Community Accountability: A Theory of Information, Accountability, and School Improvement

Article excerpt

The risks of an uninformed public and a declining base of support for public education seem to outweigh the risks of providing information and attempting to use it for educational improvement, Mr. Henry asserts.

Calls for accountability have grown more strident in recent years as relations between the public and public institutions have frayed. Many states have developed accountability systems for education that contain a direct threat: prove your worth, or the state will take over your schools. Such punitive forms of accountability rely on externally induced motives - avoiding sanctions - to improve educational performance, but their high-stakes inducements are directed only at the lowest rungs of performance.

An alternative form of accountability is community accountability, which uses information to bring the public and its schools closer together and to improve the schools along the entire spectrum of performance. Community accountability uses positive, internal mechanisms rather than fear of external punishments to motivate performance and relies on the power of market forces to sustain change over time.

The uneasy relationship that exists between public institutions and the public has spawned intense interest in accountability. No longer satisfied with such passive responses as open records and accessible meetings, the public is pressing public institutions to "prove" their mettle. The growing demand for accountability is being fed by a number of sources. Elected officials - seeking to demonstrate their ability to make public institutions more responsive to citizens and to show that taxpayers get their money's worth - endorse accountability. Journalists use information on school performance to promote the impression of a gap between societal expectations for educational progress and actual student performance. This type of journalism reduces confidence in public education, uses tax support for public education as a wedge between the reader and the schools, and fuels interest in more accountability.

Citizens, armed with little firsthand knowledge about schools, must rely on the media, on reputation, and on word-of-mouth accounts of their public schools. They demonstrate intense interest in these bits and pieces of information, as well as in such media events as the annual release of SAT scores each August.

Accountability systems are capable of providing a means of filling the information gap between schools and the public. Accountability systems are generally conceived of as routine, systematic reports about the results of schooling. In a recent survey, 45 state education departments indicated that they had an educational indicator system in place. Most combine the use of standardized tests and state-sponsored tests, the collection of dropout and retention rates, and the gathering of information on the types of graduates produced.(1) These systems have data that could help fill the need for information, but currently they do little in the way of communicating that data to the public. The interest in accountability and the demand for information about public schools remain high.

Accountability systems usually have two purposes: to monitor the performance of schools and districts as reforms are attempted and to provide a tool for school improvement. The school improvement function is most commonly carried out by setting standards and regulations at the state level. These are the familiar high-stakes accountability systems. However, I will argue that the available information can be used in an alternative way - for community accountability.

High-Stakes Accountability

Two high-stakes strategies for transforming information about school performance into a means for school improvement are top-down and top-down/bottom-up systems. These systems use information as a trigger for increased state control of schools. In 1993 at least 15 states reported having top-down accountability systems that connected performance on educational indicators to state-imposed sanctions. …