Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Putting the Public Back into Public Accountability: Current Accountability Systems Fail to Take into Account What the Public Really Wants from Schools

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Putting the Public Back into Public Accountability: Current Accountability Systems Fail to Take into Account What the Public Really Wants from Schools

Article excerpt

Educational accountability has been relentlessly criticized for its imperfections over the past 15 years. These criticisms generally take aim at the narrowness of measurement systems, which rely chiefly on standardized test scores, as well as at the punitive sanctions associated with underperformance. Without a doubt, these are serious matters. But relatively little concern has been directed at a related problem: the failure of accountability systems to meaningfully engage the public.

The problem is not that public outreach is entirely absent. After all, states publish school-performance data and summative ratings of schools and districts for the explicit purpose of informing the public about how well their schools are doing. This, however, is an impoverished way of imagining public accountability. These systems ignore the actual interests and concerns of the public, focusing instead on a limited set of instrumental aims, such as raising student test scores. They sidestep the need for deliberation, instead employing formula-driven ranking and rating methods. And they do little to build capacity for planning and action, focusing instead on sanction and control. In sum, existing state accountability systems are public only in the most superficial sense.

Putting the public back into public accountability systems won't be easy. But we believe that truly democratic systems, though perhaps less efficient, represent our best hope for successful and sustainable school improvement.

The present system: Three shortcomings

As policy rhetoric and existing measurement systems indicate, the state's chief interest in educational accountability is instrumental in nature. That is, to the state, good schools matter insofar as they produce industrious workers and competent citizens. But for members of the public, schools also serve a number of noninstrumental purposes --purposes worth pursuing for their own sake. Advocacy for arts education, for instance, or for unstructured play is rooted in the belief that such things matter, even if they produce no tangible or predictable returns to the state. Similarly, parents tend to support smaller classes whether or not they have a measurable impact on learning. That's because they value the nature of the learning experience as much as the outcome. Additionally, while the state is unitary in its instrumental aims, the public is plural. Parents care about school quality for different reasons than other adults in a school's community do. And different school communities, embedded as they are in different local ecologies, vary in their priorities and concerns. Existing accountability systems fall short in advancing the noninstrumental and highly plural aims of the American public (for more, see Schneider, 2017).

A second shortcoming in present accountability systems is the fact that states can't "see" (Scott, 1998). Unlike members of the public, who gauge school quality holistically, states rely on standard, highly simplified information that can be compiled and combined. This results from the inherent challenge in trying to see and judge from afar, but it is exacerbated by the state's unitary and instrumental aims, which lead the state to focus on a narrow range of performance metrics. Thus, because measurement systems tend to include only the data in which states are interested --test scores, graduation rates, and the like--they overlook any additional aims that schools serve. Consequently, states are blind to the actual strengths and weaknesses of schools, at least as they are valued by stakeholders. If the state can't see schools from multiple perspectives, how can it know their holistic quality?

A third shortcoming in present systems is their inflexibility, especially in prescribing consequences or solutions for lower-performing schools. This inflexibility, we argue, is directly related to the lack of local involvement in holding schools accountable. …

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