Shifting Educational Accountability from Compliance to Outcomes: Do States View Education Reform the Same Way Feds Do? Ask Your Child's Principal

Article excerpt

The federal Race to the Top (RTT) program offered states millions of dollars to implement educational reforms that reflected federal priorities. Such priorities include building databases to store student performance data and implementing teacher evaluations linked to student performance on standardized tests. School administrators in 46 states are investing significant resources to overhaul their evaluation systems to increase the number of classroom observations and to put more emphasis on standardized test scores.


Although the legislative intent of RTT may be well intended, the implementation challenges and unanticipated consequences associated with the program jeopardize the realization of the education reforms that were envisioned with this legislation.

Top administrators at the U.S. Department of Education (ED) talk about the noteworthy change in accountability from a compliance-based focus to an outcomes-based focus, but school administrators haven't noticed the change. Despite the increased emphasis on student learning outcomes, the accountability relationships between local school districts, state departments of education and the federal department of education still look and feel like compliance-based accountability systems to school principals.

For many principals, it's one more reform effort they are expected to implement, another administrative burden that diverts time and resources from the classroom. "As I spend more time reviewing test scores and checking off boxes on lengthy evaluation instruments, it feels like more compliance and less on outcomes," said one of the principals with whom we spoke.

We talk with public school principals on a regular basis, and similar to Ed Koch's proverbial question "So, how am I doing?" we ask principals "So, how are you doing with RTT?" Their responses tend to focus on the implementation of the new teacher evaluation systems, one of the most controversial elements of RTT. In fact, the ED report for February 2013 cites first and foremost implementing teacher evaluation systems as the area with which RTT winners are most struggling.

Timeframe for Implementation

Public school principals report problems with the timeframe for implementing the new teacher evaluation system. The timeframe, they say, is unrealistic. Because RTT funds were part of the stimulus package, the ED had to move quickly to commit the funds. As a result, state-level administrators also had to act fast, and now must aggressively push for local-level implementation.

Many school districts are implementing teacher evaluation systems they are unfamiliar with--there has not been sufficient time to train the administrators who are responsible for conducting the evaluations, nor has there been sufficient time to inform the teachers about the changes that will take place.

One school high school principal told us: "We participated in the pilot project to test the efficacy of the Danielson teacher evaluation program, which we were eager to do. But now, we're expected to roll out this evaluation program in every school in our district by September. That's unrealistic. We haven't even had the chance to reflect on what we learned from our pilot program. What worked? What didn't? Where do modifications need to be made?"

Other school administrators told us they were "unprepared" and needed "several months to select the most appropriate evaluation tools and provide professional development to the administrative staff responsible for conducting the evaluations."

Emphasis on Standardized Test Scores and Value-Added Measures

Standardized tests are a measure of basic skills, and many argue that the emphasis placed on these tests can have adverse consequences for students and teachers. Holding teachers accountable for the results on standardized tests has the potential of not only teaching to the test, but also "dumbing down" the curriculum. …