Accountability is a watchword of the moment. Democrats want to hold Republicans accountable for the past eight years. Everyone wants to hold Wall Street accountable for the recent economic free fall. And some tough questions about school accountability await policymakers in Washington.
The federal No Child Left Behind education law brought the question of holding schools accountable for student learning to the forefront of national education policy. Seven years after it was first passed, the law can obviously be improved when it is revised by the new Congress. Doing that while maintaining the law's focus on accountability provisions for struggling students involves relatively straightforward fixes. The more complicated challenge is how lawmakers will resist tremendous pressure to weaken the law's emphasis on accountability for student performance.
The law holds schools accountable for educating all students, especially those, like poor and minority students, who have traditionally been ill-served by public education. It does not require universal excellence, but it does require states and schools to close achievement gaps on state tests. That is a vital emphasis. With dropout rates of nearly 50 percent for minority youngsters and yawning gaps in achievement between white students and minority students, educational equity must be at the forefront of any effort to expand opportunity in America.
Not surprisingly, the accountability rules have proven wildly unpopular. Today, accountability—to the extent that it is embraced in public education—is mostly still a matter of inputs, compliance, process, and credentials more than actual results and consequences for outstanding or poor performance.
There are two fundamental reasons for this resistance to consequential accountability based on results. First, many educators, advocates, and analysts believe public schools should not be held accountable for the performance of students because of all the other influences on student learning outside of school. Family problems, poor healthcare, lousy diets, and so forth, the argument goes, are simply too much for schools to overcome.
But while these challenges are real, and the country needs much better social policies to support low-income youngsters, schools can do a lot better today even absent such changes. Teacher effectiveness and school effectiveness vary in ways that cannot be explained by demographics alone, and plenty of great public schools show that demographics are not destiny for students.
At the same time, within education there is widespread acceptance of the idea that teachers and schools can regulate themselves and hold themselves accountable. The idea that practitioners can self-regulate has a powerful romantic appeal but is belied by educational history and the experience of other industries. Whether through customer choice, publicly derived rules and regulations, or some combination, external accountability with real consequences is integral to high performance in any system.
While hardly the only barriers to improved public schools, these two ideas have a pernicious effect on the effectiveness of our public schools. They provide comfortable excuses for poor school performance and hinder efforts to hold schools and school systems accountable for results in fair and effective ways.
Throw into this mix the confusion that pervades public school oversight, and you can see the full extent of the school accountability mess. There is not clarity among public officials—who are in practice the regulators for the country's $500 billion public education industry—about who is the client of the system. Is it the teachers and other adults who work in the school system, the school systems themselves, or the students, parents, and communities public schools are supposed to serve?
Although the answer should be obvious, it's often not reflected in policy decisions where the interests of adults still generally trump those of students or society more generally. After all, neither students nor the general interest has lobbyists working in Washington and state capitals. That is why confronting the politics of accountability is more daunting than improving the various components any school reform law.