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CPRE : Consortium for Policy Research in Education

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Research Report

When Accountability Knocks, Will Anyone Answer?

Pressure for increased school accountabil- ity is a distinctive hallmark of the present period of educational reform. Account- ability, as presently defined in state and local educational policy, includes four major ideas: the school is the basic unit for the delivery of education and hence the primary place where teachers and administrators are held to account; schools are primarily accountable for student performance, generally defined as measured achievement on tests in basic academic subjects; school-site student performance is evaluated against externally-set standards that define accept- able levels of student achievement as mandated by states or localities; and evaluation of school performance is typically accompanied by a system of rewards, penalties, and intervention strategies targeted at rewarding successful schools and remediating or closing low-performing schools (Ladd, 1996).

These accountability policies are typically directed toward individual schools or teachers, and increasingly, students, as in Texas, New York, Virginia, and Florida where exit exams or proficiency requirements are central to educational reform policies. Coupled with these new account- ability systems, states and localities often are pursuing policies such as charter schools and choice programs that move schools outside the existing bureaucratic structure and are intended to sharpen the focus on academic quality and student performance. Growing political and fiscal pressure on schools lies behind this conception of accountability. The political pressure stems from the increasing visibility of school performance as a policy issue at the state and local levels and the increasing capacity of states and localities to measure and monitor student achievement. The fiscal pressure derives from heightened awareness of accountability present in the literature on school reform, but to leave the definitions as open as possible.

This study is focused primarily on schools and how they construct their own conceptions of accountability. We chose this focus for conceptual and practical reasons. First, we are interested in understanding how teachers, administrators, students, and parents think about and behave toward accountability issues in schools, apart from how they respond to new external accountability systems. Schools function, in part, as accountability systems in their own right, and these systems are worth understanding in and of themselves. Second, we are interested in learning, from the variations we observe among schools, about the range of responses that schools of various types formulate to the problem of accountability. To the degree that schools vary in their responses to the accountability problem, we learn something about how conceptions of account- ability are formed and how they change in the daily life of schools. Third, we are ultimately interested in joining our research on school-level accountability with research on external accountability systems to understand the sources of school-site variation in response to state and local accountability structures.

Publication Date

March 1999