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Can We Get School Accountability Policy Right?

For another week, Rick will be out discussing his new edited volume, Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned. While he's away, several of the contributors are stopping by and offering their reflections on what we've learned from the Bush-Obama era. In this final week of guest bloggers, you'll hear from Deven Carlson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma. He'll be sharing thoughts on the evolution of testing and accountability, the unintended consequences, and whether we can ever get testing and accountability "right."

We've learned a good deal about accountability policy in the past 15-plus years. We've learned lessons about the politics of accountability, the test score increases generated by accountability systems, and the unintended legacies of the accountability era. In light of everything we've learned over this period, it is reasonable to ask whether we could ever get accountability "right"—whether we can design and implement systems that both achieve our collective goals and command broad, long-term political support.

To get to the bottom line, no, I don't think we can get accountability right. I'm pessimistic on this score for two main reasons.

First, the accountability era made clear that we, as a nation, don't agree on the purpose of K-12 schooling. Or, at least, we don't agree on the ideal balance of the various things we want schools to do. I see this as perhaps the most important lesson of the accountability era. Some folks want schools to primarily focus on developing skills, particularly in reading and math, that will prepare students for success in college and the workforce. Others prefer a broader focus that helps students develop curiosity and a love of learning, with less explicit attention to college and career considerations. And between these two poles, you can find folks at nearly every point of the broad spectrum regarding the purpose of schooling.

Of course, tensions over the purpose of schooling are hardly new; they've existed as long as education itself. It's just that No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—and the accountability era more generally—brought them to the surface by effectively privileging one conceptualization of the purpose of schools over any other. It privileged the viewpoint of those who see the primary aim of schools as developing skills to ready students for college and the workforce. Unsurprisingly, folks with different views of the purpose of schooling pushed back against accountability systems designed around reading and math scores. Although this pushback was, at least on its face, against the accountability systems, it was ultimately rooted in profound disagreements over the appropriate purpose and design of schooling.

Because it is impossible to imagine these value differences disappearing any time soon, it is difficult to imagine any accountability system that adequately balances all stakeholders' priorities and addresses their concerns. Any accountability system would induce a constant stream of complaints about this provision being too strong or that requirement being irrelevant, just as has been the case over the past 15-plus years.

Second, I'm pessimistic that we can get accountability right because I don't think we can design any system that gets everyone—states, schools, and districts—to behave as intended. It is a near-guarantee that any policy will leave open some loopholes or will create perverse incentives.

For example, right now there are some faint noises in the policy arena about incorporating measures of social and emotional learning into accountability systems. In one way, these noises make sense—most folks want schools to help students develop these sorts of skills. In another way, though, it isn't hard to imagine how efforts to measure these skills and hold schools accountable for their development could go very poorly. Some things we want schools to do simply aren't amenable to measurement, and trying to do so ends up creating many more problems than it solves.

So where does that leave us? Where do we go from here with accountability? It's difficult to make detailed predictions, but two broad contours seem clear. First, it seems likely that the testing and reporting requirements mandated in NCLB—and reiterated in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—will remain in place. The existence of information on student and school performance wasn't the problem during the accountability era, it was what we did with that information that proved problematic. Second, it seems likely that the NCLB-era accountability systems will continue the retreat that started under ESSA. Ultimately, we'll probably reach an equilibrium where schools and districts produce information—on test scores and other topics—but are subject to few formal rewards or sanctions on the basis of those results. That is, we will transition from accountability systems to transparency systems.

Deven Carlson

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