Accountability and Abdication: School Reform and Urban School Districts in the Era of Accountability

Article excerpt


The current school reform era has moved through a series of phases, coupling state centralization with a focus on school-level change at each step. Yet this era of reform also has a deeper history. In many ways, this era was a backlash to school desegregation. During school desegregation, educational policy became explicitly connected to promoting equity and challenging the dominance of whites and their interests. It also represented a decline in the influence of business and industry in educational affairs. It can be argued that the most progressive cases of school desegregation in the South were championed by business interests because of fears that the image of a racist community would undercut the migration of business to the South. However, it is also true that schooling during desegregation clearly served wider social goals rather that reaching beyond the realm of economics. Many business leaders found it in their interest to avoid the controversy of desegregation by stepping away from direct involvement on school boards and other venues. However, the economic downturn of the late 1970s left business looking for scapegoats and education became the social institution of choice that fulfilled this need.

The arguments contained in The Nation At Risk (National Commission on Education and Excellence, 1983) blamed schooling for a general societal decline and implicitly implicated that the problems in schools stemmed from a focus on equity. In the language of the times, excellence was touted as a necessity if America was to be economically competitive. In this deeper history, there was also an interest in "reining in" public funding while simultaneously facilitating the need for change, thus the argument was made that money was not the solution to the problem. In short, excellence was expected to come with no appreciable increases in funding for schools. Indeed, excellence would also be coupled with efficiency emanating from the creation of a competitive market in education that utilized proposals for vouchers and other measures.

This deeper history then reveals the dynamics that would plague the school reform era until the present day. Schools were to redirect their efforts to excellence but they were to do so under conditions not of support but rather of threat. It should be of little surprise then that it proved rather difficult to produce dramatic demonstrations of measurable results. The threat itself became transformed into a movement that focused on specifying standards and then requiring schools to implement those standards. Yet without resources schools could do little more than simply comply with such edicts. This led policymakers and policy entrepreneurs to conclude that schools lacked the capacity to reform on their own, thus promoting the development of a school reform industry. Ironically, public funding would be made available to support this industry even if the schools had been denied funding for their earlier reform efforts. New American Schools (as one of the principal design organizations for school reform) decided that education was a new market and gave up its nonprofit to become a for-profit venture (Hare, 1999). Yet the efforts of this new industry did not result in dramatic changes in educational outcomes. The inherit difficulties in changing schools soon became readily apparent and (rather than admit defeat) politicians decided to emphasize accountability and remand the responsibility for reform to the public schools themselves. It could be cynically argued that since school reform turned out to be hard to achieve, accountability was a way to demonstrate the failure of the public schools thus facilitating the privatization of education. However, accountability policies created evidence that some schools did need considerable assistance while reinforcing school reform as part of the stigmatization process (Murillo, 2002). With the comprehensive school reform act at the federal level and parallel efforts at the state level, schools could access funds to reform (or to purchase reforms) when test data indicated the school was low performing. …