Everyone wants schools to be accountable. Aside from being the largest expenditure in state budgets across the country, K-12 education is something that impacts everyone as a student, parent, or taxpayer. It is natural and important to ask what we are getting for that expenditure. While wanting accountability is easy, defining it is incredibly hard. The repeated failed attempts to pass a comprehensive education accountability bill in Wisconsin is evidence of the difficulty of finding a broadly agreed upon approach to accountability.
The failure to coalesce around a single approach to education accountability is not surprising. It means different things to different people. Romzek and Dubnick famously (at least among academics studying accountability) used the Challenger disaster to illustrate the reality of competing accountability types. In their framework there are four types of accountability: 1) Bureaucratic, 2) Legal, 3) Professional, and 4) Political. All can exist at the same time, meaning that a single approach to accountability is guaranteed to be incomplete.
Does this mean legislative calls for accountability are pointless? More troubling, does it mean the debate over accountability in education is just policymakers spinning their wheels? I had this question in mind when I, along with Douglas Ihrke at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, surveyed Wisconsin school board members on the topic of accountability. We asked board members an open-ended question, how do you define accountability as it relates to academic outcomes?
The results, just published in the latest edition of Public Performance & Management Review, are fascinating. After poring through the answers, we identified four different ways in which Wisconsin school board members approach accountability:
- High stakes: Board members who referred to testing and/or standards.
- Staff/systems: Board members who viewed accountability as holding staff accountable for their professional performance.
- No definition: Board members who said they do not see accountability as part of their role.
- In process: Board members who indicated they were still working to find a definition.
By far, high stakes (50%) and staff/systems (34%) were the most popular answers. We hypothesized that conservative board members were more likely to favor a high stakes definition while liberal board members were more likely to favor a staff/systems approach. We were wrong, ideology did not have a substantive impact on board member answers.
Next we wondered, was one approach better than the others? To answer this question we tested the relationship between accountability definitions and school district performance (measured by reading and math proficiency levels, and school district accountability scores). After controlling for student and district characteristics the answer was no, there is no direct link between a single accountability definition and performance.
This is where things got interesting. We looked deeper at our data to determine whether a majority of board members serving together defined accountability in the same way. After controlling for student and district characteristics we found a statistically significant relationship between board member agreement on accountability definitions and district performance. In other words, when board members have a common approach to accountability, regardless of the approach, outcomes improve. How much? Districts whose boards agreed on a definition have accountability scores that are 2.5 points higher than those that did not. While not a massive difference, it demonstrates that something as simple as working towards a common understanding of accountability can enable boards to have a real positive impact on student achievement.
The lesson for policymakers is that accountability, despite the reality of competing approaches and preferences, can be an actionable concept that positively impacts academic achievement. However, the answer is not finding the perfect universally agreed upon approach. Both history and our research indicate that such an approach does not exist. The answer is school boards. They are the local officials who can find, and hopefully coalesce around, an impactful approach to accountability that works for their district.
We are working with a national data set, so our next step is seeing if this relationship holds true across states. And all of this is part of a larger effort to understand the ways in which school board governance impacts academic achievement.