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Improving Accountability Systems to Create Internal Responsibility

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This post is by Jennifer Poon, director of the Innovation Lab Network at the Council of Chief State School Officers. Tweet to Jennifer @JDPoon.

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"We promise to do our best."

Before every volleyball match, I coached my players to set both individual and team goals. Sometimes players set goals relevant to their specific skills and roles on the team, while others vowed to improve their attitudes when adversity strikes. Adversity was common: we were a rag-tag team of inner-city high school girls playing against well-oiled programs in the notorious volleyball mecca that is Los Angeles, California. Outwardly, our personal goals wouldn't help our conference standings, which were only judged by the final points on the board. Nevertheless, the process of setting and achieving personal goals changed the very character of our team. It made us want to improve despite the limited mobility of our conference standings. It made us want to be better. It taught us integrity.

As I reflect on my experience as a teacher, I wonder about integrity. Like many in California at the time, my school cared very much about making Adequate Yearly Progress. We also cared about performing well on California's Academic Performance Index for accountability, which had a direct impact on our ability to draw parents to enroll their kids in our magnet program. Our preoccupation with test scores was reflected in what we taught, when we taught it, and what kinds of student outcomes we cared about. We wanted, and needed, to look good.

Did we also want to do good? Of course. But herein lies the paradox of state systems of accountability. While state systems are developed with the goal of ensuring that teachers, schools, and districts do good by students, their reliance on external accountability strategies--identifying metrics, setting benchmarks, and judging performance against those benchmarks--incentivizes looking good on the metrics, more so than creating the kinds of internal accountability that would have us holding ourselves and our peers responsible for our personal stakes in the game.

How, then, can state accountability systems better incentivize the kind of internal accountability that kept my volleyball players hungry to do better every time they set foot on the court? Here are three examples emerging from the Innovation Lab Network, a collaboration of 12 states, facilitated by the Council of Chief State School Officers, that share a common vision for transformed state systems.

1. Provide information to drive continuous improvement through multiple measure dashboards and school quality review processes. States are increasingly interested in how they can empower local leaders to invest in their own processes of continuous improvement. By providing diverse data points for understanding performance through a multiple-measure data dashboard; partnering with districts to provide actionable information in deeper diagnostic reviews of school quality; and engaging all districts--not just the lowest performing--to create plans for continuous improvement, states are beginning to transfer the locus of accountability from externally-driven to internally-defined and motivated.

2. Build professional capacity. Michael Fullan and Linda Darling-Hammond would likely both agree that no attempt to foster internal accountability can succeed without attending to professional capacity. Several states are experimenting with statewide capacity-building efforts by building networks or cohorts of local practitioners; reconsidering state agency staffing models to better provide technical assistance; and redesigning how states support educator and leadership development.

3. Reorient accountability around shared responsibility and innovation. As part of the Performance Assessment of Competency Education pilot initiative that was recently approved by the U.S. Department of Education, the New Hampshire Department of Education is working with leading districts to innovate a new model of assessment and accountability based on a mindset of continuous improvement. Although the initiative has been framed by some as a move to reduce standardized testing, New Hampshire's underlying motivation is loftier: they hope to create a responsibility-oriented approach to internal accountability. To do so, they have invested in building district capacity to design and implement performance-based assessments of student mastery of college and career ready competencies. Pilot districts, who have shared the responsibility for creating common performance assessments, have embedded these assessments, along with other locally-developed assessments and statewide Smarter Balanced assessments (the latter, once per grade span), to create a balanced system of assessment that provides students, parents, and educators with rich, actionable information on student outcomes. Moreover, the very decision to give voice to local expertise in the development of the pilot initiative was an intentional part of the state's Department of Education's philosophy to create space for innovation that can move their system from "good to great." 

The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) is committed to helping states evolve accountability systems in ways that improve both external and internal accountability. In response to increasing state interest, CCSSO, in partnership with the Center for Innovation in Education at the University of Kentucky, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, and the Alliance for Excellent Education, recently launched several working groups with state education agency leaders to advance the strategies described above. Through these strategies, this team of states and partners hope to shift the notion of accountability from something punitive to one that inspires every teacher, every principal, and every superintendent to step on the court, every day, hungry to do their best.

Note: This post originally ran on the ASCD InService blog at http://inservice.ascd.org/accountability-and-integrity/

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