Federal, State, and Local School Accountability
The Ways in Which Each Group Plays a Part in Improving Student Learning
Over the last two decades, the focus of school accountability has shifted from schools and districts to state accountability systems developed to meet federal requirements.
Recently, Chris Domaleski and I collaborated with Ben Forman of Mass Inc on a paper, Local Accountability – The Forgotten Element in Education Reform, that explores this shift in balance, examines the arguments for strengthening local accountability practices, and offers design principles for local accountability systems.
While promoting local accountability, however, we must strive for a balanced approach to accountability. Local, state, and federal governments play different roles in education, and there is a place for each in school accountability.
Federal and state accountability systems serve a purpose that is consistent with the role of the federal and state governments. The federal role in education is defined largely in terms of civil rights: equity, and equal opportunity to learn. The state role in education includes the additional component of establishing standards of practice to provide all students an adequate and appropriate educational experience. It is the local school community, however, that has the most direct impact on student learning. School reform, systemic change, and, ultimately, improved student learning, require strong accountability initiatives that address the distinct roles of districts, schools, and communities.
The Federal and State Roles in Public Education and Accountability
Title I programs were introduced as part of the civil rights focus in the 1960s to provide financial assistance to local education agencies serving areas with concentrations of children from low-income families. In the 1970s, the concept of civil rights and equal educational opportunity was expanded to include students with disabilities. More recently, increased attention is being directed toward the academic achievement of English language learners.
Federal accountability, therefore, remains appropriately focused on achievement gaps – disparities in the educational achievement among student groups described in terms of race or ethnicity, economic status, disability, and English language proficiency. A fundamental goal of federal accountability is to monitor, reduce, and ultimately eliminate those gaps in opportunity and achievement.
A primary role of the state in education is to ensure that all students are provided an adequate education through public schools. At the instructional level, state involvement in public education is often manifested through certification requirements for teachers, required courses of study, and the adoption of content standards and performance expectations describing what elementary and secondary students should know and be able to do.
State accountability, therefore, remains appropriately focused on student and school attainment of the knowledge and skills described in the state’s content standards.
More recently, the federal and state focus of accountability on outcomes has relied almost exclusively on student performance on state assessments. One can debate the consequences of placing such a heavy emphasis on student performance on standardized state assessments; however, the focus on these limited but important outcomes provides answers to basic questions about whether achievement gaps have been reduced, whether proficiency on state standards has been attained, and whether programs funded to achieve those outcomes have been effective.
Exclusive focus on these limited outcomes is insufficient to improve student learning. Effective accountability systems must address both a broader set of outcomes and the processes implemented to produce those outcomes. It would be impractical and generally ill-advised to further extend the reach of federal and state accountability systems into the school and classroom to address those processes and outcomes. That level of accountability must be encouraged and supported by the state, but is the responsibility of districts, schools, and communities.
The Local Role in Public Education and Accountability
Academic outcomes are important at the local level as well. Educators, however, need information about much more than outcomes. They need to understand why a desired outcome was or was not achieved.
- Was the program implemented with fidelity?
- Was there appropriate funding, staffing, and commitment of other resources?
- What unexpected or unanticipated barriers were encountered?
- What changes can be made to increase the likelihood of success in our context?
Communities are concerned about more than academic outcomes. Academic achievement, although important, is not the only outcome critical at the local level. School mission statements are likely to reflect community beliefs about their schools’ role in aspects of students’ emotional, physical, social, and civic development along with their cognitive development.
Local accountability systems, therefore, must include input and process data designed to address much broader and richer outcomes than state and federal accountability systems. They must connect more directly to the unique context and specific circumstances of individual districts and schools.
Promoting More Balanced and Coherent Accountability Systems
Federal, state, and local accountability each plays a part in improving student learning, but local accountability cannot simply be regarded as an add-on to the current systems of test-based accountability. As my colleagues Domaleski, Betebenner, and Lyons assert in their paper and recent blog post, “the relationships among federal, state, and local systems are important in creating a coherent and balanced system. At a minimum “local accountability systems can be designed to effectively work within and around the constraints of state and federal systems to create a coherent picture of school quality and student success for their own improvement purposes. “
While designing those systems, however, we can also envision and plan for a time when local accountability systems, free of artificial constraints, organically provide the designed data and information useful at the state and federal levels.