Tuesday, September 30, 2014

It’s All About Improvement

Schools have long been held accountable for how they carry out their activities. State and local authorities require students to take certain courses, minutes of classroom instruction are specified, limits on the ratio of students to teachers are set, textbooks are approved, and teachers leading instructional activities are certified by the state. Such procedural standards are monitored efficiently and enforced across jurisdictions.

Still, in spite of procedural standards, school and teacher performance, measured in terms of student learning, varies widely. In short, similarity in how school activities are structured does not reliably lead to similarity in performance. Hence, the policy push for a more direct focus on outcome accountability.

Holding schools accountable for student performance is complicated technically and, perhaps even more so, politically. But it is not going away. We’ve made both good starts and false starts, and we have more to learn. But there are some basics that are clear.

Good, comparable performance information at all levels is essential. Without it, individual teachers, principals, parents, taxpayers, and policy makers are each operating in the blind. With good performance information, they can learn how to make things better.

Teachers need good student performance information to determine the extent to which each of their students is learning and performing to standards and to similar students in other classrooms, as well as to determine what is working and not working in their classroom. Principals, as school leaders, need classroom performance information to fulfill their role as manager and determine how individual staff members are performing and who needs help and who might take on a model role for others. District administrators need performance information to look across schools to ensure they are all making progress and to determine when and how to intervene if necessary. Parents need the information both to be reassured and to make good school choices for their children. And taxpayers need to be confident that their contributions are worthwhile to support the schools well.

Accountability systems will no doubt identify staff and programs that are worthwhile and some that are not, and consequences will follow, as in any organization. But, more fundamentally, accountability systems will provide information, feedback, and incentives that will result in combined actions that contribute to overall organizational learning and improved student learning.

Jane Hannaway is Professor, McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University and Institute Fellow, American Institutes for Research.

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