Executive Perspective

Authentic Accountability

by Paul D. Houston

Is there anyone at this point who believes that public schools should not be accountable? The notion of accountability is so widespread it should be added to the list of apple pie and motherhood as those things most genuinely American.

The issue is no longer whether accountability is good or bad or here to stay. The interesting thing is that school leaders want to be held accountable because it is the only way the issue of value can be validated. If you work hard to improve student learning, you need some way of demonstrating it is happening and you are succeeding.

Further, accountability provides a tool of leverage for leaders to move their systems so many embrace it simply for that reason alone. It is also clear politicians like the notion of accountability and will see to it that it is built into future legislation. So for the record, let’s stipulate that accountability is a given in the educational environment.

A Broader View
Accountability is appropriate in a public entity that serves and is funded by the public. However, there are serious problems with the current accountability structure. It assumes that accountability and student achievement are the same thing; yet when you survey the public, as AASA has, you find they have a much broader view of what accountability means. The public looks for accountability in the way money is used and accounted for. It looks for a more transparent and accessible accountability system, one that is clear on what it is doing and how it is doing it and one that gives the public access to the system. Student achievement information is but one piece of the information the public wants.

So the first lesson for school leaders is that they must take a much broader view of accountability from what they are currently being required to do.

Further, we have conflated student achievement and test scores. These two things are treated as synonymous when, in fact, they are quite different. Student test scores are at best a proxy for a relatively small portion of the learning that should take place in school. They reflect a narrow band of understanding as demonstrated with multiple-choice responses by the student. They do not demonstrate deep thinking or the critical elements of being a full human being such as creativity, courage or compassion.

A real measure of student achievement should reflect a much broader aspect of student learning than what can be garnered from a standardized test, which will only yield a rough comparison of a student’s limited understanding of a band of information with how students of a similar age answer the same questions. As Albert Einstein was reported to have said, not everything that is counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.

Most importantly we need to examine to whom the schools are being held accountable. Current models were constructed by high-level federal officials and members of Congress. State systems were created by state bureaucracies and statewide elected officials. The models and reporting systems were sculpted to yield scores that could fit bureaucratic scoring sheets. They were not explained to the public. Perhaps that is because when they are explained they make little sense. The NCLB model that compares the scores of one group with scores of another group and then purports to measure “progress” makes little sense to educators and even less to parents.

The concept of adequate yearly progress sounds good, but the various categories of reporting make little rational sense. Children who cannot speak enough English to understand the test are tested in English anyway and expected to make progress. Children who have individual education plans because of a learning disability have to be measured against other children without those same conditions.

IDEA has been in place for more than 30 years and is based on the correct notion that children with learning disabilities must be addressed with those disabilities in mind. NCLB says it does not matter. The bottom line is that accountability is only a concept that works if people understand it and agree with its fairness.

Public Desires
The reality is that the public schools belong to the public. It pays for them. As democracy scholar Benjamin Barber once pointed out, public schools not only serve the public, they create the public. Accountability will only become meaningful when it becomes authentic to the stakeholders who matter most — the parents and the public. Accountability systems must reflect the needs and expectations of those the system is serving. Authentic accountability should start by finding out what the public wants to know and how that knowledge can be packaged to be meaningful to parents and the next-door neighbors.

We know that people see education in a broad way. They want to see kids do well on basic skills, but they also need to do well in areas that are basic to living — being good citizens, productive members of the community and able to find and hold down a job that allows them to live in America.

And we know, strange as it might sound to bureaucrats and “coercocrats” who want to control the system from their exalted perches, that parents, above all else, want to see their children happy. While those who impose accountability systems on others have a hard time relating to happiness as a goal, our forefathers got it. The “pursuit of happiness” was a basic tenet of our founding fathers. That should be the foundation of authentic accountability.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.