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Educational Accountability - Moral and Professional Accountability, Bureaucratic Accountability, Political Accountability, Market Accountability, Legal Accountability, Standards and Assessment

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Accountability has been an educational issue for as long as people have had to pay for and govern schools. The term covers a diverse array of means by which some broad entity requires some providers of education to give an account of their work and holds them responsible for their performance. These means include, among others:

  • "performance by results" schemes used by the English school system in the nineteenth century, and later variations on the theme of merit pay;
  • the American pattern of a school board held accountable through a local election, with the school board in turn holding a superintendent and district staff accountable;
  • marketizing education through charter schools, vouchers, and the Dutch practice of using the same system for funding what Americans would call both public and private schools;
  • the school inspections used in many European countries; and
  • the recent rise of state testing of students in which test results are sometimes, but not always, linked to rewards or punishments for students or school staffs.

According to a 1999 article written by Jacob E. Adams and Michael W. Kirst, what these and other examples have in common is a relationship in which a "principal" holds an "agent" responsible for certain kinds of performance. The agent is expected to provide an "account" to the principal. This account describes the performance for which that agent is held responsible. It may be simply descriptive–such as the percent of children in a school passing a particular test–or it may also include an explanation for and/or a justification of the performance achieved. Often the principal sets standards for what constitutes adequate performance. The principal may reward the agent for performance that exceeds the standard or punish the agent for below standard work.

Many ideas about accountability come from the business world and are developed in the fields of economics and political science. Attention paid to accountability waxes and wanes. While it never disappears, it often receives more attention in periods of conservative ascendance. This article briefly describes six approaches to educational accountability: moral, professional, bureaucratic, political, market, and legal. These are described singly, although in practice they are usually combined. It then examines one legal strategy that has received a great deal of attention in the United States: the use of state standards and assessment to promote student, school, and district accountability. Finally, it comments on the interaction among different accountability approaches.

Moral and Professional Accountability

The principal has the least control with moral accountability where the agent's actions depend largely on an internalized obligation, reinforced with a personal sense of remorse or potential social ostracism if the obligation is not met.

Professional accountability also provides the agent with a high degree of autonomy. This form operates on the assumption that the agent on the spot–typically a teacher–has special knowledge either of general principles or of the specific situation. Either way, it is difficult for the principal to specify actions or outcomes in great detail, so the agent has a great deal of discretion. On the other hand, before taking a position, the agent must demonstrate that he or she has the required competence, values, and knowledge by taking a prescribed course of study and/or passing specialized certification examinations. Thus, the primary point of control is more at entry to the profession or the specific position rather than over performance across time. Newer developments related to professional accountability include stronger state licensure requirements and the introduction of new assessments of initial competence. These, however, are usually introduced using the authority of the state, so professional and legal accountability intertwine. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, with its advanced certification for experienced teachers, tight connections to the field of teaching, and relatively loose ties to government, is closer to the form of professionally guided licensure found in other fields.

In addition, peer review can provide further oversight for the professional. The individual teacher offers evidence of practice that is reviewed by colleagues to ensure that it meets professional standards. These standards usually refer to the use of appropriate procedures and materials, recognizing that the outcome is usually a joint product of both the teacher and the student. The difficulty with peer review is the tendency for professionals to protect their own. This is especially problematic in education where teaching is usually practiced in isolation. Nevertheless, studies of the formation of professional communities in schools have shown that, under special conditions, teachers can band together to enforce shared and challenging standards and help colleagues improve their practice.

Bureaucratic Accountability

Bureaucratic accountability is based on the superior-subordinate relationship and depends upon the formal definition of the responsibilities of positions within an organization. An educational example might be the relationship between a superintendent and a principal. Where bureaucratic accountability dominates, the superior assigns tasks to subordinates. Rules and procedures for doing the work are specified in advance, and criteria for good performance are established. The supervisor then observes the process and evaluates both the process and the results.

Formal authority alone may be used to enforce compliance, but that authority can be reinforced with incentives that are linked to performance as judged by the superior. These incentives might include promotions, salary increases, and removal from a position. Such incentives work best when agents are held accountable for work processes that are relatively easy to specify in procedures–such as teaching certain content that can be specified in a written curriculum–and that are observable by supervisors. Incentives are more difficult to use when the work is unpredictable and uncertain. There have been several efforts to increase bureaucratic authority through various forms of merit pay and related approaches. While such experimentation continues, for the most part American education has stayed with salary systems that reward experience and formal education and provide few means for superiors to reward subordinates. A major reason for the difficulty in adopting such systems has been the inability to design ones that teachers believe fairly reflect their work rather than reflecting the capricious judgments on the part of higher administrators.

Political Accountability

Political accountability in its purest form is between an elected official–such as a school board member–and the voters. As with professional accountability, the performances expected can be quite variable and hard to specify. They may include curriculum taught, the level of spending on education, or special treatment for a constituent's children. They may also change radically over time so that what the voters want at one point, they reject at another. Political accountability facilitates the lobbying of elected officials to ensure that they act on one's preferences, and it may include rewarding them by helping them get reelected. Political accountability extends to officers appointed (more or less directly) by elected representatives, especially superintendents appointed by elected school boards.

Historically, American schools have primarily used a mix of political, bureaucratic, and professional accountability. The elected school board set policy and appointed the superintendent, who held the highest position in the formal bureaucracy. Still, teachers had considerable autonomy to choose instructional methods, even if licensure standards were rarely challenging and peer accountability was the exception, not the rule.

This older system remains in place in the early twenty-first century, although it has undergone changes as some forms of site-based management have shifted the balance between bureaucratic and political accountability as well as accountability to local principals from more central ones. New approaches to teacher licensure have also increased professional accountability. The major developments, however, have been the extension of two forms of accountability that historically played a lesser role in education: market and legal accountability.

Market Accountability

With market accountability, children or parents are customers who choose schools and can shop for the one that best reflects their preferences. The discipline of competition ensures that educators respond to parent and student preferences. Market accountability has become more popular as confidence in government has waned and the public questions the costs of public provision of services. It is especially prescribed where schools have become excessively bureaucratized, politically nonresponsive, and unwilling or unable to improve their performance. American cities appear to be a ripe target for marketization because performance is so poor and improvement so slow.

The United States has always provided a small measure of choice through private and parochial schools operating alongside the public schools as well as through the housing market that allows some Americans to choose their schools. Recently, there has been a strong upsurge in interest in two new developments. One is charter schools, which are state funded but started by individuals or groups outside the public system and which then compete with public schools for students (and funding). The other is vouchers whereby tax receipts go to schools indirectly. Fixed amounts are given to parents who then use state funds (sometimes supplemented with their own money) to select the school their child will attend. In other countries, the public-private distinction is more muted or, as in New Zealand, parents are given total freedom of choice of which public school their children will attend.

Many claims have been made for various privatization approaches. It is said that they will be more efficient, increase variation in the kind of education delivered, raise test scores, increase equity, and, through competition, promote improvement of regular public schools. In most cases, it is difficult to tell what the effects of market accountability are. For instance, there have been few well-designed studies clarifying the effects of choice on achievement, at least in the American context, and those that have been conducted are much disputed. There is little evidence to suggest that competition is changing public schools in the United States, perhaps because competition is still so limited. On the other hand, there is evidence that choice programs are inequitable. The clientele of such programs tends to be more white and better off, and there tend to be fewer children with the more severe handicaps attending such schools. This is true even when schools of choice must use lotteries and other systems that preclude selecting more advantaged students and when whole countries have gone to choice systems.

Legal Accountability

Legal accountability occurs when the principal formulates rules and monitors and enforces the agent's compliance with those rules. It differs from bureaucratic accountability where the rules are formulated within an organization in that the principal is usually one level of government, such as the federal or state government, formulating rules for organizations at a lower level. Rules are usually formulated by legislatures but can be elaborated through executive regulation and formulated de novo (over again) by both the executive branch and the courts. Legal accountability often works in conjunction with professional, political, and bureaucratic accountability by establishing the broad framework within which they operate.

Legal accountability structures the inputs and resources teachers receive through funding formulas and teacher licensure regulations. The former have been highly contested and the source of a great deal of school finance litigation. The latter is a central pillar of professional accountability. Legal accountability also defines the structures and processes through which education is delivered by defining forms of governance–for instance, school boards and local control–attendance policies, desegregation orders, and building codes.

What has been new since the 1970s has been the use of legal accountability to specify, monitor, and improve the outcomes of education. Historically, states have specified outcomes indirectly by defining high school graduation requirements. Beginning in the 1970s and more often since the early 1980s, however, state governments took stronger steps. At first, these focused on testing students and increasing high school graduation requirements. More recently, there has been more emphasis on setting standards and assessing performance in light of those standards. By now, almost every American state and many foreign countries take these two linked steps. Because this approach has become so pervasive, it deserves special attention.

Standards and Assessment

A system of state standards might include the following elements:

  • Content standards that set out the knowledge and skills children are expected to develop,
  • Tests or assessments aligned with those content standards,
  • Student performance standards that define proficient performance in terms of those assessments, and
  • Rewards provided to students or schools that meet or exceed the standards and punishments or remediation activities for those that do not.

A strong system would have all four elements. The theory of action behind such a system is that the formal sanctions linked to meeting standards motivate educators and students to learn what is tested. A weak system would certainly not have the last two elements and might not have the first–many states began testing without any guidance from standards. The theory then is that the publication of test scores will motivate improvement either by appealing to professional pride or indirectly to the public, which will use political accountability to promote improvement.

While the theory is clear enough at a general level, states face difficult design issues with both technical and political dimensions related to each element of the accountability system. In practice, the politics of state standards and assessment has led to rapid, dramatic changes in state tests and related policies. Each element listed above has been problematic in some instances. For instance, content standards have become a source of frequent disputes. In science, whether or not to teach evolution has been an issue from the Scopes trial to the 1999 deliberations of the Kansas school board. Even more seemingly neutral subjects have been cause for great debate. For instance, while the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has urged states to develop standards that focus on exploring mathematical ideas, logical reasoning, and the ability to solve non-routine problems, many people still want state standards to require memorizing mathematical facts and procedures.

The design of tests has created other problems. In the 1970s states relied primarily on multiple-choice tests, which were familiar (thereby ensuring a certain legitimacy), inexpensive, and could obtain reliable scores relatively inexpensively. During the 1990s there was a push for portfolios and performance assessments where students constructed the responses. Such assessments were viewed as more valid measures of higher standards and better guidance, and were believed to encourage teachers to adopt more challenging instructional approaches. It now appears that while performance assessments have many advantages for improving instruction, they often lack the economy and reliability required for public accountability.

Other issues relate to performance standards, including whether and how to take into account the well-known correlation between family background and performance when measuring school performance, whether to develop standards for absolute performance or improvement and–if the latter–how to measure improvement, and whether to use norm-referenced (comparison to some larger group) or criterion-referenced (comparison to an absolute level of performance) standards of performance. Developing criterion-referenced standards has been the subject of much research, but a great deal of art is still involved.

Another major issue concerns the usefulness of rewards and punishments. The theory of action behind accountability systems is that the challenge for the principal is to motivate the agent to perform in ways the principal prefers. A criticism of this theory as it applies to state assessment systems is that strong sanctions, also referred to as high stakes, will lead to "teaching to the test." This term refers to a wide range of behaviors from adjusting the curriculum to ensure that topics tested are taught before the test is given, to cheating. The term implies that something is done to raise test scores without necessarily increasing students' knowledge of the subject tested. Moreover, critics argue that more challenging forms of instruction are less likely to be adopted in high-stakes settings.

An alternative theory for improving teaching and learning in schools is that the major problem is a lack of capacity–that is, the knowledge, skills, funding, and other resources needed to perform in effective ways. Numerous capacities are needed to raise test scores by improving student knowledge. These include understanding the content taught and effective ways to teach it, the ability to analyze tests and know what performances are really called for, and the collective capacity of members of the target school in question to work together to improve itself. Even a weak accountability system can make teachers aware of the need to change practice and provide general guidance about the kinds of changes preferred. Without appropriate internal capacity or capacity-building efforts, however, movement toward more challenging instruction is not likely.

A number of studies have recently pointed to the need to align internal and external accountability. These studies suggest that schools with reasonably strong cultures develop their own internal accountability often based on peer professional accountability. Such cultures can provide strong support for improvement because they combine motivational and capacity-building efforts. Where internal and external accountability are mutually reinforcing, it appears that change is powerfully supported. Where the two are not aligned, internal accountability is likely to overwhelm external accountability or external accountability may undermine local capacity.

Coordinating Accountability Mechanisms

For all of the difficulty in designing and implementing individual accountability mechanisms, policy analysts recognize that educators face a variety of interacting mechanisms. The American educational system is highly fragmented, with authority dispersed between political and professional organizations and across local, state, and federal levels of government. Consensus on what constitutes effective education and who should be educated are difficult to achieve.

Moreover, educators are accountable to multiple constituencies. The research on internal accountability illustrates how professional accountability may reinforce or work against state assessment systems. Other work suggests that the public may not understand or support state standards and assessment. When they do not, they may protest at the state level, or local school boards may not give top priority to achieving high standards, thus undermining efforts to achieve them.

In sum, educators and policy analysts will always be concerned about educational accountability. It is hard to imagine an educational system where educators are not accountable to multiple constituencies through a variety of mechanisms. This means that educators will be accountable to different people for different things. It is becoming more and more important to design accountability mechanisms that encourage schools to provide a more effective education for all children and to orchestrate these mechanisms so that they send as consistent a message to educators as possible.


ADAMS, JACOB E., and KIRST, MICHAEL W. 1999. "New Demands and Concepts for Educational Accountability: Striving for Results in an Era of Excellence." In Handbook of Research on Educational Administration, 2nd edition, ed. Joseph Murphy and Karen Seashore Louis. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

FAIRMAN, JANET, and FIRESTONE, WILLIAM A. 2001. "The District Role in State Assessment Policy: An Exploratory Study." In From the Capitol to the Classroom: Standards-Based Reform in the States, ed. Susan H. Fuhrman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

FIRESTONE, WILLIAM A. 1994. "Redesigning Teacher Salary Systems for Educational Reform." American Educational Research Journal 31:549–574.

FIRESTONE, WILLIAM A., and MAYROWETZ, DAVID. 2000. "Rethinking 'High Stakes': Lessons from the United States and England and Wales." Teachers College Record 102:724–749.

FULLER, BRUCE, and ELMORE, RICHARD F. 1996. Who Chooses? Who Loses? Culture, Institutions, and the Unequal Effects of School Choice. New York: Teachers College Press.

LEITHWOOD, KENNETH; EDGE, KAREN; and JANTZI, DORIS. 1999. Educational Accountability: The State of the Art. Gütersloh, Germany: Bertels-mann Foundation Publishers.

LINN, ROBERT L. 2001. Reporting School Quality in Standards-Based Accountability Systems. Los Angeles: National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing.

LINN, ROBERT L., and BAKER, EVA L. 1996. "Can Performance-Based Student Assessments Be Psychometrically Sound?" In Performance-Based Student Assessment: Challenges and Possibilities, ed. Joan B. Baron and Dennis P. Wolf. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

MURPHY, JOSEPH. 1996. The Privatization of Schooling: Problems and Possibilities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

NEWMANN, FRED M.; KING, M. BRUCE; and RIGDON, MARL. 1997. "Accountability and School Performance: Implications from Restructuring Schools." Harvard Education Review 61:41–69.

SMITH, MARY LEE. 1991. "Meanings of Test Preparation." American Educational Research Journal 28:521–542.

SMITH, MARY LEE; HEINECKE, WALTER; and NOBLE, AUDREY J. 1999. "Assessment Policy and Political Spectacle." Teachers College Record 101:157–191.

WIRT, FRED, and KIRST, MICHAEL W. 1997. The Political Dynamics of American Education. Berkeley: MacCutchan Press.


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