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Why Does Accountability Have a Politics Problem?

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."

About a quarter-century ago, policymakers first began to take seriously the notion that standards, testing, and accountability could be combined in an effort to drive school improvement. Initial efforts to transform this notion into policy resulted in a diverse set of initiatives, with some states implementing rigid accountability systems, others trying out a milder version of the policy, and still others forgoing these systems entirely. This varied and diverse approach to accountability came to an abrupt end, however, with the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). With the stroke of a pen, President George W. Bush ushered in the federal accountability era, an era in which states would be required to adopt challenging standards, administer annual reading and math assessments aligned with those standards, and hold schools accountable on the basis of the assessment results.

Although the ultimate wisdom of NCLB—and the federal accountability era more broadly—is the ongoing subject of intense debate, there is broad consensus that we have learned a good deal about the operations, effects, and politics of accountability policy over the past two decades. Today, I'm going to take stock of what we have learned about the politics of accountability.

To cut to the chase, the past 15-plus years have made clear that accountability has a politics problem. For policies to have meaningful staying power, they need to develop a vocal grassroots constituency who will go to bat for the policy in times of turmoil. As the accountability era has progressed, it has become quite clear that accountability policy has no such constituency. And it is not particularly difficult to understand why—accountability provides no meaningful benefit to any stakeholder group. Educators? Not only do they fail to see benefits from accountability, the policy also imposes clear costs and often inspires their active opposition. Parents and students? Again, it is difficult to see how accountability policy provides families any sort of tangible benefit that will serve as the basis for political action. Accountability supporters often claim that these policies offer clear benefits to taxpayers by ensuring that schools and districts are spending their money well. This may well be true, but any such benefits are so imperceptible that it is difficult to imagine that they motivate or mobilize anyone on their behalf.

To bring accountability's politics problem into further relief, it is useful to contrast it with school choice, another reform initiative that entered the educational landscape in the early- to mid-1990s. Like accountability, school choice policies routinely encounter significant political opposition. Unlike accountability, when these policies face political headwinds, a vocal grassroots constituency typically comes to their defense—families value being able to select the school their children will attend and will take political action to maintain that ability.

Differences in the degree of grassroots political support almost certainly contribute to the different political trajectories of school choice and accountability. School choice programs continue to expand (although slower than before), with charter schools, private school vouchers, education savings accounts, tax-credit scholarships, and other choice programs serving as viable educational options in many states and cities. Even recognizing that these programs serve a relatively small proportion of students and that their rate of growth has seemingly declined in recent years, the political prospects of school choice seem relatively bright. The biggest challenge that choice supporters typically face is initial program establishment, but after getting the proverbial camel's nose under the tent, the size and scope of school choice programs only tend to move in one direction—instances where established choice programs get scaled back are few and far between.

The political prospects for accountability, on the other hand, are far less rosy. Exhibit A for this point of view is the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which devolved significant authority for the design and operation of accountability systems. States have by and large responded to their increased authority over these systems by scaling down their punitive nature, even if they cannot do away with them entirely. Educational practice is undoubtedly still influenced by accountability policy, but the degree of such influence seems to be trending downward. A few lonely voices have bemoaned this trend, but overall the policy arena has been remarkably free of organized efforts to maintain strong accountability systems.

At the end of the day, the support of political elites proved sufficient to propel us into the accountability era and maintain it for more than a decade. But this source of support was always bound to diminish—elites have a tendency to quickly lose focus and move on to the latest and greatest cure for our educational ills. And when they did, the lack of any sort of meaningful grassroots constituency made it easy for political opponents to loosen the nuts and bolts holding accountability systems together.

—Deven Carlson

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