« Needed Now: Bold Alternate Schemes | Main | Unexpected Side Effects of the Best Intentions »

What Do We Mean by Accountability?

| 34 Comments | No Recommendations

Dear Deborah,

I wish, as you suggested, that we could have some influence on the national debate. Even when we don’t agree on the specifics, we at least have the humility to know we don’t have all the answers to the problems. For the next few years, much will depend on decisions soon to be made by President-elect Obama. If he chooses as the secretary of education one of the slash-and-burn superintendents who have recently been in the national news (think Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, for example), then the whole nation will be subjected to a new brand of leadership, one that is intent on producing numbers (test scores) without giving much thought to the larger goals of education. We could see a strange paradox in which test scores go up even as knowledge and education deteriorate.

This outcome would not in fact be paradoxical, because we know that the relentless focus on test scores in basic skills has been accompanied by a narrowing of the curriculum in most other areas.

One of our readers, Patricia Buonchristiani, sent me a column that she wrote for an Australian newspaper (The Age) on Dec. 1, warning Australians not to follow the American example in which test scores are the highest goal of education. It seems she was a principal in a Virginia school and saw the ugly consequences for children and teachers of the NCLB regime. She wrote her warning when she heard that the Australian Minister of Education, Julia Gillard, had invited New York City Chancellor Joel Klein to spread the gospel of testing and accountability. Apparently, many Australian newspapers were properly skeptical of testing as a cure-all for educational ills.

As we try to figure out what “bold alternate schemes” there might be, we need to decipher what accountability is and what it should be. I was very impressed a few months ago by Richard Rothstein’s paper “Holding Accountability to Account,” which is available online. Rothstein shows that strict adherence to any single measure (like test scores) has the unintended effect of corrupting schooling. By making test scores the sole gauge of progress, one can expect to see cheating and test prepping, and other quasi-legitimate and outright illegitimate ways of reaching the only goal that matters. When teachers, principals, and students are given rewards and punishments for only one measure, that measure may well rise, but at a cost.

What is the likely cost? What will be sacrificed—and is now being sacrificed—is an education of quality. Instead of educating students for post-secondary education, for a life of civic responsibility and for the modern workplace, we may instead send forth young people who have been cheated of an education. They were cheated because the only goal that counted was their score on a standardized test. They were cheated because the adults in charge of them were told that nothing else mattered—not their character, not their sense of civic duty, not their knowledge of history, geography, literature, or anything other than basic skills.

Interesting that Daniel Koretz (in his book "Measuring Up") treats test-prepping as something that is just a step or two removed from cheating. Yet we know that many districts today spend a lot of time and money giving children “interim assessments” and preparing children for the all-important state tests. The question that remains unanswered is whether students would do just as well on tests for which they have not been “prepped.” The answer, I fear, is no, which means that whatever they learned through test prep was transient, did not transfer to other settings, and was to that extent fraudulent.

The questions you raise are central: What does “accountability” mean? Who makes the decisions? For what can we hold schools accountable? What matters beyond test scores?

Maybe our readers can help us find reasonable definitions and answers to our questions.



Heaven forbid that Michelle would be wasted on as stupid a job as education secretary!

Please, at least let the few city kids who have someone battling for them hold on to her.

I don't get how test scores are an end-all-be-all. Why can't it just be a measuring stick?

It seems to me some people are crying the sky is falling - does it have to be that way?

Again, what would you replace test scores with - no accountability at all?

If you poo poo one thing, at least have the decency to suggest a replacement.


I can't help but look at Patricia Buonchristiani's experience (which I would judge to be typical) through the lens of social work. Dysfunctional systems, like dysfunctional families, tend to be self-perpetuating. This isn't due to any malevolence, or stupidity on the part of the participants, but because there is a logic that makes sense within the particular illness that does not make sense in any healthy state.

Alcoholic families rally around the alcoholic doing all kinds of nonsensical things that help perpetuate the drinking problem. The alcoholic does the same. The spouse may call in endless excuses to an employer, hoping that the addict will better be able to recover if they are not mired down in consequences. Relatives may loan money, or drink alongside (so the alcoholic doesn't drink it all themself). Alcoholics don't stock up for a weekend of drinking--because they never intend to spend the whole weekend drinking. They'll buy Saturday's supply at the liquor store and spend all day Sunday in the bar because the liquor store is closed. And there is always some poor kid in the family that gets to be the scapegoat. The kid has (real) problems that can never be solved, because they either provide the trigger to drink or because they take the focus off of the alcoholic.

This all perfectly logical within the system and the participants generally feel as though they have no choice. Anyone on the outside throws up their hands and cannot understand why so many people are so heavily involved in maintaining a problem whose solution appears so obvious to them.

This is pretty much the way that I see many school systems functioning. The intervention of testing--which ought to have provided terribly important information about what was succeeding and what was not--has been met with denial. Instead of awakening a wholesale embrace of change and reform, the reality that some kids are coming out years behind their peers in other systems (not to mention the way this divides by ethnicity and SES) has invited multiple expressions of denial. The tests are unfair. The tests don't measure what is really important (and that is?) The kids don't test well, or they cannot learn that much. Testing inspires cheating.

There is no solid evidence that these is the case--but these things are easier to accept, within the dysfunctions of the system. As the alcoholic dysfunctional system operates around avoiding the reality of alcoholism, the dysfunctional school system, I would suggest, operates around avoiding the reality that it creates and maintains an unequal social stratification.

So, as districts confront these excuses as if they are reality, they go down some very nonsensical roads. Instead of teaching children to read, they teach them to pass reading tests. Again--this fits with their definition of the problem--either they are educating children who cannot possibly pass the tests (because the children are less able or because the tests are unfair), or the children really know how to read, but they just can't take tests.

Now, if there was a recognition that children weren't learning to read, even though capable--this is a problem with a solution, or set of solutions. Not easy solutions, but solutions nonetheless (look at New Zealand). But this is not the problem that schools have attempted to solve. They have attempted to solve the problem of how to survive within a set of unfair expectations that they show up better on an unfair scoring system, or with students who don't test well. Within that logic it makes perfect sense to drop all pretense of teaching and go through the motions, drilling and test prep (with some hidden hope that all this will go away and everything can go forward as it used to).

In fact, there are some other measures in place--most states use graduation and attendance, a few have others. These will continue to get little attention until some outside entity focuses a spotlight on them and holds feet to the fire. Though limited, they are important indicators--particularly graduation. The resistance to looking at graduation stems from the utility of creating drop-outs. Pushing out poor performers is an important means of avoiding the need to improve education in order to get better scores. Losing the losers is an important avoidance scheme.

At base, schools should be held accountable for teaching kids to read, write and cipher--and function as citizens in a democracy, ready for work or further education. I am sure that there are measures far more complicated than the ones we currently have, more valid perhaps.

But how much evidence do we need, and in what form, to be able to accept that some kids are getting a banquet while others get an empty spoon--and that schools are a part of determining who gets what?

I worked for many years in test prep, and I would argue that it's not as monolothic and evil as you make it sound. There is cramming for a test--reheasing a narrow range of content endlessly so that you can spit it out on test day and forget it. Ick. There is drilling question types--rehearsing a narraow range of questions and then praying that you get just those types of questions. Also ick. But there is also test readiness, which is much more strategic, and involves developing skills of analysis and problem solving--sussing out what is being asked o fyou in strange, new situations, and then making a plan that will help you access relevant knowlege, apply relevant skills, and overcome your obstacles. These are vital life skills that apply to a wide range of challenges students will face inside and outside school, and I see nothing wrong with that kind of prepration--any more than I'd look askance at an athlete preparing for a physical challenge by, say, studying the opposing team's strengths and weaknesses, or pacing out a race course to see where the hills are, and then making a plan of attack.

In the not very distant past AFT published
“What college bound students abroad are expected to know about Biology.” “Achieving High Standards” that included samples of foreign content standards. Once NCLB was enacted AFT stopped publishing them. How can the AFT publish books about content specific standards and not believe in measuring them with tests? Or is accountability optional in education as it now seems to be on Wall Street and in Detroit?


Thank you for sending my thoughts flying with your column. It made my day.

Accountability is a confused term right now. What should it mean? It should mean a willingness, in education, to explain what one is doing and why, and to show results where results can be shown, taking also into account those results that are less visible or measurable, or those that take time to emerge into view.

But to explain what one is doing and why, one must first know what one is doing and why. This is where accountability errs today: it has become the supreme end. We generate data so that we may be accountable. We emphasize testing so that we may be accountable. We engage in Accountable Talk® so that it may be said that we engage in Accountable Talk®. Accountability has become the ruler (or the gun of the ruler), whereas in a better situation it would be more like a thoughtful journalist. Its role would be to reveal our highest aspirations, our most difficult struggles, and everything in between.

What should be higher than accountability, then? Knowledge, understanding, and those things we seek to know and understand, to teach and convey. Also, respect, compassion, foresight, patience, wisdom--those virtues that accountability simply reflects if they are present, and calls for if they are not.

Why aren't children reading? Because we have forgotten what they should be reading. If they read bland leveled texts and test passages, they will not be exposed to the vocabulary, rhythms, and ideas that lift a person to another level of thinking. Schools have made the "reading level" more important than the text itself; it is more important that a child progress from level J to K (for accountability) than that he or she learn a poem or speech.

If we give priority to things of lasting importance, challenge, and beauty, if we devote our instruction and leadership to those things, then the accountability measures will be clear, and humane.

Diana Senechal


I'm going to play devil's advocate on this issue and I pre-apologize if I get a bit too cynical along the way. I’m sorry.

So, you insist our testing mentality has become absurd. That's fine. Why don't we simply revert back to the good old pre-education reform days and "pretend" everyone is doing swell. Kids are all being promoted from one grade to the next, and, viola, everyone is graduating on time. No problem – right.

Pardon me if I disagree, or is that puke. The educational philosophy of the educational establishment pre-ed reform was: IF YOU PRETEND FOR A LONG ENOUGH PERIOD OF TIME THAT A PROBLEM DOESN'T EXIST, THEN MAYBE, JUST MAYBE, IT WILL GO AWAY. Baloney!!! It never went away it only festered and got worse as kids went further through school. As well, it should not have gone away because it was real.

I'll admit I have some problems with the testing regime our country's schools are living under currently but we cannot, I repeat, we cannot return to not knowing or not demanding to know what's going on in our schools for learning. It's simply an unacceptable and worse, an irresponsible policy to fathom or tolerate.

NCLB and its test were not written for kids from Scarsdale or Shaker Heights or Scottsdale or Beverly Hills. These kids were never left behind and probably never will be either. To put kids from these types of schools through what we're demanding of kids who attend DeWitt Clinton or Cambridge Rindge and Latin is not only a mistake, it's a cop out, a joke, and an enormous waste of time.

Middle and upper SES schools should pay little or no attention to any of the nonsense associated with NCLB, neither the test prep nor the testing itself. They're wasting their time. 90% to 95% of kids from these schools should breeze through the test. But kids attending DeWitt Clinton need to prove themselves academically, somehow, especially on basic skills in mathematics and language arts. We simply cannot take the teacher’s grade from a high school like this as gospel that a student has actually learned what they were supposed to have learned. History would not allow us tolerate such a scheme

So if you don't want to hold them accountable via a test how else do you propose to prove their academic ability (on a wide scale because there are a great number of students in these kinds of schools), surely not with a report or a project or a portfolio, at least I hope not. You could NEVER dependably track whose work was in the report, the project, or the portfolio. You rail against cheating on NCLB tests like it’s a common occurrence. And I suppose there would be no compromising on any of these projects, reports or portfolios? A student’s teachers, administrators, relatives, friends, classmates, neighbors, etc. anyone could easily do the work for the student and who would ever know, or how could anyone ever definitively prove it was the student who actually did or did not do the work?

Whatever course of accountability is pursued it has to be laced with pragmatism.


I don't find the issue of accountability to be so difficult or to require so many words of explanation. Accountability is the acceptance of responsibility. It is doing what you say you are going to do (now there's an indicator of trust for you).

Sticking a copyright on it, or muddying the reading waters with excessive concern for what is read--that is merely obfuscation. Personally, I think that the what of reading is one of those areas where a great deal of freedom can be granted--within the context of accepting accountability for ensuring that all children CAN read.

Paul, While our achievement gap is very large, our best students are not doing very well either when compared to the best school systems around the world. If our focus is only on reducing the achievement gap, we will miss the larger picture in that our school system as a whole is doing extremely poor at educating even our most priviledged students.

The problem with "accountability" as the sole focus of ed reform is that it ignores the key element of improvement; how do we improve student learning? Just demanding "better" doesn't get us there.

Our school system is not set up to improve and so we get no improvements, no matter how vehemently we demand them.


Responsibility and accountability are not quite the same. Responsibility is doing what you say you will do (or what you know you should do, whether or not you have promised it). Accountability has the added sense of making plain what you have done. (Interesting that "account" means both "reckoning" and "narration.") Accountability should involve both counting and telling.

But none of this makes sense unless we understand what we are doing and why. It matters intensely and vitally what children read in school. I don't mean that all schools should teach exactly the same books. But they should teach literature, not mediocre texts. And students should become acquainted with classics essential to our cultural traditions.

Diane wrote, "We could see a strange paradox in which test scores go up even as knowledge and education deteriorate." This is already happening. Students are losing the resonance of language, the memory of the past--not completely, but incrementally. Yes, we need tests. But we need to teach children something of value to begin with. If we have nothing better to offer than a "leveled text" and a bundle of strategies, we deny them a real education.

Diana Senechal

This is fascinating reading, and I don't have answers for all these tough questions, but I do have some recent experiences in schools that suggest the test prep mania is out of control - for example, one of my graduate students reported that he saw Kaplan materials piled up while the school had also ordered new books from Sylvan. Why bother sending teachers to get degrees and credentials if all we're going to ask them to do is supervise children learning how to eliminate answers and have a better shot at guessing? You may defend the tests but if you really think about it all they tell us with any certainty is that children may have chosen a correct answer; it's just as possible they had a lucky guess. What I find encouraging is that I am beginning to see some people on the education blogs grappling with what we value. If we can steer the national discourse on education toward some semblance of meaningful discussion on that topic, perhaps we will wind up realizing that accountability isn't all it's cracked up to be. Maybe we'll wake up and realize that paying kids (and their teachers) for their test score performance is a terrible idea.

Schools should be accountable for the quality of teaching and learning that they inspire. On that, most people would agree. But what should our children be learning?

The California Standards Test assesses a narrow range of skills that define very fundamental levels of literacy: reading comprehension, vocabulary, grammar rules... and general math operations. Oh, and how good students are at taking tests.

Here are about 40 things that are NOT assessed:

Intellectual capacity, vitality, humanity, or vigor;
Academic potential;
Natural giftedness or talent;
Joy or love of learning or innate resiliency;
Creativity, inventiveness, curiosity, wonderment;
An ability to analyze, criticize, judge, advocate, collaborate or lead others;
An ability to perform a task, a one-act play, a reader's theater, an original poem, or a symphony;
The ability to communicate in multiple mediums (let alone multiple languages);

Or the ability to solve complex problems or apply new learnings to authentic tasks;
Or to use technology;
Or to finesse the nuances of cross-cultural communication;
Or the value of an individual’s service to others;
Or character or health awareness, or sense of humor, inner beauty or goodness;
Or interest or motivation;
Or spirit
Or spiritual awareness.

Or how students might propose to solve problems like global warming.

The list of course goes on-- they are mainly things we all want to see in our own kids. At my school we try to cultivate as many of these as possible knowing that while they may not show up on our Academic Performance Index... they might one day be the very qualities we are held accountable for when the pendulum swings and we get back to providing a comprehensive education again.

Diana, Great description of the difference between responsiblity and accountability. You are so right in highlighting the critical error of the "testing and accountability" movement. It actually matters what teachers/students are accountable to.

If we make these low level skills/procedure based reading and math tests the judgment standard to which we measure progress, that will produce a quite different educational experience than one rich in content, knowledge and ideas.

Diane, Great post. But unless we change our school structure to focus on improving student learning, it matters not what schools/teachers are accountable to, because our schools have no mechanism for improving what happens within the classroom. All these "accountability" schemes will fail to do what they purport to do: improve student learning.

You mentioned that you don't know the solutions. But if you can't figure out a reasonable path out of the morass that we are getting ourselves into with this testing and accountability nonsense, who will?

There is much to think about in this interesting discussion. I would also like to suggest that economics has a great deal to with the problems in the current US accountability system.When every child is being tested a cost effective means must be found. To include the kinds of tests that would evaluate divergent thinking, creativity, persistence, the ability to communicate effectively and all the things Kevin listed would be financially untenable. The use of teachers, for example, as valid testing 'tools' would require validation measures that would be expensive in terms of time and dollars. The simple, four point multiple choice format is amenable to electronic scanning and hence is extremely cost effective. The trouble is it also fails to test many of the things most thoughtful people see as the essential components of a successful education. When we couple high stakes universal testing regimes with the budget bottom line it is inevitable that we will get the model that fits the cash. When the testing is 'high stakes' then teachers will teach to the test. Nothing else makes sense within that system. The tragedy is, that what they teach is defined by what can be tested CHEAPLY and not what can be tested APPROPRIATELY. The quality of what goes on in the classroom is defined by the cheapest form of testing available.

If I, as a taxpayer, am forced to fund a charter school then the charter school is unaccountable to me. Of course, I could try to withhold taxes but the armed thugs representing the charter school- the police, courts, IRS etc. will use yet more violence to extract what they want.

A further comment - my fear is that this failing system of accountability is going to take hold in Australia.

Diana and Erin (and maybe Mr. Riley):

There is a fallacy here that I feel I must challenge. That is that in the absence of state-level testing, with results made public and an expectation of students performing to a defined level on them, that all of these wonderful other things were going on in schools--and that somehow the introduction of the tests--designed to guarantee a minimum level of learning to all students--has motivated teachers/schools/districts to throw all of these wonderful other things out the window and instead teach students how to bubble in, how to use reading strategies (I'm still not sure that I buy this as a bad thing--quite separate from the purchased system that purports to be teaching it), and other ugly and empty stuff.

Diana--of course it matters what children read, in some sense. But as a parent of a struggling reader, I can tell you that I am exceedingly happy when I can find something, ANYTHING, that catches his interest and makes the struggle worth his effort. That is where I believe the great freedom is possible. This does not negate the need for him to learn all kinds of reading strategies (how to understand a new word from contextual clues, forecasting what might come next, reflecting on reading, ways to look for the answers to questions in a textbook--all things that a "good" reader does without thinking).

Read in a box systems are certainly not my favorite means of teaching/learning. But the people who sell these things can't get in the door unless they can sell to a need that is perceived by the people inside ("we've surely got trouble--right here in River City"). It is absolutely true that not only do we have too kids getting to middle school without having adequate capacity to read and understand, but we also have a dearth of teachers there trained in how to teach these things to adolescents. The need is there, generally, and very likely within the specifics of your school. If I were in on the purchasing decision, I would want to look both at the test data within the school to understand the level of need--I might want to talk to some curriculum folks/teachers to understand their take on the problem and the ability to respond with current resources--and I would want to see some impact data from the system before buying it. I would probably also want to ask some key questions about comprehension, engagement levels, things like that.

Kevin--I just want to say that the things that you list are not unimportant, many of them should be measured (either quantitatively or qualitatively) within the school, particularly as they are contributers to the learning environment that is necessary to either produce or use the skills measured by the current tests. I would be loath to add mandatory measures of many of these things--some of which I would consider to be processes. But I am, at the same time appalled by the number of schools that I have been in that do not recognize either the importance of these things, their ability to impact them--or their entanglement with the things that are measured on the state tests. I cannot tell you how many encounters I have had with my childrens' schools in which their response to anything that could be improved is that the state doesn't make them do that (or how many things that they wanted to do were "required" by the state, even though no such requirement existed). They stand in the middle of chaos refusing to believe that they have anything to do with communicating across cultures, or inspiring students or engaging them, or using a reading skill in readers theater, or cultivating enough group sense among students that they can learn collaboratively--or collaborating with their teaching peers. And they ignore any impact of the chaos and disorganization on their ability to nurture learning. And then they look for shortcuts so that the tests won't reveal how little learning is actually going on. And blame the tests for their choices.

But, Diana, the fact that I am very open with regard to the "what" of reading should not be interpreted as believing it doesn't matter. Of course it matters--I just don't see the point in standardizing whether to focus on Chaucer or Shakespeare in tenth grade, or requiring Grapes of Wrath to the exclusion of Cannery Row--or expecting every student to read The Pretty Bones or the autobiography of RuPaul simply because they speak loudly and clearly to some student in a class.

Yes, there is some danger that then a district will elect to use "levelled" magazine articles to teach reading (BTW--I understand that in classrooms in New Zealand they use "levelled" bookshelves of children's books exclusively for the teaching of reading at elementary level, where we prefer to purchase reading texts). But I don't think that we solve that problem by setting a rigid standard to somehow prohibit it. That is not an acceptance of responsibility, but rather an avoidance of it.

Responsibility and accountability may not be identical. Accountability may be more the measure of responsibility. But there can be no accountability without responsibility.

It seems to me that there is a larger issue at work here, and testing is just a symptom. To say that any one part of the system is worse than the other (testing, accountability, cramming for the test, inaccurate results) ignores the fact that the reality is no one can agree on what it means to be educated and what it means to educate students. Generally speaking (this does not pertain to ALL) when a person goes into the field of medicine, it is because they have an interest in preserving human life, for healing people, for finding ways to make the body work better.
Education is difficult because there is no real consensus on what we want students to be able to do when they end their time in formal education (note I said formal, I hope they all become life long learners). Whether we have testing or not is irrelevant to the issue. Education is influenced by multiple parties with multiple agendas with multiples means of fulfilling those agendas. These are not "new" issues, they are problems that have just evolved. We make a mistake to assume that there was ever a time when education, (specifically k-12) was better than it is now- it was different, granted, but I would argue not better perse.
Forgive my bleak outlook, but NCLB is the result of a greater social issue when it comes to education. If we cannot agree on what it means to educate our students and what that looks like, in a way that attempts to be the best for ALL students, educational reforms are never going to work.
The theories behind education that philosophers, historians, pyschologists, etc work towards, are never going to meet in the middle with the actual practice of education, because education is a field that is too politically motivated. Parents, politicians, teachers, school boards, tax payers, superintendents, state superintendents all think they have an idea of what is best....where is the middle ground? What happened to looking at students as human beings that deserve knowledge and the opportunity to become life long students- these students no longer exist. Instead our classrooms are filled with bodies, bodies that have become a tool for measurement of our own making, and not the students and humans we hope to see create and reshape our imperfect world.

When I was an assistant principal in a school that used the NZ Reading Recovery program we certainly 'leveled' books according to RR guidelines and lists, but these were real books - picture books, chapter books - all the kinds of children's literature read for pleasure. They were NEVER specially written for RR and were most certainly not reading texts. The only material used that was specifically written for RR was Marie Clay's 'concepts about print' booklets and these were purely for a part of initial assessment.

What also concerns me deeply is the tendency I have seen in educational debates over the last 30 years to swing from one extreme of opinion to the other. Before mandated state testing, good things were happening in classrooms and bad things. Since testing has taken hold there are still good things happening and bad things. Single mindedness, for example, about phonics or whole language is also unhelpful because the reality is that an effective reading program contains elements of each. Wonderful things are still going on in some schools but it's getting harder because of the stifling effect of the current testing regime. Accountability is important, testing is important, but not the kind of testing philosophy that says 'scores are everything'. That's just another example of a single minded approach that distorts the reality of what education should be about and oversimplifies a complex system in an attempt to gain some kind of ill conceived control. Education is complex. Classrooms are complex. Children are complex. No four point multiple choice test can reflect and assess that complexity but it might shed some light on one aspect of the whole and to that extent could form a part of a broader scheme. It seems to me it is never all one thing or another and I am always wary of educational zealots who suggest otherwise!

Margo/Mom, It is not the tests that at fault for our students' poor education, but the whole notion that standards coupled with tests could spur improvements in education.

Your description of how schools should adopt a "read in a box" system should probably be happening, but it doesn't. There aren't that many choices and the relative effectiveness of any one program is rather unknown.

Because most of the reading programs are designed to follow as many state standards as possible, there is a lack of coherence to the programs as well as an over-reliance on poor/ineffective reading methodologies (because the methodologies are written into state standards). This isn't so much the publishers fault as they are only responding to the system that they need to work within.

Our schools have no system for improving these reading programs at all. Schools focus on adopting a program, not developing one. But without the iterative development of new ideas (or even evaluating old ones), how is anyone to know what elements are good, which ones need improvements and how are the programs actually used in a classroom setting?

Pat's comment about going to the extreme in programs is rather interesting. How do we know (besides common sense) that we need both phonics and whole language? Is the balance the same for every grade or every stage of learning? The answer is that we do not know and with our current lack of a system to evaluate whether these programs enable children to learn well, we won't know for the foreseeable future.

Education is not that complex. It is rather simple. Great teachers educate pretty much the same way (balance the needs of learning material with the interests of their students).

What is complex and difficult is convincing people that it is our system of schooling that largely prevents improvements in student learning.

Our schools have no systems for developing or evaluating curricula, no mechanisms for communicating to the greater teaching community what teaching approaches work better than others, no mechanisms for setting long-term goals and meshing those goals with short term work, and no mechanisms for allowing individuallity in learning pace or topics.

Shannon, I doubt that we will ever find complete consensus about what it means to be educated. But we don't have to. We certainly could (and probably should) allow multiple pathways towards enabling our students to become educated. But what we do need is a school system organized solely to improve student learning. Something we currently lack.

Erin - can I suggest one way of discovering the programs/approaches that work? Look at countries that do well in international testing. TIMSS is one, but not the best because what it measures is the taught curriculum - ie do students remember what they have been taught? Instead look at the OECD PISA results for 2003 and 2006. PISA measures how students are able to apply what they learn - far more important. Unfortunately there are no 2006 literacy scores for the USA because of an 'administrative error' in the testing but there are scores for 2003. Then look at how demographically similar countries perform eg New Zealand and Australia, both countries with huge numbers of immigrants. In both countries there is no government mandated literacy scheme or approach. Teachers select the approach most suitable for their students' needs. In both countries a balanced literacy approach is at the core. In both countries teachers are expected to use running records as a significant diagnostic tool. In neither country is there the high stakes testing regime we have in the USA. Let's hope this continues to be the case.We may love the Fins and their amazing educational system and we may be able to learn much from them, but their society has some significant differences from ours. We need to look outside the USA and learn.

Pat, There is much that we could learn from other school systems. But the 4th grade PIRLS may be a better test to examine the effectiveness of early reading programs (e.g. balanced literacy, phonics, whole language etc.). By that measure, it would appear that Singapore and/or Canada would be the better model for us to learn from. Australia was about the same as the US and New Zealand performed significantly worse than the US as a whole.

While we certainly can (and should) learn from other school systems, our schools need to take full ownership for improving student learning. Something that our schools are not used to doing and the system is not set up to encourage.

These system changes are simple. But culturally, Americans are more comfortable with the "testing and accountability reforms" than changing the idea of "local control" (Despite the fact that there really is no control; schools work more off the legacy of what has been done in the past rather than any thoughtful plan to address the needs of students in succeeding in their educational goals.)

Because we put the idea of "local control" above everything else (student learning, common sense, etc.), the latest reforms have tried to work within the system by enacting standards.

The idea being that if the teachers follow the standards, then student learning must surely improve. But teaching hasn't improved. And it won't. The standards are for the most part poorly written and do more to entrench poor practice and curricula than we had prior to the standards movement. This is not a viable model for improving teaching, curricula nor of improving student learning.

There are certainly more than one pathway to get to a system that is set up to improve. But the critical element that will be common to any successful reform will be a specific plan to address the issue of how to improve classroom instruction.


What would you recommend to improve student learning, teaching, and/or curricula? How would you suggest we set up our schools to improve?


In looking at examples internationally, I see both central and local control. Finland, for instance has a fair amount of local control within their national system. But it does not lead to the kind of between school variance that we have in this country.

Testing, or accountability per se are not to be confused with reform--however, in a context that values improved outcomes for all students, testing and accountability can provide an important nudge. System reform (or evolution) has to start somewhere--and I don't necessarily advocate for top down over bottome up. But, I think that one of Woessman's important observations is that it is really a combined effort that yields top results--external accountability along with application of local knowledge. I sometimes wonder if our problem is a dearth (or maldistribution) of local knowledge. Faced with the need (as pointed out by the externally determined testing system--and the externally determined standards), to bring about improvements, it looks to me like in too many cases, the local powers take on the wisdom of a deer in the headlights.

What, teach kids to read? What does that mean? Read what? How to do it? Can't be done. Let's figure out out how to get around this one. Punish them, make them work harder, teach them how to pick the best answer.

Never mind that some children have been learning quite well how to read for centuries now--and we have, in fact, amassed a good bit of research into things that work and don't. Never mind that there are schools in this country where every kid passes the test at third grade and they haven't been memorizing the right answers. Never mind that reading, in and of itself, is a very rewarding activity--engaging in its nature, if we allow it and nurture that (BTW Pat--I never meant to imply that the RR levelled readers were anything BUT authentic children's literature). Why do we insist on throwing out everything good that we know when there is a measure attached to it?

It's like those idiots who think that good nutrition is made up of chewing on rocks and totally inconsistent with good cuisine. This ought not be an either/or proposition. Getting kids past the tests ought to be a small part of our concern. They are shooting for a MINIMUM level of competency, and by all standards they are nowhere set too high. Why do we refuse to trust that good teaching, engaged students and engaging curriculum will result in students who can read, write, cipher, and pass some multiple choice tests?

Margo, The reason that I used local control in quotes because it represents a meaning not captured by its words. That is, in American culture, local control of the schools means that all decisions regarding schooling are made at the local school district level. It is a concept that is held dear in American culture.

In reality, there is little local control as most of the reforms over the past 30+ years have moved the decision making aspects of schooling to the state level, while leaving the responsiblity for execution at the school level with increasingly larger and larger handcuffs on what school districts can and cannot do.

But the concept of "local control" as a guiding principle for organizing our schools still exists today. This is by no means anything like what local control means in Finland or a whole host of other successful school systems.

Woessmann is fairly clear that those systems that use local control, better known as school autonomy, do better when they have complete freedom to hire/fire teachers and pick out curricula but less well when they set their own budgets.

But the most important element needed for those systems to work is an external high-stakes bar. That is in Finland, they do not have yearly tests, but all children are responsible for learning enough material to do well on their high-school exit exam. And the exam is brutal. Despite the very nice, warm feeling that Finnish teachers are able to give their students, the high school exit exam has a defined number of students that will and will not pass it. And the results from that exam largely determine the course of that student's career prospects. There is tremendous pressure on the student to learn that is not coming from the teacher but from the external exams.

This external evaluation of student performance is one of the critical elements that Woessmann found for enabling school autonomy to work well.

Paul, There is not one model that would work well at improving student learning but several.

A few to consider:

From Singapore: Have the Central Office (state or fed level) be responsible for developing the syllabus for each course, develop the curricular materials to be used and train the teachers to use the materials. Exit exams in 6th grade used to stream kids into 4 programs that differ mostly in pacing and not so much in content (the slower streams take 5 years in high school vs. 4 years for the faster pace. The central office is responsible for improving materials, setting the exit exams; while the teachers are responsible for connecting the material with the students.

Benefits: Tailoring learning to individual pacing.

Cons: The central office idea tends to bother Americans

How to improve teaching: Teachers are given tremendous guidance from the central office regarding the curricula and are encouraged to talk to each other regarding the best way to present the material.

Finnish style: Have a central office set a very high bar and write a rigorous high-school exit exam that largely defines what a student can do for the rest of his/her life. Local schools control who they hire/fire and which curricula they choose. There is tremendous support between schools to share and observe teaching techniques as it is understood in Finnish culture that teachers need to learn from each other to improve their craft.

Pros: Fits in with our idea of local control

Cons: Americans don't like the deterministic feel of high-stakes exit exams that largely determine what jobs a student can do post high school. We like the infinite chances idea, that no matter what happens in an earlier life we can always get a fresh start and do something better.

How it improves teaching: Principals are responsible for ensuring that his/her teaching staff is working together, planning and using common curricula and enabling students to learn. There is significant coordination between principals to discuss innovations in teaching techniques used by his/her teachers.

A blended style: Make the central office responsible/accountable for ensuring that children learn well (instead of just the teachers) but without the defined curricula used in Singapore nor the high-stakes exit exam used in Finland.

For elementary school: Keep it organized pretty much the same but encourage teachers to improve curricula, teaching, etc. using the type of competitive 5-year grants to learn what curricula/teaching/testing approaches actually improve student learning that I mentioned in another post.

The idea of this is to enable teachers to examine their own teaching and really learn from other teachers what works well. A no-stakes exit exam at the end of elementary school could be used to help the students decide what classes he/she should be taking in middle school.

For middle school and above, use end-of-course evaluations with a very defined syllabus. Possibly every trimester or semester to make sure that no students gets to far behind in a class.

The course syllabii and external evaluations could be either developed by the central office, a public-private collaboration between schools and curricula developers, or anyone else that it would make sense to include. But the central office would record who met the course requirements and be the degree granting agency.

The defined class syllabus would include very explict performance requirements (write 2 reports on a topic, solve x number of problem, etc.) for the student plus some measure of success (exams, performances, speeches, etc.) This is set up to allow the student to take ownership for his/her own learning while the role of the teacher is to encourage his/her own students as much as possible. No penalties if the student doesn't meet the bar, but repeating the class would be necessary to move on.

This is the type of external evaluations that successful school systems need. It changes the dynamics of the classroom from "students vs. teacher" to "students vs. the world" (with the teacher helping the students out).

Allow teachers/schools to pick out the courses that they would like to teach and/or students would like to take. The role of the central office is to ensure that students comply and to facillitate the developement of new/better course syllabii that enable children to learn better (either themselves or public-private collaboration).

Pros: Allows infinite chances to be successful and small increments so that there is not a single high-stakes test. Uses external evaluations to change the classroom dynamics and to clarify what a student needs to do to be successful.

Cons: Americans are not known for their enthusiasm for changing our school structure.

Sorry for the long post, but you did ask.

Erin,A couple of observations: I am all in favor of any form of instruction that addresses the different paces of learning within a classroom. So Singapore scores high on this evaluation. Finland scores high on the reality scale. Not all students need go to college. Many can enjoy a very satistfying life after being trained and working in a professional vocation.

One reservation: Could the large (300 million) heterogeneous US really model itself after relatively small homogenous nations (5 million) like Singaporre or Finland? I am not saying we cannot, I'm simply raising the question.

Erin, (My amended entry)

A couple of observations: I am all in favor of any form of instruction that addresses the different paces of learning within a classroom. After all, kids do learn at different rates. So Singapore scores high on this evaluation. Finland scores high on the reality scale. Not all students need go to college. Many can enjoy a very satisfying life after being trained and working in a vocation. In addition, many have no desire to go to four more years of school. They want to get on with their lives and further, want nothing to do with spending the first ten years or so of their adult lives paying off college loans. It’s okay, really. They don’t all have to go to college despite our contemporary society’s insistence that they do.

One reservation: Could the large (300 million) heterogeneous US really model its school system(s) after relatively small homogenous nations (5 million) like Singapore or Finland? I’m not saying we can’t, I'm simply asking the question.

Erin - I find the PISA study more revealing. PIRLS, like TIMMS, measures school based curriculum attainment, whereas PISA has a focus on the application of the processes and concepts of literacy to real world situations. To my mind that makes it a more powerful measurement of what our students have actually achieved by the time they are 15. By the way, Australia does not participate in PIRLS. You may be confusing it with Austria, which does.

Paul, The way our school systems are set up now with the states the major sources of funding, I would find it hard to believe that there would be any political will to change our schools to a single national organization. It seems more likely that a state level organization would be more palatable.

The size of the school system always presents a challenge and certainly there could be organizations that are smaller than states. One of the benefits of using a larger more central department is the broader scope of teachers that are engaged in the same teaching conversation and are evaluating the possible curricular materials with similar goals in mind.

Additionally, a central organization does not mean a uniform curricular focus. It could very well be that many charters, innovative schools, virtual schools etc. could be encouraged. But the focus of the central organization would be on ensuring the development of new ideas/curricula as well as ensuring some level of educucational attainment (external evaluation of student learning).

Regardless of the final type of structure, classroom instruction needs to become more transparent as well as mechanisms for developing new materials, refining teaching techniques and communicating that information to the broader educational community.

Certainly, Woessmann suggests that it is the externality of evaluation that is critical for enabling students to learn well (with the speculation being this is true because the student-teacher relationship is less adversarial, students have more ownership for their own learning, expectations are necessarily made clearer.)

Pat, I do need to get my reading glasses out to avoid confusing Austria with Australia. But given that the discussion was focused on balanced literacy (usually used with beginning readers), I am confused why you think that PISA would add more than PIRLS?

If we agree that individuals in non-dominant groups need legal protection so that they will not be oppressed, then, to me, it follows that we must identify these individuals so that they are protected. This is an imperfect solution, and we special educators have tended not to get good results within this supposedly 'protective' system. However, if we believe that we can go back in time and not identify and everything will be fine (students will miraculously achieve just like their typically developing peers--assuming there is such a thing as typical development), I argue that this, too, is an imperfect solution (baby and bathwater).

My experience has been that many individuals become exasperated (polite term) and want to solve the problems of equity in education by throwing out special education. As I have said before, people with disabilities are real people. And disabilities are by definition permanent. If we believe otherwise due to recent developments in brain research, then we need to provide medical technology in the schools so we can take the guesswork out of achievement, and create a medical model for education. If we go this route, then we will need to be willing to accept the costs, strengths, limitations, and intended and unintended consequences of this model.

All this said, I believe we teachers are as good as our leaders support us in being. To improve our educational system, we need to stay focused on our students and how to support them by using empirically validated interventions and formative assessment. Curriculum is the key, and until we decide nationally on what students need to learn and when they need to learn it, we'll continue to flounder and students will continue to struggle. And we teachers, as front line, non-dominant group members ourselves, will continue to take the brunt of these complex accountability issues.

Erin - my comments about balanced literacy arose in connection with a conversation I was having with Diane about Joel Klein, his influence on the NYC school system and his visit to Australia. My main concern is the influence our current testing regime is having on education in the USA. My concern about BL is that it has been maligned because of poor implementation. It doesn't fit well within a system that scripts lessons and has a relentless focus on scores - as it appears is the case in NYC.

About PIRLS and PISA. I see PISA as an assessment that measures something beyond the taught curriculum and classroom practices and as a good indicator of the success or otherwise of the educational processes in a country because it measures the extent to which 15 year olds are able to apply the things they have learned to the world outside the classroom, it measures their beliefs about themselves and the likelihood that they will become lifelong learners.

I have seen 10 year olds who are perfectly able to answer comprehension questions and interpret text, who would do very well on tests, but who don't want to read because the teaching methods they have been subjected to have wrung the life and joy out of reading. I have also seen 10 year olds who can calculate but see little value in and gain no pleasure from math. By the time these students are 15 we can gain very valuable information about the longer term effects of our classroom practices on both attitudes and skills.That's the information PISA gives us.


Here are my thoughts on your excellent questions:

What does “accountability” mean?
My favorite definition is "the obligation to bear the consequences for failure to perform as expected".

Who makes the decisions?
I think school leaders should be primarily accountable to parents. The most serious consequences of not pleasing the parents will be the parents choice to send their kids to another school. The money should follow the kids. The school leaders might have additional accountability to government officials to make sure the schools are meeting some basic standards. If they fail to meet these standards, the schools could be shut down. I think, though, that accountability to parents is much more effective than accountability to the government. With that said, the government can, in some limited but important cases, have a positive role. I think our government does a reasonably good job, for example, with restaurants -- they inspect them to minimize the possibility they are poisoning their customers, but they don't tell them how or what to cook.

Teachers should be primarily accountable to school leaders. The consequences for failure would be determined by the school leader and, importantly, could include termination.

For what can we hold schools accountable?

For the most part, parents should make these decisions. Clearly, there are many different opinions as to what is important. We could have the government or academics make the decision, but I would much rather see individual parents make the decision for their own kids. If society agrees that their are some standards that should not be left up to parents, we could require those standards to be met by schools. I am skeptical of this route with the possible exception of standards for basic literacy and numeracy.

What matters beyond test scores?

Every parent I speak to has a different point of view on this question. Let's give them many educational options so that they can find a good match for their kids. If schools aren't meeting the demands of parents and money follows the kids, new school leaders will probably create alternatives to meet these demands.

I am not a professional educator but would like to put an idea on the table.

If the primary purpose is to allow our students to learn how to think, would it be silly to use IQ tests as one measure?

Recent discussions I've seen seem to indicate that IQ tests do not in fact measure innate ability, but rather something else. If those tools, developed over such a long time, were re purposed to measure improvements in abstract thinking, couldn't that have a good effect on the practice in the classroom?

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

Comments are now closed for this post.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Follow This Blog


Most Viewed on Education Week



Recent Comments

  • hertfordshire security installers: Greetings. Great content. Have you got an rss I could read more
  • http://blog.outsystems.com/aboutagility/2009/04/challenges-of-scoping-and-sizing-agile-projects.html: I would like to thank you for the efforts you've read more
  • http://acousticwood.net/mash/2008/03/yeah_off_to_the_uk.html: Between me and my husband we've owned more MP3 players read more
  • buy cheap metin2 yang: When you play the game, you really think you equipment read more
  • Nev: Anne Clark - If a Dr. instructs a patient that read more