Public School Accountability Research Paper Starter

Public School Accountability

Accountability in K-12 education is a concept through which student outcomes are assessed and reported to stakeholders. At its core, accountability centers on how well schools deliver services in terms of students' academic achievement of a set of curricular standards; however, accountability is currently equated most heavily with teacher quality and student performance on basic skills assessments under the guidelines set forth by The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). This article defines accountability, discusses the historical context of curricular goals and assessment and then focuses upon NCLB, standardized testing and teacher performance.

Keywords Accountability; Adequate Yearly Progress; Confidence Intervals; Instructional Sensitivity; N-Size; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB); Socioeconomic Status; Standards-based Reform


Accountability in education refers to a local educational agency's (LEA) responsibility to meet the expectations of its stakeholders. Districts as well as individual schools are required to meet the goals set forth by the state and federal governments. According to Finn (2007), while it may be one of the most commonly used words in contemporary American education, its definition is, at best, nebulous; he describes four strategies through which accountability can be defined and achieved.

The Compliance Interpretation

A compliance interpretation of accountability is the most traditional, hierarchical and bureaucratic of those outlined by Finn (2007). Working within the existing system, this model involves adopting standards and measuring progress against them, managing available resources and their distribution and quality control. It is a top-down framework in which "participants in the enterprise are chiefly accountable for...obeying instructions and managing inputs and processes" (Finn, 2007, p. 24). LEAs are chiefly accountable to themselves and to the government agencies that set forth the standards and administer funding.

Professional Norms

The professional norms and expertise definition, or professional accountability model, is characterized by putting faith in the expertise of professionals and professional groups such as noted researchers, accrediting agencies and professional organizations (Finn, 2007). Although there are elements of accountability to standards-based compliance and the policies set forth by elected bodies, and while some attention is given to serving clients, this framework holds LEAs to the "creeds, gurus, and belief structures of the educational profession" (Finn, 2007, p. 25). The highest standards of professionalism rather than standards-based assessment or client satisfaction are the basis for this definition of accountability (Finn, 2007).


The third model includes a definition of compliance that centers on consumerism and makes LEAs answerable to their clients through "market dynamics" (Finn, 2007, p. 26). Private and charter schools respond to this type of accountability on a regular basis as they risk losing enrollment and revenue if they are not responsive to client needs. Some of these principles have filtered into public education with the various manifestations of public school choice, virtual and magnet schools and voucher systems (Finn, 2007). "It remains, however, the most controversial of these four strategies, for it's the only one that employs a flexible definition of public education [which] allows tax-generated monies to flow into schools not directly controlled by governmental bodies" (Finn, 2007, p. 26).

Standards-Based Reform

Finally, the most widely accepted definition of accountability in education today involves standards-based reform, especially in light of the policy-making decisions of elected bodies and the current goals set forth by The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). The model is a hierarchical, externally-imposed framework for change wherein standards for achievement for children are set, testing is done to measure that achievement and consequences for both children and practitioners are imposed if standards are not met (Finn, 2007). Within standards-based reform, it is most often an outside non-educational agency or political body that establishes the standards for the individual entities (e.g., the children, the teachers, the school, the school district, the state, etc.) to achieve and that determines how that achievement will be measured (Finn, 2007). Rewards for meetings goals and sanctions for under-achievement are then dispensed at the discretion of that same outside agency.

Of the four strategies, standards-based reform is the most directly related to academic achievement, in part because the older compliance and professional accountability models failed to focus sufficiently on student outcomes (Finn, 2007). Insofar as the accountability model that is most likely to result in effective educational and increased student achievement in public schools, standards-based reform has begun to emerge as the best practice despite the difficulty in implementation (Finn, 2007). According to Finn (2007), "there's plenty of evidence that private schools do a pretty good job both of producing relatively high-achieving students and of satisfying their clients. There's mixed evidence with respect to charter schools, most of which are still new" (p. 31).

The current and most widely accepted view of accountability in public education centers on the attainment of benchmarks in the areas of reading and mathematics. Seen as the most critical areas for student achievement and success by the legislative bodies that impose the standards, states and school districts strive to meet these goals, often to the exclusion of other curricular areas. This focus upon basic skills, however, is relatively new as historically, the goals of public education were significantly broader (Rothstein & Jacobsen, 2007).


The creation of public education system in the United States was a primary concern for the founding fathers, who believed that education was fundamental to creating an informed citizenry, which could make sound political decisions and continue the growth of the democracy that was being designed (Rothstein & Jacobsen, 2007). Benjamin Franklin emphasized physical education equally with intellectual development and believed that history should be used as a springboard for the teaching of morality, ethics, reading, speaking and writing (Rothstein & Jacobsen, 2007). In his initial state of the union address, George Washington instructed the Congress to encourage schools to teach students the values of citizenship, especially where it concerned the protection of their rights, and to be aware of the difference between oppression and rightful authority (Rothstein & Jacobsen, 2007).

The concept of diversity in education is not a recent development and dates back to both Washington and Thomas Jefferson. "Washington also urged a public education system that could foster a sense of national identity when students from diverse backgrounds learned together under the same educational roof" (Rothstein & Jacobsen, 2007, p. 3). Jefferson spent a great deal of time structuring the public education system in Virginia in large part due to his believe that the most reliable means through which to prevent a return to tyranny was education. According to Rothstein and Jacobsen (2007), Jefferson's goals for a comprehensive educational system were

To give every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business; To enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and account, in writing; To improve, by reading, his morals and faculties; To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either; To know his rights; To exercise with order and justice those he retains; and to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor, and judgment; And, in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed (p. 4).

Clearly, students' moral, ethical and political development was as important to Franklin, Washington and Jefferson as was their achievement in reading, writing and mathematics.

The nineteenth century marked a continuation and expansion of the comprehensive view of public education. Horace Mann, the first superintendent of the Massachusetts Educators, also advocated a balanced set of educational goals that stressed the importance of political awareness in the clear context of democratic values, as well as other curricular areas such as vocal music, environmental awareness, public health policy, physical education and ethics (Rothstein & Jacobsen, 2007). Mann advocated an accountability system within education that judged not only students' achievement but also students' commitment to and excitement about continued learning (Rothstein & Jacobsen, 2007).

The tradition continued into the twentieth century, when, in 1918, a committee commissioned by the federal government to review secondary education issued its report demanding a "balanced approach to education, urging schools to take responsibility for physical activity and health, academic skills, responsible family behavior and morality, vocational preparation, appreciation of the arts and training for democratic civic participation" (Rothstein & Jacobsen, 2007, p. 5). In the aftermath of the turmoil of the early part of the twentieth century and the time preceding the Second World War, the American Association of School Administrators joined with the National Education Association to convene an Education Policies Commission, which in turn "set forth 'four great groups of objectives' for public education: self-realization, human relationships, economic efficiency and civic responsibility" (Rothstein & Jacobsen, 2007, p. 6). The commission's 1938 report was reflective of the world and national climate and emphasized math and literacy skills as...

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