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Has the Accountability Movement Run its Course?

With the 10th anniversary of No Child Left Behind, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute hosted a panel discussion entitled, "Has the Accountability Movement Run its Course?" on January 5th.

Did NCLB, and the consequential accountability movement it embodied, succeed? And with near-stagnant national test scores of late, is there reason to think that this approach to school reform is exhausted?
If not "consequential accountability," what could take the U.S. to the next level of student achievement?

The panelists also discuss "The Accountability Plateau" report, which challenges its readers with the following:

Like the meteor that led to the decline of the dinosaurs and the rise of the mammals, results-based accountability appears to have shocked the education system. But its effect seems to be fading now, as earlier gains are maintained but not built upon.
If we are to get another big jump in academic achievement, we're going to need another shock to the system--another meteor from somewhere beyond our familiar solar system.

The overarching theme to these discussions was that the gains during the accountability movement appeared to have plateaued (in most contexts), and the panelists each gave their insights as to what the next impetus for raising student achievement could be.

The broadcast is worth watching. The panel discussed thought provoking themes of the limitations of testing, how schools may have reacted to the consequential accountability, the role of the federal government, and the value of human capital.

Equally fascinating were the questions from the audience, which included the potential role of online learning and a debate if the emphasis on math and reading lessened the focus on creativity.

If more dialogue between classroom teachers and policy makers is to occur, then more understanding of perspectives is needed.

Perhaps the gap in the policy practitioner dialogue is the different focus on inputs versus outputs. Part of the challenge in dialogue is the two different perspectives and areas of expertise in understanding the problem.

Very broadly stated, as professionals who work with students on a daily basis, we teachers tend to value the role of inputs for improving education. We advocate for input issues such as more equitable funding, reducing class sizes, better working conditions, and other ways to empower schools to improve student learning.

On the other hand, policymakers focus on outputs as a means of improving education, that an accountability system of goals, content standards, measurement, consequences, and reporting will improve schools. Somewhere in this intent is the belief that if teachers just try harder, then learning is improved. Accountability, as described in the panel discussion, is not a program, but an incentive structure.

Much has already been said about the pros and cons of each side of the debate.

But in this discussion of an achievement plateau and a search for the next driving force for school improvement, then perhaps it is time to reconsider the over-emphasis on outcomes.

Solving complex problems requires systemic thinking; the focus on outcomes alone cannot solve the wide variety of problems teachers confront daily.

At one point in the webinar, the panelists admitted that they do not fully understand (based on research) what occurred in schools during the accountability movement and what is needed to develop teacher capacities.

Perhaps it is time to understand those who are in schools and who do know what it takes to help students learn.

One cannot focus solely on outcomes without considering the conditions of communities and schools, and the challenging socio-economic student and family factors that educators confront daily.

Teachers need adequate tools and resources to help their students; it's not just about trying.

Teachers need the support of administrators, communities, and policy makers to succeed; it's about sharing responsibility, not shifting blame.

Inputs matter. There are limitations to an outcome-focused system of accountability.

As the panelists debate what could deliver the next "shock to the system," searching for "another meteor from somewhere beyond our familiar solar system" perhaps understanding and supporting the inputs that teachers have long been advocating to improve student learning just might be that shock that is unfamiliar.

And, this shock could lead to the authentic and lasting gains that all those invested in education seek to achieve.

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