Joint Committee to Develop a Master Plan for Education
Accountability for Learner Outcomes and Institutional Performance
In order to guarantee that students receive the high-quality education that is promised to them, accountability must be infused throughout California's education system. A meaningful system of accountability builds on clear expectations by providing a clear definition of the roles and responsibilities of all participants, evaluating the outcomes of efforts, and ensuring that consequences are attached to those outcomes as a means to influence their improvement.
Effective accountability requires the linkage of authority and responsibility throughout our system of education. In this context, accountability is fostered by clearly defining the responsibilities of each participant in the system, ensuring that sufficient authority is afforded each participant to carry out those responsibilities, and then ensuring that those responsibilities are carried out. Currently, efforts to improve accountability in public education are complicated by overlapping responsibilities among local, regional, and state entities and by a lack of alignment between the responsibilities assigned to various entities and the authority they have been provided to carry out those responsibilities. Every effort to solve the special problems that exist at different levels of our public education system in isolation one from the other is met with a stubborn reality - that the problems are not soluble until education is understood as a coherent process. How California structures and governs education is crucial to our commitment to infusing greater accountability in public education. This Plan clarifies what responsibilities should be assigned to what entities at the state, regional, and local levels.
On a daily basis, elected officials, agency heads, school district and campus academic leaders, professional educators and, most important of all, the citizens of California are being asked to pass judgment on a bewildering array of new educational initiatives without the comprehensive, reliable, flexibly arranged, easily accessible, and timely data needed to make informed judgments. California collects a considerable amount of data on students, schools, and colleges; but that data collection is fragmented, and the data collected more directly serve the need to meet various state and federal reporting requirements than to evaluate the quality and effectiveness of public and private education in increasing student achievement.
A majority of Americans and Californians are calling for greater accountability for our public education system. Despite a growing ambivalence about the amount of testing that is taking place in public schools, the public still supports testing that measures student learning against a clear set of standards but dislikes any accountability system that relies too heavily on testing at the expense of broader-based evaluations of school performance. The public understands that testing provides a gauge for identifying significant strengths of schools that can be built upon, immediate needs that must be addressed, and eventual changes that it would be desirable to implement. Testing should not just monitor student achievement, it should also be used to advance teaching and learning in all schools.
"It is important to focus on the consequences of programs, old and new, to keep uncovering their shortcomings so that the message gets through, and to locate those programs that do have positive effects and can be extended and expanded." -- Carol Weiss, 1989
Surveys of public opinion also reveal that efforts to develop accountability systems should take a positive view of public education. There is little to be gained by giving in to the rhetoric of crisis and failure of schools. It is still the case that the very best students enrolled in American public schools compete well with the very best students in other nations. Rather, states should focus on long-term progress desired and study successful schools, learn what they are doing right, and seek to replicate those activities in other schools. In the minds of the public, money has much to do with school performance. They view school performance in three tiers: schools located in high income areas that are good to excellent; schools located in middle income areas that are fair to good but for which there is ample room for improvement; and schools located in low income areas that provide an inadequate education or that are in crisis. While they believe more money must be invested in public schools, they do not believe that money alone will make the difference; there must also be measures in place to hold teachers and administrators accountable for student learning. They also express a fear that accountability systems that build too tight a relationship between school performance and funding may have the unintended effect of displacing the goal of improving student learning for doing whatever it takes to attract additional money.
The goals of an education accountability system should be carefully considered before being implemented. Too often goals are only casually considered if they are considered at all. On the surface, the purposes of accountability appear to be self-evident: to identify and punish low performers and to provide rewards and incentives for higher performance. The more important objective, however, should be to derive consensus on what is meant by performance. What is it about education that is important to individuals, the State, and society at large? What are our expectations about effectiveness and efficiency? What about breadth of opportunity and depth of achievement? These are the questions that give accountability its deeper meaning, and efforts to collaboratively generate answers to them are what provide the 'buy-in' from stakeholders that ultimately will make or break any accountability system. The process of collaboratively defining what is meant by performance will also go a long way toward addressing another key impediment to change, lack of trust. Most stakeholders believe in their own capacity to set rigorous and fair standards but distrust the ability or will of others to do so. Hence, many stakeholders are reluctant to embrace any accountability system without detailed understanding of how it will affect their interests. Further, if they perceive too great an emphasis is being given to ways to punish low performance, they may actively oppose or seek to undermine any accountability system.
Another critical issue to address in any effort to establish accountability in public education is the question of who should be held accountable for what and to whom. No one actor can be held entirely or even largely responsible for any given outcome. The education process is simply too complex with too many actors. Key actors that must be considered include the following:
- Students - traditionally they have borne the full burden of educational outcomes. Either they applied themselves to learning or they didn't. Student failure to learn was due to either a lack of effort or a lack of intelligence.
- Peer groups - students are influenced significantly by the things their peer groups value. Students who work too hard to achieve can face rejection and/or ridicule from their peers. Who is responsible for peer influences? Parents? Students and schools? Culture?
- Teachers and faculty - recent studies have emphasized the role of teachers in facilitating student achievement at all levels of education. They have often been blamed for not having subject matter competence or poor pedagogical skills, when students have not achieve at desired levels. Such assignment of blame , however, ignores the fact that students have different abilities and dispositions for learning. A student who refuses to apply him/herself to learning will not achieve no matter how well prepared the teacher is.
- Schools and colleges - they also play a role in promoting student achievement. Do they provide adequate support and the tools needed by teachers to do an effective job of providing high-quality education opportunities to students? Is the curriculum relevant and aligned across grade levels?
- Government - all of the other actors in public education are influenced by the actions taken by federal, state, and local government. Whether resources are adequate to accomplish the educational standards adopted and whether goals are clearly understood are both affected by government decisions. Laws and regulations passed by federal, state, and local government largely shape what public education does.
- Business - it has traditionally been viewed as a customer of education and as having a responsibility to clearly communicate the knowledge and skills it wants in future employees. Increasingly business has also become a provider of education, offering training and professional development for its employees, and even developing courses and skill certifications that are offered to a larger audience. This role has made business a key player with an important responsibility to improve educational performance.
None of the actors in the foregoing list account for the influence, and consequent responsibility, of organized groups like labor unions, professional associations, accrediting bodies, and, in the case of postsecondary education, academic/faculty senates. What quickly becomes apparent is that an accountability system, to be effective, must be approached from the perspective of shared responsibility, with all stakeholders recognizing and accepting their share of responsibility for ensuring and sustainingeducational improvement over time.
After careful consideration of the goals to be pursued and who should be assigned what responsibilities, it is important to decide what measures will be used to evaluate educational performance at the various levels. The goals pursued will largely define what measures are appropriate and valid for evaluating performance. The differing missions assigned to the various education providers will complicate the measures. Public school performance, for instance, can usually be measured against clearly stated academic content and proficiency standards with either standardized or criterion-referenced test instruments. However, postsecondary education providers usually do not have a common body of knowledge that is expected to be taught to every student, have multiple majors with unique competency requirements, have faculty who are responsible for generating new knowledge as well as disseminating current knowledge, and so on. Compliance audits and program or policy reviews have been typical ways in which states have attempted to hold postsecondary institutions accountable. The differences in accountability approaches and educational missions mentioned previously underscore the need to consider multiple measures, including qualitative measures, tailored to the particular education outcomes desired and to particular types of education institutions. Not every desired outcome can be easily quantified.
Performance depends on both motivation and capacity. If a person or institution is unmotivated to perform at high levels, no amount of capacity-building will make a difference. Conversely, if a person or institution has only limited capacity to perform at high levels, no level of motivation will yield the desired performance level. Effective accountability systems must consider both intrinsic and extrinsic incentives that can be provided to individuals and institutions to motivate them to use their capacities more effectively, as well as to help them build their capacities when they are insufficient to achieve the desired performance levels.
Key concerns in designing an accountability system for public education should include at least the following:
- Are the desired outcomes clearly stated and measurable?
- What are the barriers to achieving the desired outcomes; what are the obstacles that must be overcome?
- What tools, strategies, and/or resources are available to help bring about the desired changes?
- Who are the key actors needed to implement the accountability system; which of them have roles in maintaining the status quo?
- Are the desired changes easy to implement or will (they) require experimentation, innovation, and learning, to accomplish?
- Is it acceptable to have change occur incrementally over time, or is rapid, radical change needed in a shorter time period?
Finally, it is important to make provision for holding the accountability system itself accountable for achieving the objectives for which it was designed, just as students and education providers are held accountable. Even the best-designed accountability system cannot be expected to anticipate and account for every aspect of the education enterprise. It may need to be periodically refined. This fact should not be interpreted as a need for the system to be modified annually. Change takes time, and policymakers must be patient to allow the accountability system to take root and to collect sufficient data to adequately inform an evaluation of progress.