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Professional Opinion

Getting Accountability Right

The case for local innovation that goes above and beyond requirements.

After more than a decade of writing about educational accountability, I have come to a conclusion that we can't wait for Washington, or for that matter, any state capital, to get accountability right. The most innovative models for educational accountability will happen in districts that are willing to say to the president and secretary of education, "We do not fear accountability. In fact, we will be more accountable than any federal or state program has ever required. We will report not only our test scores, but we will also report on the other 90 percent of the work we have been doing. We will tell our communities, legislators and the world about student achievement, community service, student leadership, teacher quality and leadership decision-making. We will demonstrate that educational accountability is as much about adult decisions and professional practices as it is about student test scores."

Lessons of Test-Based Accountability

It has been an expensive decade in financial and emotional terms for the nation and our children. If the value of lessons learned is to equal the cost, then we must take the lessons seriously. First, we have learned that test-based accountability has many unintended consequences, including the fact that schools move resources and excellent teachers away from the untested grades and subjects to the tested grades and subjects. This Faustian bargain forces hard-pressed administrators to choose between the statistics that will preserve their jobs and mortgage payments—namely, grades 3-8 test scores in reading and math—and the statistics that may have more lasting value, including kindergarten reading readiness, student engagement, faculty collaboration, and effective leadership feedback. The second lesson learned is that accountability must consider not only effects, but causes. Imagine if the nation's health initiatives depended solely upon measurements of student weight. While weight loss may be healthy for some students, parents would want to know if the causes of weight loss were due to healthy diet and exercise or to eating disorders. The numbers on the scale would not give us sufficient information to distinguish the two.

Third, we have learned that practices, not programs, are the keys to improving student success. There is no partisan victory here. If the lessons of the Bush administration were that test scores do not yield effective accountability, then we must also heed the lessons of the Obama administration that money and programs lead not to improved achievement but to "initiative fatigue"—one program after another piled on top of teachers and administrators in the same number of limited hours in the day. The conclusion from these experiments should not be that test scores and money are irrelevant factors in the accountability equation, but that they are insufficient without the context and nuance that local accountability systems can provide.

Keys to Local Innovation

School administrators, teachers and board members must be intellectually honest when confronting the issue of improved accountability systems. For ten years they have said that they resent federal intrusions on local control. It is not consistent for them now to say, "If the federal and state government does not require it, then we can't or won't do it." If local leaders believe that early childhood and kindergarten programs are important, then they must report on the success of those programs whether or not those results ever appear in a report of adequate yearly progress. Similarly, if we believe that music, art, libraries, community service, student leadership, physical fitness, extracurricular activities and a host of other school programs have value, then we should not wait for external authorities to mandate them, but should tell our communities and the world about the value that these activities bring to our students and communities.

In a study I conducted several years ago about the antecedents of leadership, I found that one of the primary predictors of adult leadership was the adults' participation as students in dramatic and musical activities. While many of us talk a good game about the importance of future leadership, when was the last time you saw the drama club, school band, orchestra or comedy improvisational group listed as an educational accountability indicator?

School leaders in communities large and small are starting to tell the story beyond the numbers, and they are not waiting for federal or state permission to do so. We can report causes as well as effects. We can report qualitative as well as quantitative data. In short, teachers, administrators and board members can join forces, at last, to get accountability right.

Douglas B. Reeves is the founder of The Leadership and Learning Center, an international organization dedicated to improving student achievement and educational equity.