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Wish #4: Better Alignment of Accountability Systems to School Outcomes


Here’s a little thought experiment: Suppose that, in addition to adequate yearly progress in literacy and mathematics, high schools had to demonstrate progress in students’ ethical behavior. Would the graduates of Far Rockaway High School in Queens in New York City be as proficient in their treatment of others as they are in math and literacy?

Victims of Bernard Madoff’s $50 billion Ponzi scheme might wish that Far Rockaway had spent more time on the development of its students’ non-cognitive skills as their ability to read, write and figure. Of course, we cannot tell what led Madoff astray, and his experience at Far Rockaway probably had little to do with it. But the thought experiment opens the door to a wish for accountability systems in education that are better-aligned with the diverse school outcomes we think are important.

What skills do employers value in their workers? A 2008 survey of members of the Society for Human Resources Management found that human resources professionals reported that some skills and practices were more important for experienced workers in 2008 than two years before. More than a third of the respondents reported that adaptability/flexibility; critical thinking/problem-solving; leadership; professionalism/work ethic; teamwork/collaboration; and information technology application had increased in importance in the recent past.

The story is not that different for the general public. Asked to allocate a total of 100 points across eight goals of public education, a sample of adults divided them up relatively evenly: basic academic skills (19%); critical thinking (15%); social skills and work ethic (14%); physical health (12%); preparation for skilled work (11%); emotional health (11%); citizenship (10%); and the arts and literature (8%).

Why, if the public and employers think that these are the most important goals of public education, have we constructed accountability systems that focus on a narrow subset of these goals – basic proficiency in literacy and mathematics? Part of the answer is that we had an existing technology for measuring literacy and mathematics proficiency – standardized tests of academic performance.

Richard Rothstein, Rebecca Jacobsen, and Tamara Wilder, in Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right, argue that if these broad goals are important – and skoolboy thinks they are—then we should develop measures of these goals, and incorporate them into accountability systems. One of the things we’ve learned about education accountability systems that rely on rewards and punishments is that educators respond to incentives, doing what they can to avoid punishments and to achieve rewards associated with a particular pattern of outcomes. Particularly when the inducements are high-stakes, we are liable to get precisely the outcomes that are to be rewarded and punished – no more, and no less.

Literacy and mathematical proficiency are extremely important skills for schools to cultivate, and it’s appropriate that accountability systems monitor students’ literacy and math performance and provide incentives for educators to help students achieve challenging performance standards. But it’s also critically important for U.S. children and youth to prepare to assume the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy that depends on a tacit social contract which binds us together, and we count on schools to do this and much more. Our wish is for accountability systems in education that are designed to measure and promote genuine growth and development in children and youth.


Traditionally, schools have been a limited role in educating children. Time (and lots of data) has shown that they have not done a very good job in this limited role, for the segment of society that relies on them the most.

Why would we want to expand that those duties? Why would we think that schools would be any more successful at these new, albeit more touchy-feely subjective, tasks than their traditional tasks?

Just because these new "skills" are deemed to be important, doesn't mean schools need to take over repsonsibility for them.

Why don't we wait and see if they can fix the 3 Rs first?

I think skoolboy makes a very important point, and I disagree with the comment that schools should not expand their "duties" if they are not succeeding at teaching math and reading. I taught in an urban high school which offered a minimal curriculum aligned with material on state tests. The school continued to post failing test scores and a very low four year graduation rate. Frankly, we know that graduating from high school is a crucial step toward higher education, employment, etc. But do we really know that success on an array of standardized tests is linked to other measures of success (i.e. employment, wages, etc.)? Perhaps if a 15 year old had other reasons to be excited about school (maybe a course on designing computer games with a team of students), he or she would also do much better in the 3Rs.

I agree with you that "ethical literacy" should be an important part of a youth's education. All youth should be able to develop their own ethical criteria for evaluating the myriad of marketing pitches and governmental regulations and programs that every day impact their lives and the lives of others in their communities.

I am curious why math literacy, particularly abstract math literacy in areas such as geometry is seen as so critical. For 90% of people who are not intending a career in the science and engineering doctrines that require abstract math, I think students could much better spend their time delving more deeply into subject matter they were truly interested in, and showed an aptitude for.

Cooper Zale

Why the math requirements? Because of profound embarrassment of every adult, especially educated ones, for whom math was the memorization and retirement of arithmetic algebraic algorithms, not nummeracy.
How else to explain the recent NYTimes editorial http://tinyurl.com/d22f4k which summoned
the authority of the Union of Concerned Scientists to support the claim that increasing fuel economy of SUV's from 14 to 16 mpg generates per-vehicle fuel- saving equal to improvement in economy cars from 35 to 51 mph. So much authority to confirm 5th grade math comparisons of reciprocals of integers and comparisons of gallons per mile. For whom -- the uncertain writers, other members of the Board, or their literate but innumerate readers?

Staying with the theme of today's entry, when the NYTimes does not challenge or trust itself or its readers in this small instance of quantitative reasoning, it makes math and science a matter of belief and authority. Which is where we have been in the US through a century of school reform the process of which we rush to measure with narrow cognitive batteries. (Skoolboy 10 days ago here even citing the silly example of absent next-year test-score gains to students as any part of valid evaluation of improving teaching processes was a minor sin we see too often repeated in a major way.)

Traditionally, schools have had a more expansive role in educating children than many seem to think. Throughout our country's history our leaders have espoused goals for schools far above and beyond teaching basic skills in math and reading.

I'm a big advocate for schools focusing on a wider range of skills and attitudes but I neither believe they can nor feel the need they should be measured.

A teacher can observe their development by watching students at work and at play, by listening to them talking and by noting their responses to suggestions for improvement - all good qualitative data gathered through observation, - but I've yet to come across suggestions for how these skills can be measured in any meaningful way, certainly not in the objective, quantitative way that the advocates of so-called accountability would demand. (I think the book you mention suggests observing samples of students as an alternative method rather than measuring them.)

In any case, use of the term accountability has been thoroughly abused and overused. Accountability should really be about a teacher (or teachers working in collaboration) being able to justify their actions and decisions to others using evidence. Such evidence might include research, observations, discussions with students and, yes, test results. But accountability based solely on qualitative data is merely accountancy (with a carrot and stick thrown in for show).

And the idea that accountability measures are good because educators respond to incentives and try to avoid punishments ignores the way teachers are able to game the system by teaching to the test, ensuring weak students miss school on test day, widening the net of special needs students. So yes, test results may go up, but does learning, even of the narrow skills and knowledge being tested by cheap and awful multiple choice tests, improve?

Arguments that a wider range of skills and attitudes shouldn't be taught because schools aren't teaching the 3 Rs properly are forgetting that most schools ARE teaching the 3 Rs properly. (NCLB is a bit like the surgeon general saying that some Americans are obese, so all Americans must go on a diet.)

What matters most in the classroom is a passionate teacher. The type of accountability-testing regime now so entrenched in the USA is simply sucking out the passion across the education system, even in the best schools.

I agree completely, but the question is how? A set curriculum complete with a new character trait every week? The key to teaching character and ethics is by modeling. It is a curriculum beneath the curriculum. Is this being taught in our leading ed. programs? Somehow, I don't think so.

"When the inducements are high-stakes, we are liable to get precisely the outcomes that are to be rewarded and punished – no more, and no less."

Bingo. And sometimes, by making the stakes so high and incentives so compelling, we pit one thing--very basic, easily measured skills--against other things that are equally important: ethical behaviors, emotional health, collaboration and cooperation, critical thinking and application (which are far more difficult to measure).

Was it Einstein who said that not everything that can be counted counts?

Nancy: He had a sign on his office door at Princeton that read "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."

As far as I can tell, nobody is quite sure whether he made this up or was quoting somebody else.

Hasn't anyone in the edublogosphere heard of the research by the Johnson brothers on the goals and outcomes of cooperative learning? How social skills can be incorporated into academic content? This was the bread and butter of the Ed requirements I completed at Hunter College during the late 80's. In the early years of the 21st century this was expanded to include accountable talk, and then the workshop model. Did the reformers burn down the ed library while they played the standardized test violin?

Success on the job is rarely due to lack of knowledge, but rather the lack of social skills necessary to cooperate with employer and colleague.

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