Accountability’s End?

It’s official: Federal policymakers across the political spectrum are finally willing to admit that Congress overreached when it passed No Child Left Behind and put Uncle Sam in the driver’s seat on education accountability. First there was (Republican) Senator Lamar Alexander’s proposal to get the feds out of the business entirely, save for requirements around the worst five percent of schools. Then there was (Democratic) President Obama’s waiver package, which allows states to make a pitch for their own approach to accountability. And, this week, there’s the (bipartisan) Harkin-Enzi bill, authored by the chairman and ranking member (respectively) of the Senate education committee, which, well, it’s hard to tell exactly what it does, but it surely reduces the federal footprint around accountability. (Try making sense of the convoluted bill yourself. And quick—the mark-up is next week.)

But if the debate around the federal role in accountability is coalescing, a much bigger question remains wide open: Could we be watching the beginning of the end for the accountability movement in toto?

One harbinger might be California Governor Jerry Brown’s veto of a bill to tweak his state’s accountability system by adding “multiple-measures” to a test-score laden index. Brown’s complaint wasn’t the multiple measures per se, but the notion of data-based accountability writ large. “Adding more speedometers to a broken car,” he wrote, “won’t turn it into a high-performance machine.”

If those of us who support test-based accountability are going to push back against these arguments, we’d better get much clearer about what we’re fighting for. In other words: What are we talking about when we talk about “accountability”?

If we’re honest, we’ll admit that it means different things to different people:

  • The Tough Lovers want to see people held accountable for doing their jobs. They are sick and tired of public-school managers who are sheltered from the harsh realities of market competition and who shy away from hard decisions. If someone doesn’t perform—whether he’s a clerk, a classroom teacher, or an assistant principal—they want to see him fired. They want to know that our civil servants are driving a hard bargain with vendors, setting smart budget priorities, eliminating wasteful and ineffective programs, and cleaning house on a regular basis to make sure that only hard workers stay on the payroll. And they hope that the pressure from accountability will motivate the system to get serious about results and care less about hurting people’s feelings or cow-towing to union demands.
  • The Tight-Loosers see a move toward results-based accountability as an opportunity to cut back on traditional regulation. They embrace the charter-school bargain: Hold schools responsible for improving student achievement and get rid of all the other rules in return—the class-size mandates, the teacher-certification regimes, the crazy budget protocols, all of it. They hope that this will lead to better outcomes, but even if it doesn’t, they are almost certain that it will lead to better school environments, as educators are unburdened from the stifling command-and-control culture that pervades so many public-sector bureaucracies. And if it leads to truly disastrous schools, officials can always shut them down.
  • The World-is-Flatters worry about America’s economic competitiveness and distrust local schools and parents to emphasize the right educational priorities. They see test-based accountability as way to force the education system to embrace the academic subjects (think STEM) and skills (think Common Core) that will build our “human capital” and fuel future economic growth. They have little respect for a system that stresses feel-good notions like “self-esteem” over hard work and rigorous preparation.
  • The Poverty Warriors view accountability as one weapon in the battle on educational inequality. By shaming and sanctioning schools that don’t do right by poor or minority kids, they seek to shift resources (money, strong teachers, challenging courses) to the neediest schools and kids. They are happy to push for redistributionalist policies in other ways too—via school-finance reform, closing the Title I “comparability” loophole, etc.—but they see this brand of accountability as changing the political dynamics on the ground in ways that would favor kids who would otherwise be marginalized.

If we are to save “accountability,” we might need to shed one or two of these arguments. So which ones?

The Tough Lovers, it seems to me, are on the strongest ground politically. As a center-right country, the United States is more than happy to complain about bloated and inefficient government. And particularly now that so many people are out of work and struggling to make ends meet, a civil servant system that stresses job security is highly vulnerable to attack. I suspect that when people tell pollsters they support “accountability” in education, this is what they mean. They want people in the system to do their jobs or get fired.

The Tight-Loosers are politically safe, too, though their argument is unlikely to appeal to everyday voters, focused as it is on intergovernmental relationships and structures.

The World-is-Flatters, however, are starting to run into trouble. This is entirely predictable; in a country that values “local control” of our schools, we blush at the thought of far-away elites dictating the content to be taught in our schools. Further conflict ensues when well-connected parents and educators feel that their own niche schools—be they Waldorf or Montessori or whatever—are being violated by educational values that are foreign to them. Listen to many of the complaints of the “Save our Schools” types (or Governor Brown) and you’ll glimpse the old battles about traditional vs. progressive education. We’re a big, diverse country. Anything that tethers the pluralism of our education system is bound to face backlash.

But it’s the Poverty Warriors, by my read, who are in the most precarious situation. It’s not that they don’t have a strong case on the merits. Our education system is horrendously inequitable. It’s criminal to spend twice as much on the education of the rich as on the schooling of the poor. And we’ve all heard compelling stories about how NCLB-style accountability has given “political cover” to district and school leaders, allowing them to shift attention and resources to the kids most in need.

Still, as a center-right country, America is deeply suspicious of redistribution in any form. Furthermore, the Poverty Warriors haven’t been honest about their motives. Their slogan has been “leave no child behind” when it’s really closer to “take from the rich, give to the poor.”

Of course, that class warfare rhetoric won’t sell. Not back then, and certainly not now, in the midst of the Great Recession.

So where does that leave us?

The kind of “accountability” we should be promoting would be responsive to the arguments of the Tough Lovers, Tight-Loosers, and World-is-Flatters, while being flexible enough not to antagonize niche schools in our pluralistic society.

Such an accountability movement would continue to call for rigorous standards, regular testing, and interventions in schools that don’t measure up. It would be serious about untying the hands of managers, especially so they can “hold accountable” teachers and other staff who don’t pull their weight. And it would allow some sort of accountability opt-out for schools that don’t want to be part of the default system. This might look like charter-school agreements in the early days—customized contracts that consider “multiple measures” and qualitative judgments that are better aligned with the mission and approach of the schools being evaluated (like the ones you love, Governor “Moonbeam” Brown).

This approach to accountability is defensible, saleable, and workable—in other words, the kind of accountability worth promoting. To push the Poverty Warrior option, I predict, is to ensure accountability’s end. Which would you prefer?

-Mike Petrilli

This blog entry also appears in this week’s Flypaper.

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