Moving Education From Accountability to Shared Responsibility

May 29, 2024

A Reimagined Approach to School Improvement

Most of us do not like being held accountable by others, yet we have no problem (I hope) taking responsibility for a wide range of activities in our personal and professional lives. The same is true in K-12 education, and it could transform accountability for the better.

What if we reimagined accountability as a system of reciprocal responsibility? In these systems, schools, districts, and states would work together to improve schools, each fulfilling its unique, defined responsibility—and holding one another accountable—for getting where they all want to go.

Think of the shift this would bring about. We could stop telling schools that they’re failures and that they should figure out how to get better, and instead tell them, “I see you’re struggling to meet the goals we created together. Let’s dive deeper and figure out what I need to do—and what you need to do—to improve student learning.”

This simple realization emerged from conversations I had with colleagues recently at the Center’s annual Brian Gong Colloquium. This year, the colloquium focused on how to build better continuous improvement processes into our regular design and implementation work.

These conversations made me think about the mindset and culture necessary for continuous improvement, which brought me back to Richard Elmore’s concept of reciprocal accountability. Note that even though he described this idea as reciprocal accountability, he doesn’t mention the word “accountability” in his definition. Rather, Elmore shifts our orientation to responsibility.

For every increment of performance I demand from you, I have an equal responsibility to provide you with the capacity to meet that expectation. Likewise, for every investment you make in my skill and knowledge, I have a reciprocal responsibility to demonstrate some new increment in performance. 

Creating and Protecting a Culture of Learning

Continuous improvement is similar in many ways to the types of formative evaluation described by Michael Scriven many years ago. Formative evaluation and formative assessment are different concepts, but they have something crucial in common: both are meant to support adjustments to programs (evaluation) or learning (assessment) while there are still opportunities to do so.

In both cases, a culture of learning is necessary to ensure that those involved in the system are committed to making improvements. Cultures of learning require key ingredients, such as a collaborative, supportive environment in which you can take risks to make improvements.

However, high-stakes accountability systems often undermine learning cultures. They focus too much on publicly identifying schools that are struggling and too little on supporting their improvement. That makes it challenging to adopt a formative, continuous-improvement mindset.

Another problem with the current federally required accountability system is its myopic focus on schools. Holding only the least powerful entity in the education system accountable for improvement makes it hard to shift from an accountability mindset (“Have you done what we asked?”) to a responsibility mindset (“How are you progressing? What do you need from us?”).

Moving Toward Systems of Reciprocal Responsibility

Chris Domaleski, Chris Brandt, and I wrote about balanced accountability systems four years ago, noting that they are characterized by shared responsibility and expectations at each level of the system: school, district, and state. We cited Elmore’s reciprocal accountability, but did not discuss the shift from accountability to responsibility. Distributing responsibility and accountability among the multiple levels of the system—creating balance—can help shift this orientation.

There’s no doubt that schools are the front line of student learning. School leaders and educators are ultimately responsible to their students to ensure that they have high-quality learning opportunities and engaging experiences. With appropriate support from their districts and states, schools could do this work in a learning mindset, confident they’ll make iterative changes on an upward trajectory.

Schools operate within districts, which are the legal entities controlling finances and most other governing policies that affect school quality and student outcomes. Currently, district leaders are involved when a school is identified for additional support, but that doesn’t shift the focus of accountability or responsibility to districts. That’s an imbalance. Districts have key roles to play in school improvement and should assume responsibility for doing so.

Having served on my local school board for nine years, I know first-hand that districts’ responsibilities are very different than schools’. District leaders and school boards are responsible for a powerful set of factors critical for supporting and improving their schools, such as allocating resources to schools, including funding for teachers, professional development, purchasing curriculum and instructional materials, and designing the district assessment system. Perhaps most importantly, districts are responsible for hiring and supporting school leaders, a key component of school quality. Districts could be held accountable for these levers in a system of reciprocal responsibility.

The performance of a district’s portfolio of schools could also be included in a balanced responsibility system. Since accountability systems should be designed to incentivize certain actions, district-level indicators should focus directly on the equitable distribution of resources and opportunities across the district’s schools. In a reciprocal system, the district’s responsibilities for supporting schools would be made very clear.

The State’s Role in a Balanced-Responsibility System

Just as schools operate within districts, districts operate within states and are subject to state laws and requirements. Further, states have the constitutional responsibility to ensure that students receive a proper or adequate education (the language differs from state to state). In fact, some states have been sued multiple times over their legal responsibility to provide equitable educational opportunities.

Some might argue against holding states accountable in a balanced, shared-responsibility system, but I can’t see how anyone could argue with expecting states to fulfill their responsibilities to provide leadership, vision, resources, and support to districts. In the system I imagine, those roles would be spelled out clearly, and schools and districts could hold states accountable for fulfilling them.

Consistent with our theme of reciprocal responsibility, a state accountability system should include indicators such as the distribution of key resources, teacher quality, and other factors related to school functioning and student performance. Obviously, the mechanics of a state being held “accountable” are tricky, but states must be transparent about the degree to which they are meeting their responsibilities to districts and schools. For example, shouldn’t a state be held accountable/responsible if, other things equal, certain districts have twice the per-pupil expenditures as other districts?

I’m not just talking about policymakers in the executive branch (state departments of education and state boards of education). State legislators hold the purse strings and must own a significant share of responsibility. Some people claim that money doesn’t matter for school improvement, but that’s not true. Schools need resources to regularly update their instructional materials, hire the best educators they can, and get the training and support they need to provide the best possible learning opportunities to students.

This notion of reciprocal responsibility, especially as a lever on policymakers to provide the necessary resources, dates back to the early days of standards-based reform, where multiple components of a system—content standards, performance standards, and assessments—were envisioned as working in concert to improve student learning at scale.

Early advocates and researchers pushed for “school-delivery standards,” also called opportunity-to-learn standards, to ensure that schools had the necessary resources to succeed. Unfortunately, school delivery standards fell by the wayside before NCLB, and schools were left with the entire burden of meeting students’ needs. Opportunity-to-learn indicators should be part of a system of reciprocal responsibility.

Leaning Into School Improvement

My colleague, Laura Pinsoneault, among others, has been writing about the imperative of connecting school accountability systems with support and improvement services. This seems so logical that one wonders why it is not routine. Chris Domaleski and Laura offer suggestions for facilitating this connection. But I wonder if the language of “accountability” and the imbalanced way we’ve assigned responsibility for improvement are getting in the way.

Reciprocal responsibility suggests that all levels of the system have to work together to improve our schools. It’s exciting to imagine how much more humanely our education systems might operate if we adopted these changes in language and mindset.