Executive Perspective

Skeptical About Our Nation’s Accountability Agenda

by PAUL D. HOUSTON

Accountability has as many interpretations as beauty: It is usually in the eye of the beholder.

It can mean the reconstitution of schools or state takeovers. Or the ending of social promotion. Or high-stakes graduation exams. Or firing of administrators. It can fall on the innocent or the guilty. It can be applied to those who can make the necessary changes and on those who cannot. The reality is that accountability means what those in power choose to make it mean, which makes it an elusive target. I fear we have placed too much emphasis on the counting side and not enough on ability.

For these and other reasons, I find myself increasingly skeptical about the current accountability agenda, which undoubtedly grew out of our country’s response to "A Nation at Risk." That 1983 report noted America's peril due to the "rising tide of mediocrity" in our schools. At that time, Americans faced a protracted Cold War and a serious economic recession. To overcome these problems would require world-class minds; thus, schools must do better.

However, the Cold War is over. We won. And America’s resilient economy has made us the dominant player in the world economy. That means the current reform movement is a movement in search of an imperative.

This void leads me to raise some questions about today’s accountability agenda.

Do those who demand accountability have the legitimacy to drive the process?

Certainly, governors and legislators have the political legitimacy to demand whatever they want of school leaders. However, do they have the moral and intellectual legitimacy to do so? Schools are a creature of the state, and the "bloated bureaucracies" that politicians decry came about in response to the demands made by many of these same politicians. At the same time, do these people have the intellectual capacity or background to go beyond platitudes and simplistic analysis of the issues? Too often politicians are demanding an intricate accountability system without deeply considering how such measures affect the lives of children and school leaders.

Is an external process being applied to what is, in truth, an internal reality?

The underlying philosophy of the accountability movement is that you can bludgeon people to greatness. The reality is that effective education is built upon internal factors--motivation, belief, persistence and creative expression. Meaning must be constructed; it cannot be imposed. Education is an evocative act; it cannot be invoked. Attempts to do so merely cheapen and distort it.

Do sound assumptions underpin the accountability movement?

Two basic assumptions of the accountability movement are that (1) the education system is broken and (2) people are lazy and must be pressured to improve. I disagree. Even education critics acknowledge that gloomy scenarios about schools are overblown, but worry such would label them as apologists for the status quo. I would argue that schools have been effective at carrying out their historic mission, but the mission itself has changed. Is that not reason enough for improvement?

Are accountability measures used sufficient to the task?

Most accountability models rely on norm-referenced tests to determine success and failure. Educators have long known the shortcomings of such measures. Norm-referenced tests tell you about averages, but are imprecise measures and narrowly constructed. Now states are developing their own tests that have less reliability than the national tests. Also, in many states the cutoffs on scores have been manipulated for political purposes to make schools look bad.

What is the impact on the educational process of our current focus on accountability?

When increased emphasis is placed on a narrow range of knowledge and skills, you artificially narrow the scope of education. If we only value what can be measured and only measure a portion of what makes up education, we diminish the scope and the value of what it means to be educated. Since we do not measure things like honesty, persistence, generosity, responsibility, creativity, or collaboration, are we not in danger of creating an education that is woefully narrow and inadequate to the demands of our complex, connected world?

Are we using accountability as a substitute for tackling the true challenges?

Blame is a cheap political solution to expensive, difficult problems. There is a strong correlation between concentrated poverty and learning difficulties. Poor children can learn. But when you have many poor children, you increase the number of peripheral issues that must be addressed to help them learn. There are isolated examples of heroic action where these issues have been overcome--but not enough. To address concentrated poverty more resources must be available. It is easier to blame educators, parents and children for their shortcomings. Kids aren't learning? Fire the superintendent. Test scores aren't adequate? Retain the little ones. Improvement is too slow? Close the school. Bring in the marketplace. Toss them a voucher. How about concentrating effort and resources on the pockets of problems?

What evidence shows the accountability movement works?

The sad truth is that scant evidence exists that firing, reconstituting, retention, or state takeovers do much to get at the root issues of low performance or to enrich the educational environment.

Education requires that we see things holistically and organically. It demands we worry about intrinsic values and the quality of what we do. Quantity is only a part of it. And counting is only part of the accountability game. Quality will only come when we find ways to celebrate the diverse abilities that our children bring to the table.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director. E-mail: phouston@aasa.org