ERIC Identifier: ED434381
Publication Date: 1999-09-00
Author: Lashway, Larry
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Educational Management Eugene OR.
Holding Schools Accountable for Achievement. ERIC Digest,
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 raise.
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
WHAT ARE THE FEATURES OF TODAY'S ACCOUNTABILITY SYSTEMS?
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
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 student improvement.
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 Olson1999a).
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
Since many of the new systems are not fully operational, impact on student
achievement is unclear. When Robin Lake and colleagues (1999) studied
theresponse 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
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
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
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
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
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).
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 Education, 1999.
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 426 453.
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 576 474.
Southern Regional Education Board. Getting Results: A Fresh Look at School
Accountability. Atlanta: Southern Regional Education Board, 1998. 31 pages. ED