The Future of School Accountability

Recent days have brought several thoughtful commentaries on results-based accountability in K-12 education, why it’s important, what it’s accomplished and why it needs to continue.

Such attention is exceptionally timely, as the negotiations presently underway between Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray in pursuit of a bipartisan formula for reauthorizing No Child Left Behind will inevitably devote much attention to the issues surrounding school (and teacher) accountability.

Like Mike Petrilli, I’m convinced that this can no longer be managed from Washington. Like Mike, I’m also convinced that accountability for results in K–12 education must continue. Losing it would carry us back to the pre-Coleman era when schools were judged not by their results but by their inputs, promises, and services, and teachers were evaluated by brief classroom visits from supervisors who arrived with no data, no rubrics—and no ability to do anything about problematic instructors. (Alas, that last shortage remains the norm, as does the practice of finding just about every teacher satisfactory, if not outstanding.)

The only thing that really matters about a school (or teacher)—beyond such basics as children’s safety—is whether kids are learning there. If they’re not, something must be done to change the situation.

But that’s where the soup thickens. What, exactly, to do? The drafters of NCLB thought they knew, and accordingly imposed a cascade of sanctions, plans, and interventions intended to “turn around” failing schools (and districts), as well as some choice-based actions intended to give kids alternatives to such schools. They also declared that every teacher must be “highly qualified.”

None of that worked as planned. The choice provisions got gummed up in several different ways (shortage of good alternatives, mediocrity and greed of some providers, insincerity of school districts). The sanctions and interventions were almost always too mild or clumsy to achieve the desired result. And in the case of teachers, “highly qualified” turned out in most places to mean nothing more than “state certified.”

Which illumines, yet again, the crucial failing of standards-based reform: It’s really good at identifying bad schools, but really bad at fixing them.

The flood of disaggregated student achievement data loosed by NCLB has been extremely valuable—arguably the best thing about that statute—and we’re better than ever before at identifying bad and mediocre schools, including schools that work well for some students but not for others. School report cards are also a swell resource, as are the user-friendly reanalyses of those (and other data) by such outfits as GreatSchools and Colorado Succeeds. These facilitate both informed school choices by parents—provided, of course, that policies permitting such choices are in place—and school interventions by state and local authorities.

Such data need to keep flowing, and both kinds of accountability—standards-based and choice-based—need to continue. Indeed, they’re interdependent, with neither having much chance of working absent the other. Standards-based efforts can’t fix schools, but they supply the information about school performance that informs the choice marketplace. That’s also the information that keeps the marketplace honest, so that school operators can’t dupe families into thinking they’re good schools if, in fact, nobody is learning much in them.

Uncle Sam’s job is to keep the data flowing and do whatever he can to remove obstacles to both kinds of accountability. For example, the Office for Civil Rights should quit meddling in local decisions regarding which schools should be closed and how schools of choice should be operated. And federal dollars should flow in such a way (ideally in children’s backpacks) that schools trying to turn around can control all their resources and kids headed for schools of choice get all the resources they’re entitled to.

But eliminating obstacles to accountability is not the same as telling states how to operate their accountability systems. That approach has failed, and it’s time to put the accountability monkey back onto the backs of states. Washington should admonish them to do that, make transparent how they go about it, and put researchers and analysts onto the job of appraising how well it works from one state to the next—as well as maintaining its audit functions via NAEP, PISA, TIMSS, and the rest—but that’s about it. When it comes to actually holding schools (and educators) accountable, let’s try trusting the Tenth Amendment and the people closest to the problem.

– Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This first appeared on Flypaper.

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