Guest Column

Where’s the Accountability in Education Reform?


While America has many good schools, at least as many do not measure up. President Clinton has proposed adding $7 billion to the existing $250 billion education budget to, in part, fund additional teachers to drive down the size of classes.

This presidential largess only fuels the continuing debate over whether the lack of funds is part of the performance solution or part of the problem. I maintain that until we deal with the issue of teacher accountability, we will never meet the standards of excellence we expect from our schools and our students.

National surveys indicate that from 10 to 15 percent of the teachers in any school are marginal performers. That means more than 360,000 out of 2.6 million public and private school teachers are doing just enough to get by. If this situation is not addressed, we can expect to see more of the talented and gifted teachers become frustrated enough to leave the public schools, more parents place their support and their finances in alternative schools and more school systems come under the management of the business community.

Full Accountability
Chicago offers a classic example of what happens when taxpayers become fed up with schools with poor performance records. Once labeled as the worst big city school system in the nation, Chicago public schools have gone from a system of bureaucratic waste and fraud with declining student achievement to one of climbing accountability and reform. With the establishment of a five-member management team (replacing the traditional 15-member board of education) and the appointment of a non-educator CEO, conditions are changing rapidly for the better in Chicago's schools.

Specific academic benchmarks hold school administrators responsible for improving student achievement. Failing to do so results in the dismissal of ineffective principals and teachers. Presently, 102 elementary and secondary schools are on academic probation. Each school has been assigned expert help.

What we can learn from the Chicago experience is that efforts for improving and expanding accountable schooling must be carried out at the local level. And if those in education administration are not willing or able to motivate those who must be accountable, the community will find a way to identify someone outside the traditional model to assume control.

Clearly, demographics, local tax and parent support and union involvement all play a part in the success of any school system. Yet, I staunchly maintain that school systems with administrators who assume responsibility for the quality of teaching that goes on in their schools by remediating or dismissing their marginal teachers and rewarding and affirming their outstanding teachers will have the greatest impact on educational reform. The major force driving school advancement and change is to improve our teaching force.

In some cases, principals are prepared to deal with the teachers in their schools who have an attitude problem, a personal problem or a training deficiency, but they lack the support of the school board or the superintendent.

Many school administrators, however, passively ignore the problem. Some are conflict avoiders. Some work in school districts where there are no established goals, where neither the superintendent nor the school board sets expectations. In such districts, the culture resists change and settles for the status quo rather than taking charge and holding all persons within the system accountable.

Honest Appraisals
What does this new accountability look like? The accountable school has a well-stated mission statement and all policies and decisions are held in the light of its content. According to the recent national poll by the Public Agenda Foundation, the public wants to see the following (in priority order): safe and orderly schools, continuous evaluation of programs and performance, removal of incompetent personnel, emphasis on basic subjects and spending only on programs proven to work. These agenda items would be incorporated into an accountable school's mission statement.

Accountability exists within the administration and teaching ranks at all levels when all personnel are held responsible for carrying out the district's mission.

The accountable school administrator knows what the standards of expectations are and communicates them to the teaching staff and to the community. Accountable administrators have the courage to make decisions that are not always popular but address each issue that comes their way based on what is best to achieve student learning. They evaluate carefully and do not give marginal teachers "excellent" ratings.

Accountable school administrators spend most of their time improving instructional accountability in their schools. Raises are given to teachers who perform above the level of expectation, not by how long they have been teaching. School administrators who are accountable do not use tenure as an excuse to prevent them from dismissing the ineffective teacher.

How much students learn in schools today determines the quality of every profession in this country. If today's schools continue to be staffed with marginal teachers and marginal administrators, all the money in the world will not improve them.

Don Fuhr, a former superintendent, is professor of educational leadership, Clemson University, 409 Tillman Hall, Clemson, S.C. 29634. E-mail: He is the author of No Margin for Error: Saving Our Schools From Borderline Teachers and Choices: Public Education for the 21st Century.