Accountability’s End?

By 10/14/2011

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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.

Comment on this article
  • LarryG says:

    I think you overlook the necessary condition to accountability and that is transparency.

    Despite all the hue and cry over accountability .. very few sanctions have been levied overall – just the threat.

    But what NCLB did first and foremost – is it required posting the numbers to show the results of testing and it was that level of transparency that has had a far bigger impact – i.e the realization that we have some significant problems in delivering a workforce capable education to a majority of students.

    and for that, NCLB has become reviled by those who don’t like the truth much less being asked what to do about it – sanctions or no sanctions.

    what we are seeing is the 3 monkey’s approach to the problem – see no evil, etc…

    it’s an indictment of education as well as the parents and others who argue that the mere disclosure of results is “draconian”.

    shame on all of those who say they care about education but argue so vociferously against measurement.

  • Ben Daley says:

    Larry G.
    Some people think that the only thing that matters in education is scores on standardized multiple choice tests. Some people think there are other things that matter.

    The regime we have been living under for the past decades has claimed to be about “measurement” but has actually been about “measuring results on standardized multiple choice tests” (and poorly crafted ones at that).

    As Mike says here, in a pluralistic society, different people have different opinions. I accept that you appear to think that focusing on measuring schools using the tests is the best way forward.

    Please do not say shame on me because I don’t accept the premise that focusing exclusively on badly written dumb tests is the only conceivable path to improving our schools.

  • Phil says:

    What about finding a way to get some accountability of the system which spends twice as much on rich kids than poor kids? What about accountability for districts which spend millions on data systems and testing which could be better spent on smaller classes or other real improvements? (I teach 5 classes of about 35 students each… I have nearly 170 high school students – 99% of them from very low income families – how much personal attention can I really give them? How much time can I put in to giving feedback on each essay I assign?) Who is holding the legislators and school administrators accountable?

  • Roxanna Elden says:

    As a teacher, this is probably my favorite article ever about accountability. To be fair, it doesn’t have much competition. Many articles about the subject are so one-sided they make my stomach tighten up.

    Dividing accountability supporters into these four groups makes it a lot easier to explain why teachers have so much trouble explaining that we are not against accountability so much as we have seen idea of accountability misused for political reasons.

    Most teachers find their beliefs line up well with one or more of the groups described above, but have serious disagreements with others. It probably varies from teacher to teacher. Personally, I don’t mind the “tough love” approach. I’ve never minded being expected to to a good job – few teachers I’ve ever met have a problem with that. Then again, I have a smart and fair-minded principal who isn’t likely to bully me over some comment I’ve made at a faculty meeting. Not all teachers are so lucky.

    I’m also sympathetic with the “world is flat” mindset and have no problem with the Common Core standards or STEM.

    As for the “tight-looser” approach, I like the idea of using some type of end results as a means of giving teachers some type of autonomy. For example, I’d love English teachers to be able to read more novels and give fewer expensive, time-consuming, relatively useless bi-weekly assessments. At the same time, teachers get nervous at this because we’ve seen firsthand that standardized tests don’t tell us everything accountability hawks say they do. Plus, the increased emphasis on tests has yet to be been matched with less, not more autonomy in regular public schools. So as for now, I’d describe the way it plays as the “tight-tighter” approach. And maybe this is where my stomach begins to tighten up as well, when I read about test-based accountability.

    Even more problematic is the “Poverty Warrior” team. Teachers at low income schools have often chosen to work there in spite of problems that they knew would impact student achievement. The “poverty warrior” program has recast these teachers as lazy, racist conspirators against poor kids. It is disingenuous and unfair to suggest that non-teachers in clean, well-decorated offices with all the copy paper they could every ask for somehow care more about poor kids than teachers who get up at 5AM and break up hallway fights and deal with these kids every day.

    In addition, teachers have seen how many accountability measures – even some well-meaning ones – have unintended consequences that undermine their stated goals. But when teachers bring this up, even if we are really only arguing with one of the four points above, we immediately get slapped with the label of being against everything all four groups stand for and treated as lazy, against what’s best for children, unrealistic about what kids need to know, and un-caring.

    If we had those four characteristics, why, exactly, would we have chosen this profession?

    I hope a lot of people read this article. It would definitely make for a more thoughtful discussion of this issue.

    Roxanna Elden
    “See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers”

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