Transformative, Evidence-Based Ideas

What’s Next for Accountability?

Today, we wrap up our blog series on accountability prompted by a paper and statement of principles released last week. Thanks to guest bloggers and co-signers James Merriman, Joanne Weiss, Sandy Kress, and Jane Hannaway for weighing in with their thoughts about where accountability systems need to go next. Join the conversation on Twitter: #TheNewAccountability

Read “An Open Letter On School Accountability”

There is a backlash against accountability. Critics have legitimate concerns about imperfect measurement and unintended consequences. But the demand to drop performance measurement and remedies in case of school failure is unrealistic: Americans can’t be compelled to send their children to schools that don’t have to demonstrate results. That’s why we (CRPE and Fordham) put together a group of people who agreed on the necessity of accountability but had different ideas on how it should work.

We landed on a pretty broad set of principles, which in my view imply that state agencies have to give up on the idea that they can regulate all schools into improvement. Instead, school districts and charter authorizers have critical roles to play and should be held accountable by the state for starting, overseeing, and closing schools based on performance. States should focus on providing good data and transparency for school staff, but keep testing to a minimum. And they should facilitate a healthy public school choice and parent information system to give parents options when government agencies fail to improve or close ineffective schools. Instead of trying to drive teacher evaluation from the state level, states should allow school principals to decide how to manage and staff their schools and hold the school accountable for results.

The conversation included a somber assessment of past accountability efforts from folks like Sandy Kress and Charles Barone, who helped design NCLB. There was clear agreement that policy makers need to respond to complaints from teachers and parents about too much testing, about accountability systems that misidentify schools as being either excellent or in need of intervention, and about state-mandated teacher evaluation systems that have consumed policy attention and controversy for little payoff in student achievement.

Our statement of principles was meant to jump-start a more extended conversation about viable new accountability models for states. The group also agreed that a lot of hard questions still needed to be answered, including:

  • How can states drive improvement in all schools when they really only have the capacity to help or intervene in a small portion of schools?
  • If decisions about teacher performance are delegated to local leaders, will those leaders have the same ability to make the kinds of human capital decisions that state-based teacher effectiveness systems have provided?
  • What’s to be done about rural districts where school closure or replacement strategies are not viable?
  • How much choice should families have to exit low-performing schools, and who takes responsibility for assuring there are better options nearby?

Responses to our statement and blog posts have been just what we had hoped for. Digital learning advocates Tom Vander Ark, Susan Patrick, and John Bailey argued that we should have considered how innovations in digital assessments embedded in online coursework could inform school improvement and even roll up into district and state school performance dashboards.

Other accountability proposals are emerging (most notably a paper about to be released by Gene Wilhoit and Linda Darling-Hammond) and while they are different than ours in important ways, there is also common ground. We’ll be working over the next few months to define overlap and key differences, bring in more folks to help refine our principles, and work toward actionable models that can be tried, tested, and improved on.

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