Designing an Accountability System: Setting the Stage

Cross-posted from Education Week

My Webster’s defines accountability as the obligation to bear the consequences for failure to perform.  The record shows that the cost of our schools per student has skyrocketed over the last 25 years or more, and there has been little if any gain in student performance to show for it.  We want someone to blame.  The teachers, say the national legislature, should be held to account and the worst of them should be shown the door.  Teacher failure is the problem and accountability is the answer.

Not so fast.  Wasn’t it the public that decided to pay many teachers less than a living wage while the top-performing countries were busy making sure that beginning teachers were paid about what beginning engineers were paid?  Wasn’t it the school boards that gave teachers’ unions ever-increasing control over management decisions in our schools when they didn’t want to pay for teachers’ raises?  Wasn’t it state legislatures that waived teacher-licensing requirements in the face of teacher shortages in the evident belief that teaching was something that anyone who could fog a glass could do?  Why did our country decide that only teachers should be held accountable for student performance when the top performing countries decided that, first and foremost, the students should be held accountable?  Who should be accountable for student failure when a quarter of the nation’s students live in poverty, a record not matched by any of the other industrialized nations?  Are we sure that the teachers are the ones who should be held to account when they are led by a petty tyrant in the principal’s office whose criterion for rewarding and punishing his teachers is the degree to which they were loyal to him last year?

Yes, teachers should be held accountable for student failure.  I know for a fact that there are teachers out there who gave up a long ago and are just collecting a paycheck now, counting the days until they can retire.  They are “failing to perform.” But when it comes to “failure to perform,” there is a lot of that to pass around.  I am not so sure we need an accountability system of the kind described in Mr. Webster’s dictionary.  What we need is an accountability system that is designed to greatly reduce failure to perform.

What we forget is that we are now holding teachers accountable for student performance we never expected before, a kind and quality of performance for which the present education system was never designed.  That is manifestly unfair.  What we need is an accountability system that can function as an integral part of a whole new system of education, a system designed to provide to all students the kind and quality of education we have up to now provided only to our elites.  This is the kind of system toward which the top-performing countries have been working for decades, about which I have written about in Surpassing Shanghai and many of my blogs.

The new system should include subsystems for obtaining a steady and ample supply of very high quality new teachers coming into our schools, another subsystem for supporting the continuous improvement of the practice of serving teachers, an instructional subsystem consisting of highly aligned sets of internationally benchmarked standards for all of the core subjects in the curriculum, used as the basis for construction of a curriculum based on those standards, high quality assessments based on that curriculum and curriculum frameworks that describe the progression of learning in each core subject as the student progresses through the grades.  It includes policies for allocating resources throughout the system so that the students who are hardest to educate get proportionately more resources than those who are easier to educate.  It requires the development of real careers in teaching and a system of compensation more appropriate for professionals than for blue-collar workers. And it calls for approaches to school organization and management more suitable for professional work than for blue-collar work.  At the core of the new system is a commitment to a professional model of teachers and teaching and an approach to learning more appropriate for a society that believes all its students will need an elite style of education than the style of learning appropriate for an economy and society in which most adults need only the most basic of skills and knowledge.

The question, of course, is what accountability would mean in such a system.  One place to look for a model is what it means for high status professionals in other fields.  Many of our high status professions are organized mainly as professional partnerships.  In such partnerships, the professionals are the workers, managers and owners.  In such organizations, the livelihood of each depends on the contribution of all, so each member of the partnership is accountable to the others for their performance and all the partners are responsible for monitoring the performance of the others and for disciplining those who do not carry their weight.  The market holds all the members of the partnership accountable by depriving them of their livelihood if the partnership fails.  And the customers of the partnership can sue the professional in court if they fail to live up to the prevailing professional standards of practice.  That is accountability worthy of the name.

Like teachers, though, many high status professionals do not work in professional partnerships.  They work for others, who may or may not be members of their profession. They may be managers, but they are not typically owners.  In public schools, they are never the owners.  The public is the owner.  But it is not the teachers alone who determine the outcomes for students.  They are among many who play that role, and it is not easy to determine their distinct contribution.  Even when it can be determined, the effect on the student is typically the effect of teachers working together, not separately.  Not the least among the other players whose effort makes a big difference to the outcome are the students themselves.

The question on the table is who should be accountable to whom for what in such a world?  In my next blog, I will describe how a state accountability system might work when its role and function is thought of in this way.  In a subsequent blog, I will talk about how the responsibility for setting the terms of accountability might be allocated between the federal government and the state governments.