An abstract landscape image with buildings that indicate a school and a government building to show how the two are consistently intertwined.

School Accountability Is Broken 

Fix It—and Build Equity—by Recognizing Unique Roles of States, Districts, Schools

It’s time for a new approach to accountability. Even though there have been limited successes with our current school accountability systems, 20-plus years of test-based, top-down accountability have failed to deliver on the promise of leaving no child behind. In particular, focusing accountability only on schools shows a lack of understanding of how education systems function. 

We need to let states, districts, and schools create systems that hold them accountable for the distinctly different work each one does. We also need systems that recognize that states and districts are not interchangeable; each operates in a unique context. 

I’m not pulling this idea out of thin air. Personalized and competency-based education has gained in popularity over the last decade, and for good reason. Advances in human learning and development, and culturally responsive pedagogy, have made it clear that we need to do a much better job tailoring education to each student’s needs and goals. I’m proposing that we “personalize” our school accountability systems, too. 

Most people agree that the factory model of education doesn’t work. If we don’t want students learning the same knowledge and skills at the same time, as if they’re on one big conveyor belt, why would we require all the adults in K-12 education to use essentially the same accountability (or assessment) system?

My brilliant colleagues, led by Chris Domaleski, just produced a terrific new paper, The Path Forward for School Accountability, that offers practical strategies for improving accountability now, within or alongside the requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act. These are good ideas in the near term. But as they acknowledge, we should continue to pursue more sweeping reforms. Challenge accepted. We need to upend our current accountability systems if we hope to see more equitable and useful ones. 

The Flawed Basis of Current Accountability Systems

We need to allow states and districts to become laboratories of innovation with plenty of checks and balances. I’m focusing on accountability here, but many of the same principles apply to assessment. 

One of the main shortcomings of our current approaches to tests and accountability is that they are based on outdated or naïve theories of learning and organizational change. It is beyond the scope of this blog post to engage in a detailed analysis of organizational theory, but here’s just one quick look at how our current systems are based on the wrong things. 

In his terrific book, Drive, Daniel Pink eloquently summarizes key lessons on human (and organizational) motivation. He says that people are motivated to improve when we have a sense of autonomy (the ability to direct our own lives), mastery (the urge to get better and better at something that matters), and purpose (the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves). Our current top-down accountability systems run counter to all three of Pink’s elements of motivation. So why would we imagine that they’d produce the kinds of behaviors we value?

Reciprocal and Flexible Accountability

Given the amount of federal money spent through the federal title and other programs, I absolutely believe there must be accountability to document and ensure the appropriate use of the funds. We’d expect the same from any federal program. Except that we’re aiming at the wrong target by focusing only on schools. States and districts are the entities receiving the money and creating rules and policies for schools, so they should be the first line of accountability and responsibility.

However, requiring all states to adopt essentially the same accountability system—based on a model that clearly hasn’t produced the intended outcomes—limits our ability to learn from different approaches in various contexts. Why would we think that the same model should be applied to all 50 states when contexts differ so much across and within states? 

Below is an initial vision for a better-balanced accountability system: one that distributes responsibility among the various levels of education and affords them the support and flexibility they need. 

The State Role

I trust state leaders and stakeholders to propose, based on a disciplined design process, a state accountability system that they think will work in their context. But that doesn’t mean states should be permitted to create any system they want. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) should be responsible for establishing a review process, perhaps peer review, to oversee and support states’ plans. 

The state’s application would thoroughly describe its design process, its plans for thoughtful implementation, and how it will build a continuous improvement process to monitor and improve the functioning of the system. The state would describe how it will hold districts and schools accountable for valued and equitable student outcomes. These could include familiar indicators like state or other test scores, graduation rate, and postsecondary readiness. 

But they could also include other things that states want to prioritize, like school climate or social-emotional learning. The state application would also describe how the state will hold itself accountable for supporting districts and schools. This last piece reflects a key shift to reciprocity: the idea that accountability should be a two-way street

A New Landscape: District-level Accountability

Districts must be free to design systems to hold themselves accountable to their communities, and states must afford them considerable discretion to do this. I do not see how it makes sense for New York City and far upstate Watertown, N.Y., for example, to have the same accountability system. I’m not against commonality, but we’ve gone overboard in our quest to compare everything. 

Districts need systems designed to reflect their unique challenges and assets. States, as part of their plans, will have to declare what limited information they’ll need to have reported comparably across all districts and what types of information districts can use to support their own local goals.

States will have to design systems that hold districts accountable for the things districts should be doing and over which they have unique control, such as financial management and support, curriculum and instructional leadership, professional learning, and other factors that indirectly support student learning. 

These proposed district systems—including how districts will hold schools accountable—would be subject to state review, just as state systems are subject to federal review. This is how we reviewed districts’ “Body of Evidence” graduation assessment systems in Wyoming in the early 2000s, as described in this report. Chris Domaleski, Chris Brandt, and I offered additional details about district accountability in these recommendations.

Schools’ Accountability in a Reformed System

It’s not practical to delegate all autonomy to schools for the design and implementation of their accountability systems. Districts are the locus of authority for education, and they are ultimately responsible for ensuring that all students at all schools in the district have equitable opportunities to learn. 

Nevertheless, as part of a district’s accountability submission to the state, district leaders should describe how they will hold their schools accountable for valued local indicators, such as school climate or improvements in assessment literacy, as well as a limited set of state-required indicators like graduation rate. Should this include some common indicators like state test scores (state testing isn’t going away anytime soon) and postsecondary readiness? Yes, I think so. But I can also make a case that districts should have some leeway to choose the indicators in their systems, so they can figure out which schools need support and for what.

Our 20-plus-year obsession with standardization and comparability has hindered efforts to create more equitable school systems and learning opportunities for students. It is time to try a new approach. 

I fully support keeping some state testing requirements (although toned-down) and maintaining the requirement that states participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), because both play important roles in helping us monitor the performance of all students and student groups. We also enhance equity by engaging local communities and agencies in deciding how to hold themselves accountable. These things should comfort those who think I’m giving up on equity. 

I know that creating these new systems will be a lot of work. States that don’t want to engage in these sorts of redesign processes could just keep their current systems. I don’t think many will opt for this, but it should be an option. 

I know the devil lurks in the details: standardization, flexibility, and much more will have to be negotiated. But I hope that these ideas, which are more aligned with research on human and organizational learning than current approaches, will get the discussion moving so we can get to work on the details. 

Help us get the conversation going. Register for our annual conference in September, the Reidy Interactive Lecture Series, in Portsmouth, N.H., where we will be discussing these and related ideas for improving education accountability.