Strengthening Ties Between Accountability and School Improvement

May 01, 2024

Five Principles to Guide Practice

Ideally, school accountability and improvement are closely connected. That connection is based on a theory of action that monitoring progress toward the outcomes we value most will signal what’s important, incentivize effective practices, and help deploy supports where they are needed. However, many worry that school accountability has fallen short of this promise, and its connection to school improvement is tenuous at best.

As an analogy, think of your annual check-up. Your doctor will likely collect important measures, such as by recording your vital signs or ordering lab work. Of course, the measures themselves aren’t what will make you healthier. The idea is to use this information to motivate healthier behaviors and inform treatment as necessary.

If the test results reveal high cholesterol levels, for example, your physician may suggest dietary changes or prescribe medication. The process will break down if you don’t have the right information, the right treatment, or the right follow-through.    

It’s fair to ask a similar question in education: Are school accountability systems supporting effective school improvement practices? If not, where is the system breaking down and how can we fix it?

Five Principles

To help address these questions, we developed some principles we think will help maximize the connections between school accountability and improvement. We vetted and refined these principles based on feedback from state leaders who participate in the Accountability Systems and Reporting (ASR) and School and District Improvement (SDI) collaboratives supported by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). 

1. Build and Sustain Systems of Collaboration

Supporting improvement must be a collaborative effort among education professionals in multiple roles. We need to break silos between accountability and improvement specialists so they regularly discuss what information is needed and how it is best used. We emphasize the importance of the word “systems” in this principle. Sometimes (perhaps often), great practices happen because of the heroic efforts of individuals. While that’s commendable, it’s not sustainable.

In a separate post, Laura Pinsonneault describes some promising practices to foster collaboration. For example, state departments may develop training programs and resources to help different units within the organization learn about the functions of others. Or, the agency may create cross-functional teams that share authority and responsibility for improvement and accountability initiatives. A rule of thumb to gauge whether these collaborative systems are sufficient is to ask, “If one or more key staff members left the organization, would the most effective practices continue?” 

2. Invest in Ongoing Systems of Improvement

The second principle is a call for making investments in systems of continuous improvement for accountability and support. States should be able to ask and answer these key questions: How do we know how schools are doing? What are the most promising practices to support improvement? What is the impact of the supports we provide?

More specifically, states need to define the characteristics of effective school improvement plans. Would we know a good one if we saw one? Agencies should have established procedures for making sure staff understand and implement the most effective practices, such as through induction and training programs.

Another promising practice is to create and maintain a shared information system or “clearinghouse” of evidence-based improvement practices. Only by ensuring information is widely known and used can we sustain and scale improvement.

3. Support Effective Interpretation and Use

Even accountability systems with well connected measurement and support structures (principle 1) that continuously improve (principle 2) will not realize their potential benefits if users of these systems can’t understand the information they provide. Yes, this is about data literacy, but it’s also about clear reporting. Help people understand accountability and other data and make sure that the reports themselves are not barriers to their own use.

This means gathering with broad-based groups of constituents (e.g., policymakers, building leaders, educators) to determine how best to turn data into information and insights to help students. This can take many forms, from developing user-friendly interactive reports, to creating online resources (e.g., interpretation guides and presentations) to providing direct training customized to specific constituents and their needs.

4. Bolster School and District Improvement Capacity

It’s not enough to simply identify what needs to improve and decree that it occur. We must be able to describe how improvement occurs and provide the resources and support so schools can make progress. Sometimes this is referred to as the principle of reciprocity: every performance expectation carries an accompanying responsibility to provide capacity to meet that expectation.

The focus of this principle is to ensure conditions are right for improvement efforts to succeed. After conducting a needs assessment, for example, states may prioritize funding for wider access to technology, training and development for educators and leaders, additional resources to support curriculum and instruction, implement supplemental tutoring, or create communities of practice. There’s no quick fix here. Providing reciprocal support is an “all hands on deck” effort that reminds us of the importance of systematic collaboration—a theme that cuts across all of these principles. 

5. Connect Information to School Supports

Finally, we recognize that traditional accountability systems, such as those developed to support ESSA, are limited.  To better connect information to supports, we need more timely information throughout the year on a range of inputs and outcomes at a grain size that is actionable. This will help identify a more comprehensive and differentiated set of improvement strategies tailored to the needs of schools and students. 

For example, some states and districts are creating data dashboards that include far more information than what is in the state’s ESSA accountability system, including information on access to resources and opportunity to learn. Agencies may use data in analytic models to help detect conditions that may require intervention. And, of course, qualitative reviews, such as by having support teams engage in meetings, document reviews, or observations can enhance the breadth and depth of information available to support school improvement. 

This is not a ”one and done” process. States should provide ongoing monitoring and refine and enhance their improvement strategies based on what they are learning along the way. 

A Shared Responsibility

These five principles are built on the idea that simply providing accountability results and hoping improvement occurs is a woefully incomplete theory of action. We can have the most comprehensive system for collecting and reporting data, but if nobody is using it to inform improvement efforts, it’s like sending a lab report to a patient with no guidance or treatment plan and assuming they’ll improve before next year’s check-up. 

Ultimately, implementing the principles of accountability and improvement is a shared responsibility. We believe accountability and reporting can play an important role in effective school improvement through collaborative efforts grounded in the principles we outline.

Carlas McCauley is associate dean of research and sponsored programs and an associate professor at Howard University.