on a communitywide education committee charged with leading an annual planning process for neighborhood schools. The trust between parents and teachers built through the mentor program, as well as the knowledge base and sense of self-confidence the parent-teacher mentors gain through leadership training, are the basis for this partnership. Teachers and parents take collective responsibility and collective action to improve schools in Logan Square.

Too often, educators keep the public at arm’s length in their efforts to improve schools. If we are to realize a vision of public accountability, a fundamental shift has to occur in our definition of what constitutes public participation in the schools. Essential to the definition must be collective action and shared responsibility for improvement. Community organizing builds the capacity for this kind of vibrant, active public participation.

Ultimately, the added value of active public participation in accountability comes in the form of greater commitment to the schools and creation of the kind of civic capacity that can and will support deep, authentic education reform.

Eva Gold and Elaine Simon are the principal and senior research associate, respectively, of the nonprofit group Research for Action, based in Philadelphia, where Ms. Simon is a co-director of the University of Pennsylvania’s urban studies program. Chris Brown, the director of the schools and community program of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, based in Chicago, contributed to this essay.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 14, 2004 edition of Education Week as Public Accountability


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