Why accountability matters, and why it must evolve

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Date: Summer 2017
From: Education Next(Vol. 17, Issue 3)
Publisher: Hoover Institution Press
Document Type: Essay
Length: 1,516 words
Lexile Measure: 1370L

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TRY TO THINK of an education policy that 1) has been shown, in dozens of studies across multiple decades, to positively affect student outcomes; 2) has the overwhelming support of parents and voters; 3) reinforces many other policies and facilitates quality research; and 4) has been used widely at the district, state, and national levels for decades or more.


You might be thinking that such a policy doesn't exist, and if it did, wed surely want to keep it around. But the truth is precisely the opposite. Such a policy does exist--it's called school accountability--yet the powers that be seem increasingly ready to throw it out and leave education to the whims of the all-but-unregulated free market.

School accountability, specifically test-based accountability, has been a staple of K-12 education policy since the 1990s (and even before that, in some states and districts). Over that time, we've learned quite a lot about it.

First, we've learned that it can work. We've seen this in studies of individual districts, individual states, and the nation as a whole: David Figlio and Susanna Loeb's 2011 review of research summarizes this literature comprehensively. The effects observed in many studies are substantial, especially given that they typically occur schoolwide. The effect of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) on students' mathematics achievement documented by Thomas Dee and Brian Jacob and confirmed by Manyee Wong and colleagues is equivalent to the gain from spending three or four years in an average urban charter school, according to the latest data from Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes. Accountability doesn't seem to do a great job at closing achievement gaps (though it certainly shines a light on underperformance), but there's considerable evidence that it can raise student achievement.

Second, we've learned that parents and voters feel strongly that accountability is essential. Polls show overwhelming bipartisan support for the common-sense idea that schools receiving public dollars to educate children should be accountable for providing a good education. Education Next's 2016 poll reported at least two-thirds support for annual testing among both Republicans and Democrats. In the 2016 PACE/USC Rossier poll of Californians that I led, we asked what schools should be held accountable for; voters rated standardized test results last among the options presented, but 69...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A503266376