"Transparencies" by Coolmonfrere via Flickr

The landmark federal education law “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) required states to create (or build up) accountability systems based primarily on student achievement measures. Success or failure on these measures is based on how well schools and districts are moving every subgroup of students toward a state-defined level of “proficiency.” Persistently being labelled a “failure” on this system comes with increasing consequences for schools.

Two distinct camps emerge on accountability. One side presses for ever greater accountability, with some members of this group even hoping that more and more schools “fail” so they can justify any number of policy directives. The play is simple. Perseverate and point to the number of schools failing, then insert whatever policy you want as the panacea because clearly whatever schools are doing isn’t working.

The other camp pushes back against accountability, holding that schools (and those working in them) are performing heroic acts in the face of insurmountable circumstances. This camp even presses a goal of eliminating the use of standardized student achievement measures, or making them so subjective and qualitative as to be of no use for accountability purposes.

Rather than get in the cliche’ and worn-out business of criticizing NCLB, or of buying into another false dichotomy narrative, what if we instead considered what an accountability might look like … or even better, what it should look like.

Consider an accountability system that…
• Used a sophisticated suite of student achievement measures, beyond one test.
• Considered student growth, or improvement, as an equal (or perhaps higher) goal with proficiency.
• Provided actionable and timely student results available to guide instruction.
• Considered several measures of organizational health along with student results, such as fiscal responsibility.
• Considered the concepts of student hope, engagement, and well-being.
• Considered parent satisfaction and partnership.
• Considered staff working conditions.
• Discovered the “bright spots” in those schools that are beating the odds … and shared them as models.
• Provided targeted resources and proven expertise to those schools needing improvement.
• Allowed for “earned autonomy,” where successful schools have little oversight but failing schools are prescribed and directed.
• Required collective accountability and a “transparency of practice” where teaching and leading schools are open to peer critique.
• Empowered and required local professionals to hold each other deeply accountable through a democratic process.

This sort of system I describe would not only better identify the real continuum of performance in schools (as opposed to fail/not fail), but would actually provide information and supports on how all schools might get better. Instead of a system of “blame and shame,” we might instead have a system of “intelligent accountability.”