Accountability:  How much responsibility for schools?  Dave Shearon's Letter to the Editor published in Education Week, February 24, 1999.

Standard debate more than just testing.  Letter to Christian Science Monitor published October 22, 1999.


In some ways, this web site is my best comment on "accountability."  "Accountability" is often used as a code word for, "How are we going to punish bad teachers?"  Sometimes the punishment is aimed at "bad schools", as in the "No Child Left Behind" approach, but the focus is really on teachers.  To date, there is little evidence that the standards-testing-punishment approach that has been politically popular for the last two decades can deliver significantly superior schooling.  Of course, since it continues to be pushed at the state and federal levels, local systems will have to cope with it.  But it is certainly not a productive model to follow.

So how can local systems achieve "accountability""?

Accountability should, first and foremost, be taken in the informational sense.  Financial accounting gathers information about a business' finances, organizes into accepted standard formats, and disseminates that information to interested parties.  We need an "accounting" view of educational accountability.  We need to focus on gathering good, honest information, organizing it appropriately, and disseminating it widely.

The first issue of educational accounting is:  What are we going to measure?  Student achievement?  Student feelings?  School climate?  Teacher satisfaction?  Parental feedback?  Community support?  Yes.  Although student achievement in many areas is of first importance, measuring that alone provides too little information.  Just as the business world expends resources to measure employee morale, customer satisfaction, and a host of other items, a local school system needs more data than just achievement test scores to tell not only how their schools are doing, but which direction they are headed.  

Currently, we have the cutting-edge Tennessee Value-Added Assessment system as the measure of academic achievement.  This is a first-rate tool.  Used properly, it can raise challenging but important questions and point the way toward some answers.  For example:

  • Are our most effective teachers allocated throughout the system, or are they concentrated in a few schools?

  • What hiring criteria should we weigh most heavily for new teachers to increase our chances of getting highly effective teachers five years later?

  • What are the most effective steps in helping teachers increase their effectiveness?

  • What teaching techniques and approaches are working, and can we make them more common?

However, to create a system that encourages and supports teachers in collaboratively designing, testing, and selling higher quality work, we need more and different data.  See, for example, here, here, or here.  With broad and deep information about engagement, effort and morale, administrative leadership will have tools to measure the effects of systemic efforts to encourage and support teachers in their work.  With this information organized and published appropriately, school boards, other community leaders, and the community as a whole will have a better basis for evaluating whether their schools are headed in the right direction.


In the corporate world, financial accounting is the score card.   When a CEO meets with a board, she presents plans for "scoring" well.   When those plans do not work out, she does not come back to the board to ask, "What do you want me to do now?"  She comes back with her next plan.   The board decides whether to retain her and let her implement that plan, or discharge her and get another CEO.  And, in making that decision, they have not only their own personal experiences, but also a broad array of data about the company itself, and, if appropriate, the advice of experts. 

School boards need the same type of information.  When limited to just annual achievement data and personal experience, boards can miss directional signals.  If achievement scores are stagnant, are other signs pointing up?  or down?  If scores are high, but students are bored and unengaged, then what?  Raw scores, and even such scores with value-added analysis applied, are just insufficient to either guide or judge the progress of a school system.

Defining Success

How much success is possible?  Basically, I believe that what has been done, can be done, and maybe a little more.  The four-minute mile has been run, therefore it can be run, and even a little faster.  There are excellent public schools in America, therefore excellent public schools are possible.  We should look for models of excellence in all areas, starting first with similar schools in our area, and moving on to look for the best that's being done across the country.  That's what is possible.  Our goals should be first to match such performance, then to exceed it.

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