School Quality

When “Accountability” Is No Longer Accountability

As an early participant in the movement to bring greater accountability to education, I have always thought that the work of accountability would be in constant need of revising and updating. With greater experience, learning from mistakes and advances in know-how and technology, we should always keep making adjustments and improvements. Accountability 1.0 should proceed to Accountability 2.0, and so on. Indeed,  I’ve written frequently about how to improve accountability. The problem has been that—due mostly to the obstructionist approach of educrats and their enablers—the nation and the states have generally weakened accountability, rather than improving it. Now we’re entering a new phase of retrenchment. Under the banner of the so-called Every Student Succeeds Act, states are using their expanded authority to re-define accountability. Organizations such as the Chiefs for Change and the Foundation for Excellence in Education are encouraging states to keep and improve real accountability. Some states like Colorado, to their credit, are following the advice. But many, (I fear, a majority) seem to be using the occasion to weaken accountability even further and are finding the most bizarre ways to do so. I recently read Connecticut’s plan. Reasonably, they propose to hold schools accountable with multiple criteria. But when one gets to the small print, one can see what is really going on. They propose to use chronic absenteeism, physical fitness and access to art programs, et al., in ratings. I cannot for the life of me figure out how schools can objectively be held accountable for such things. Several states are considering severely watering down or outright abandoning their decisions to use A-F systems for evaluating and holding schools accountable. This is not to say A-F is easy or perfect. But Florida and other states have shown how A-F can be extremely effective in improving school performance and student achievement. What do these states propose in lieu of true A-F? The best I can tell is that these new systems are basically designed to deem virtually all schools adequate and limit as much as possible any requirement of needed change, even in mediocre or weak schools. New systems could and should improve accountability. They could emphasize growth in new and better ways. They could be creative and effective in assuring that schools move students down multiple pathways that assure readiness for college or career. They could find a good balance between tests and other desirable outputs, always insisting on valid, reliable and objective measures that are both important and fair. And, perhaps most important, they could do a better job than earlier accountability systems in using data and proven practice to make the chief consequence of accountability the improvement of teaching and learning. But, sadly, many of the schemes I’ve seen don’t do any of the above. They obfuscate. They excuse. They give up. They move to nonsensical means to pretend to measure factors that are either not measurable or are inputs beyond the control of schools. Mainly, they make the schools look better than they are by giving them much higher grades than would befit the learning of their students. Worst of all, we’re perhaps seeing the most cynical sort of outcome. Those who are supposed to be held accountable for success in educating students with the public funds to which they’ve been entrusted are changing policy in ways that make the word, “accountable,” really mean “non-accountable.” Because of this fraud, this most recent development is worse than failing to move forward to Accountability 2.0; it may even be worse than moving back to Accountability 0.0.
An original version of this post appeared on Sandy Kress.
Sandy Kress has served for almost 25 years at the invitation of Lieutenant Governor Bullock, Governors Bush and Perry, and numerous Commissioners of Education on multiple state panels and committees to build and improve Texas' nationally recognized education accountability system. Kress formerly served on the Education Commission of the States and as counsel to the Texas Business Leadership ...

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