Holding Schools Accountable
ERIC Identifier: ED434381
Publication Date: 1999-09-00
Author: Lashway, Larry
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management Eugene OR.
Most people subscribe to a simple, but powerful, principle of justice: Accomplishments
should be rewarded. The best student should get the "A"; the best worker should get the
Thus, the call for greater school accountability has found a receptive national audience.
At a time of rising costs and declining achievement, Americans thought it only common
sense to hold educators responsible. Educators themselves may question specific
policies but rarely argue that they should not be held accountable.
During the past decade, virtually all states have reengineered their accountability
systems, not only setting more rigorous expectations, but also changing the focus from
inputs to results. School leaders now must not only do well, but also demonstrate that
they are doing well. This Digest describes the key features of current accountability
systems and explores their implications for administrators.
WHAT ARE THE FEATURES OF TODAY'S ACCOUNTABILITY SYSTEMS?
At one time, principals and teachers could satisfy the demands of accountability simply
by working hard and following accepted professional standards. By contrast, the current
accountability movement emphasizes results. The Southern Regional Education Board
(1998) identifies five essential elements in today's accountability systems. Rigorous
content standards are established; student progress is tested; professional development
is aligned with standards and test results; results are publicly reported; and results lead
to rewards, sanctions, and targeted assistance.
These elements work together to provide a coordinated effort to improve student
learning. Standards provide a clear, unambiguous target that lets teachers know where
their attention should be focused. Carefully designed assessments provide concrete
evidence of progress toward the goals. Professional development is aligned with the
standards to help schools develop the capacity to meet the targets. Public reporting of
results puts pressure on individual schools to meet the targets. Finally, rewards and
sanctions render an official verdict on the school's efforts.
Susan Fuhrman (1999) sees several additional features in the newer systems: a focus
on the school rather than the district as the unit of improvement; the use of continuous
improvement strategies rather than a one-time fix; and more sophisticated
measurement that goes beyond pass-fail.
HOW DO TODAY'S ACCOUNTABILITY SYSTEMS MOTIVATE TEACHERS?
Current accountability systems are based on the belief that people perform better when
they have a clear goal and when their performance has well-defined consequences.
The desire to attain rewards or avoid sanctions will thus keep teachers focused on
This kind of extrinsic motivation is familiar and intuitively plausible to most people, who
can easily recall instances when their behavior was shaped by a desired reward.
However, critics argue that extrinsic motivation, while successful in the short run, may
eventually undermine the long-term goals of educational reform. Kennon Sheldon and
Bruce Biddle (1998), for example, cite evidence suggesting that intrinsic motivation built
on trust will lead to more meaningful learning than extrinsic motivation built on control.
Susan Mohrman and Edward Lawler (1996) use the insights of expectancy theory to
suggest that both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation play a role in teacher behavior. They
argue that teachers are motivated to reach a particular goal when they believe it will
have desirable personal outcomes (material or psychological rewards) and when they
believe it is attainable. Unfortunately, teachers' experience may lead them to form
expectations that run counter to the goals of reform. For example, teachers may believe
that students are not capable of attaining the new standards, or that the school will not
provide them with the necessary resources. In such cases, a tangible reward will not be
sufficient to motivate the desired behavior.
Charles Abelman and Richard Elmore found that schools have internal accountability
systems that determine how they will respond to external demands. Some schools are
dominated by personal responsibility, with each teacher being accountable to his or her
own sense of values. In other schools the faculties share a set of expectations that
guide individual teacher actions. In still other schools, the failure to meet expectations
has consequences, such as being asked to leave.
Abelman and Elmore note that the nature of this internal accountability will have a major
impact on the school's response to state-imposed standards. Depending on how closely
the external demands are aligned with internal expectations, they may be embraced,
rejected, or selectively adopted.
HOW EFFECTIVE ARE THE NEW SYSTEMS?
At first glance, the accountability movement has been highly successful: forty-eight
states now test their students, with thirty-six publishing annual "report cards" on
individual schools. Not all states, however, have adopted the full range of accountability
tools. Only nineteen publicly rate school performance; just fourteen provide monetary
incentives for good performance, while sixteen have the authority to take over failing
schools; and merely two have attempted to link teacher evaluation to student
performance (Lynn Olson 1999a).
In addition, critics have questioned other components of accountability. For example,
the rigor of standards may vary considerably from state to state (Lynn Olson 1999b).
Some educators fear that a too-narrow focus on test scores will demoralize teachers in
low-scoring schools, increase unethical placement practices, and limit the curriculum to
what can be easily measured (Mack McCary and colleagues 1997).
Fuhrman has identified a number of troubling issues. There are persistent questions
about how to measure student performance and determine progress; for example,
comparing this year's fourth grade with last year's fourth grade assumes that the two
groups are comparable. Incentives can have perverse effects, leading teachers to
narrow their efforts to focus on preparing students to pass the test. In addition, political
pressures sometimes lead policy-makers to back down when consequences begin to
affect students, as happened recently when Wisconsin legislators refused to fund a
long-planned high-stakes graduation test.
Since many of the new systems are not fully operational, impact on student
achievement is unclear. When Robin Lake and colleagues (1999) studied the response
of Washington schools to the state's standards and assessment system, they found that
some schools showed significant improvement and some showed little or no
improvement. Most schools reported that they felt the pressure for accountability and
had made improvement of test scores a major priority.
The experience of Virginia, where fewer than 7 percent of state schools met state
standards in the first two years of assessment, suggests that higher standards alone do
not lead to miracles.
HOW DO SCHOOLS MEET NEW ACCOUNTABILITY EXPECTATIONS?
Whereas the standards and assessments currently driving accountability are generated
at the state level, improvement can only occur at the local level. Monitoring vital
indicators, aligning professional development with improvement goals, and developing a
"positive mind set" are key actions that can only occur at the local level (Nancy Law).
Washington schools that successfully raised student scores took a proactive,
coordinated approach to improvement. They focused on improving student skills in a
few key areas, worked collaboratively, and actively sought help. Teachers were willing
to forego favored lessons to make room for the areas of priority (Lake and colleagues).
McCary and colleagues (1997) emphasize the importance of developing a locally owned
"culture of accountability" that internalizes and enhances external demands. They
describe a district that began by selecting forty-two indicators (in addition to those
required by the state) that reflected key elements of academic health (for example,
course completion rates, books read at home, discipline incidents). The indicators were
used to stimulate discussion about school climate and student learning, and helped
develop a common vision for improvement. The discussions were supported by targeted
training for teachers, with an emphasis on self-evaluation and action research.
WHAT ROLE DO LEADERS PLAY?
In responding to the demand for accountability as in dealing with most complex
educational issues, leadership is crucial. For example, Abelmann and Elmore note that
the schools best prepared to respond are those with strong principals willing to nurture
and develop a common vision.
The Association of Washington School Principals (1998) lists seven key responsibilities
for school leaders: promoting a safe and orderly school environment; sustaining a
school culture of continuous improvement; implementing data-driven plans for improving
student achievement; implementing standards-based assessment; monitoring
school-improvement plans; managing human and financial resources to accomplish
achievement goals; and communicating with colleagues, parents, and community
members to promote student learning. In turn, districts and states must provide
principals with adequate support and authority.
Beyond the school, district officials must provide a policy and planning framework as
well as resources for professional development and school improvement. For example,
the Sacramento, California, school district provides assistance teams for low-achieving
schools and trains principals to work with teachers in one-to-one instructional
improvement sessions (Law).
This publication was prepared with funding from the Office of Educational Research and
Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under contract No. ED-99-C0-0011. The
ideas and opinions expressed in this Digest do not necessarily reflect the positions or
policies of OERI, ED, or the Clearinghouse. This Digest is in the public domain and may
be freely reproduced.
Abelmann, Charles, and Richard Elmore. When Accountability Knocks, Will Anyone
Answer? Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, 1999. 59 pages.
ED 428 463.
Association of Washington School Administrators. Progress Report: Principal
Accountability Task Force. www.awsp.org/atfprogrept.htm March 25, 1999
Education Commission of the States. Accountability-State and Community
Responsibility. Denver, Colorado: Education Commission of the States, 1998. 19 pages.
ED 419 277.
Fuhrman, Susan H. "The New Accountability." CPRE Policy Briefs RB-27 (January
Lake, Robin J.; Paul T. Hill; Lauren O'Toole; and Mary Beth Celio. Making Standards
Work: Active Voices, Focused Learning. Seattle: Center on Reinventing Public
Law, Nancy. "Value-added Assessment and Accountability." Thrust for Educational
Leadership (January-February 1999): 28-31.
McCary, Mack; Joe Peel; and Wendy McColskey. Using Accountability as a Lever for
Changing the Culture of Schools: Examining District Strategies. Greensboro, North Carolina: SERVE, 1997. 69 pages. ED 408 697.
Mohrman, Susan Albers, and Edward E. Lawler III. "Motivation for School Reform." in
Rewards and Reform: Creating Educational Incentives That Work, edited by Susan H.
Fuhrman and Jennifer A. O'Day. 115-43. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996. ED 426
Olson, Lynn. "Shining a Spotlight on Results." Quality Counts '99. Education Week 18,
17 (January 11 1999a): 8-10.
Olson, Lynn. "Rating the Standards." Quality Counts '99. Education Week 18, 17
(January 11 1999b): 107-09.
Sheldon, Kennon M., and Bruce J. Biddle. "Standards, Accountability, and School
Reform: Perils and Pitfalls." Teachers College Record 100, 1 (Fall 1998): 164-80. EJ
Southern Regional Education Board. Getting Results: A Fresh Look at School Accountability. Atlanta: Southern Regional Education Board, 1998. 31 pages. ED 426 510.
Feedback Form |
Parenting the Next Generation