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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Accountability Opinion

The Accountability Plateau, Double-Standards, and the Defense of Sloth

By Rick Hess — December 16, 2011 3 min read
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Hey, it’s a hectic Friday, so just three quick things that I want to touch upon today.

First, Fordham yesterday released Mark Schneider’s new paper “The Accountability Plateau.” Mark, former NCES Commissioner (and a visiting scholar at AEI), makes a compelling argument that the accountability efforts of the 1990s and early 2000s initially had a significant impact on student achievement but have now hit a wall. It’s a good analysis that makes sense. And I think Mark’s interpretation makes a lot of sense when we keep in mind that the K-12 response to accountability, along with more productive measures, has frequently entailed boosting attention to reading, shifting energy and resources from untested subjects to tested ones, and moves to ensure that effective teachers are teaching in the tested grades. Such maneuvering can obviously only be done once. But let’s keep in mind that we don’t usually think of accountability as merely punctuating an equilibrium. Rather, we expect that public and private organizations which take accountability seriously--which bake it into their DNA--tend to consistently become better and more efficient. If there is an accountability plateau, let’s understand that it probably says more about how we’ve responded to accountability systems than it does about the utility of educational accountability itself. This is particularly worth keeping in mind before we rush to conclude that accountability “is no longer an effective lever for raising student achievement” or search out “another ‘meteor’ to disrupt the system.”

Second, seems to me we’ve got a problem with double-standards when it comes to journalistic inquiry. In response to journalist Ben Wildavsky’s interview-driven look at the culture of for-profit higher education, some commentators snarked that the research was qualitative and that Ben didn’t offer up a quantitative analysis. Now, I thought it interesting that education scholars who often argue the merits of methodological diversity (an argument I heartily endorse, so long as the work in question is well done), were quick to lash out at qualitative work whose conclusions they disliked. But, more to the point, I don’t recall any of these same concerns being raised about the qualitative, anecdotal, and interview-driven hit jobs done against for-profits recently by The Nation or the New York Times. How about it, folks? What’s the deal?

Third, yesterday, Bruce Baker and Kevin Welner published their enthusiastic attack on the U.S. Department of Education’s Increasing Educational Productivity project in their Productivity Research, the U.S. Department of Education, and High-Quality Evidence (Full disclosure: Stretching the School Dollar, edited by Eric Osberg and yours truly, is one of the resources that ED recommends on the relevant web page). Bruce and Kevin explain that K-12 spending really hasn’t gone up as much as the numbers might suggest before getting around to explaining how textbook studies of cost-efficiency ought to be conducted. By denying that there’s much pressure on districts to pare back spending, they’re able to suggest that there’s no urgency so far as finding new efficiencies. They seem peeved that ED has not assembled gobs of such research before daring to suggest ways in which states and districts might save money or serve kids better. (I did find it curious that Bruce and Kevin never bothered to note that: a] thousands of education school researchers, including ed finance specialists, have shown almost no interest in such questions over the past half-century and b] that most cost-saving efforts in most sectors are based on sensible intuitions and experimentation rather than “rigorous science”). Their preferred standard seems to be that the feds not breathe a word about strategies for boosting efficiency or cutting costs until “peer reviewers” (e.g. the same scholars who have assiduously avoided such questions) decide the relevant research is conclusive. As best as I can tell, under the Baker-Welner standard, we would not yet be using ATMs, purchasing airline tickets online, collecting Medicare, or reading content labels on food--as each of these were adopted without the kinds of evidence that they demand. Ah, well, that’s why it’s sweet to be an academic. Ultimately, theirs is an argument that serves to justify business as usual, incidentally defending sloth and inefficiency, by setting a remarkably high bar for innovation or cost-saving strategies. It’s a triumph of academic wish lists over common sense. Kudos to ED for going with common sense.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.

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