There are 7 white pillars that go about halfway up the image, and there are 7 different children of diverse backgrounds standing on each pillar to represent the challenges of equity in education under standardized accountability designs.

Promoting Equity Through Accountability System Design

5 Common Barriers and How States Can Avoid Them

School accountability systems can be an important lever for achieving equity, but we have seen little evidence that the current generation of accountability systems has made student opportunities and outcomes more equitable. Below I describe five barriers that prevent state accountability systems from moving the equity needle. States interested in redesigning their accountability system for the explicit purpose of improving equity may find it helpful to address these barriers. 

1. The state has not adopted a common equity definition or theory of action. 

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) does not offer a definition of equity. Similarly, states are largely silent when it comes to defining equity. According to one recent study, only seven states provided an explicit definition of equity in their ESSA plans.  

When equity is ill-defined, individuals and groups may all claim to be working for equity when they actually have very different and even opposing aims and values for schools, children, and structures of advantage and disadvantage. Moreover, ill-defined definitions of equity often translate into ill-defined equity plans, or theories of action, for achieving equitable outcomes. Accordingly, I argue that:

  • If we don’t define equity, we can’t measure it. 
  • If we don’t measure equity, we can’t understand the underlying mechanisms that serve to strengthen and weaken equity. 
  • If we don’t understand the underlying mechanisms that strengthen or weaken equity, we can’t manipulate or change those mechanisms to improve equitable outcomes for students.

2. The state’s equity goals are disconnected from improvement initiatives. 

Accountability systems under ESSA are primarily designed to differentiate among schools and identify the lowest-performing schools and subgroups. Their purpose is to shine a light on inequities, not to improve the inequities identified. When equity is not a central goal of school improvement, a disconnect can emerge between accountability and school improvement. The light continues to shine, but little changes. Gradually, equity is relegated to a buzzword; it gets a lot of hype but has little substance. It shines a light on inequities, but little is known about why those inequities exist or how equitable outcomes might be improved. 

Accountability systems are insufficient to address equity unless they are tightly connected to improvement systems that inform a larger theory of action. Effective improvement systems include a clear and common understanding of what equity means, a strong theory about how it develops and improves, and robust information systems to monitor and improve the theory and how it gets operationalized over time.

3. The state’s equity measures conflate equity and equality. 

Accountability theories of action tend to focus on achieving equal opportunities and outcomes, on average, across federally defined subgroups of students. For example, equity indicators monitor achievement gaps in order to achieve equal performance, on average, across subgroups. Average per-pupil spending reports can ensure that all students receive educational funding at equal levels. Opportunity-to-learn indicators, such as access to college and career success courses, are designed to ensure that all students have equal access to rigorous coursework. 

These types of indicators assume that communities and families equally value the same opportunities and outcomes when, in fact, they don’t. Current accountability systems that set out to measure and monitor equity actually measure equality.

4. The state uses one-size-fits-all indicators to monitor equity.

State accountability systems that measure equity tend to do so in the same way for everyone. But how communities, schools, and individuals perceive, care about, and prioritize these outcomes varies in qualitatively different ways. Equal opportunities and outcomes, as measured by traditional accountability systems, are often not what individual students, families, or their communities might want for their students. 

When stakeholders are not on the same page, indicators that are ultimately included in the accountability system tend to benefit stakeholders who wield the most power or make the loudest noise. This comes at the expense of underrepresented or silent minorities for whom equity or “high-quality school” indicators may have little or no meaning.

5. Stakeholders are unwilling to change inequitable policies and practices. 

Longstanding or institutionalized structures, behavioral patterns, and policies can prevent resources and support from reaching students with the greatest need. 

Unfortunately, reforms to address these policies and structures often fall outside of an education agency’s control. Funding public schools through local property taxes is an example of a longstanding policy that some view as potentially unjust and intractable. 

Shifting such deeply entrenched beliefs requires considerable time, trust, openness to alternative points of view, and a shared commitment toward equity. In many cases, trust must be restored before stakeholders can even begin to engage in discussions about structural inequities. Failing to remain open and entertain the possibility that equity may mean different things to different people, or that certain institutionalized structures, policies, or practices may exist and advantage some students over others, may ultimately allow inequities to persist. Closing off consideration of these and other possible barriers prioritizes certainty over equity, creates walls between groups, and keeps equity at the fringes of educational improvement.

Equity Through Accountability: Next Steps

I’ve outlined five problems that prevent state accountability systems from improving equitable outcomes for students. States that want to redesign their accountability systems for equity should start by establishing (1) a common and well-informed definition of equity, (2) a clear vision of what an equitable education system will produce, (3) a detailed theory of action for improving equitable outcomes, and (4) a data infrastructure that tightly connects accountability indicators and outcomes to improvement science. 

Additionally, influential stakeholders must be ready to place equity at the center of the educational system, recognize that equity means different things to different people and communities, and explore alternative approaches for improving equitable outcomes.

Notably, a few states are implementing promising strategies in their accountability systems to promote equitable opportunities and outcomes for students. 

Texas and Colorado, for example, provide incentives that enable qualified districts to develop and/or select more locally relevant indicators. North Carolina is exploring how alternative measures, such as durable skills and the proportion of students involved in after-school activities, can be incorporated into local accountability systems. In a future blog post, I will describe these strategies in more detail and offer other policy suggestions for promoting equity through accountability.