Assessing Accountability in U.S. Public Education
Kelly, Anne S., Orris, J. Burdeane, Journal of Public Budgeting, Accounting & Financial Management
ABSTRACT. Public education accountability rests almost exclusively with schools rather than governments. This paper explores its three dimensions: economy, efficiency, and effectiveness. Performance indicators of these dimensions were developed which facilitated testing of significant differences in means over time using analysis of variance. Only salary and wage expenditures per instruction personnel exhibited greater economy. Instructional equipment per pupil was related to increased efficiency. Several indicators suggested enhanced effectiveness. Student/teacher ratio declined and top performers in public schools improved in achievement. Graduation rate, an indicator of achievement and participation, significantly rose in recent years. In summary, several effectiveness indicators revealed encouraging trends with school accountability. The absence of government accountability was associated with limited progress in the remaining dimensions of economy and efficiency.
"Accountability is the cornerstone of all financial reporting in government" (Governmental Accounting Standards Board [GASB], 1987, para. 56) and citizens should "hold elected and appointed officials to account" for their actions and decisions (GASB, 2008, para. 34). The National Commission on Excellence in Education (National Commission) in A Nation at Risk (1983) echoed these sentiments and called for the public to require educators and elected officials to be responsible for improving public education by providing the leadership and the fiscal resources necessary to achieve the reforms outlined in their recommendations. The U.S. Secretary of Education had formed this prestigious group from diverse backgrounds in response to the public's perception of educational mediocrity. Their charge was to identify the problems and to recommend changes in the American education system in an effort to advance excellence.
The pendulum of educational accountability over the ensuing years has swung away from elected officials and towards educators. Wong (2008) describes the recommendation of the 1992 Commission on Chapter 1 that schools be accountable for achieving student learning results. Chapter 1 is better known as Title I, which establishes programs and provides federal funding for high-poverty schools. The emergence of "new public management" (NPM) may also have contributed to this shift where the "role of the elected official as a point of accountability has been substantially reduced" (Dubnick, 2003, p. 3). With NPM, political bodies set goals and school employees and administrators are charged with making evaluations of progress in meeting these objectives (Adolfsson & Wikstrom, 2007). Unfortunately, this change is contrary to the fundamental purpose of accountability in a democratic society which requires government leaders to answer to their citizens for the decisions they make. Governments must be able to justify raising public funds through the collection of tax monies and defend the purposes for which these resources are used (GASB, 1987). Therefore, this paper presents an analysis of public education accountability using the constructs developed in the accounting literature.
Leadership in effecting accountability in the United States (U.S.) rests with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) where its role is to "seek to enhance the economy, efficiency, effectiveness, and credibility of the federal government both in fact and in the eyes of the American People" (GAO, 2008, p. 2). The GAO is charged with the responsibility of assessing federal government programs. Evaluations of state and local government activity lie with various state agencies based on the laws of the particular state and guided by the GAO and GASB.
Who Is Responsible?
Multiple layers of government involved in U.S. public education create complexities in assessing accountability. The federal government, through the U. …