Milwaukee Voucher-School Leaders’ Views on Accountability: What Are They, and Why Do They Matter?

The title of this post is also the title of a just published peer-reviewed article in Leadership and Policy in Schools.   My motivation for this article was twofold. First, I am perpetually frustrated by the vague way scholars and policy makers discuss and study accountability. Accountability theories abound, but they are rarely actionable for managers and policy makers. Worse, policy makers all favor accountability but disagree on what it means, which leads to less than substantive debates (case in point is the attempts to build an education accountability system in Wisconsin). My second motivation is the open distrust of the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) voiced by some choice advocates and Wisconsin politicians. A state agency like DPI is much more than its elected head, and I wanted to know how school leaders felt about their regular interactions with DPI employees.

I set out to answer the following two questions:

  • What are Milwaukee voucher leaders’ views on accountability and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI),
  • What factors impact those views?

To answer these questions I surveyed 40 school administrators representing a cross-section of the 116 schools participating in the MPCP during the 2013-14 school year. Here is what I found:

  • 55% of school leaders agreed that they “generally trust the Department of Public Instruction.” 30% disagreed.
  • 5% agreed that “My interactions with DPI staff are generally pleasant.” 7.5% disagreed.
  • 85% agreed that “DPI staff wants the MPCP to be successful.” 20.5% disagreed.
  • 26% agreed that “The DPI superintendent wants the MPCP to be successful.” 58.9% disagreed.

I did not find much of a relationship between school performance and views of DPI, though school leaders who distrusted DPI did oversee schools with slightly lower math proficiency levels.

Finally, I asked school leaders an open-ended question on how they define accountability. Just like my research on public school districts, I received a variety of answers. Some leaders defined accountability as high test scores, some as satisfied parents, some as school safety, and some as transparency.

So what is the take-away? First, MPCP school leaders trust and have positive interactions with DPI staff.   Only 20.5% think DPI staff does not want the MPCP to be successful. Though school leaders do not see the DPI superintendent as their advocate, they separate their opinion of DPI leadership and staff. This suggests to me that calls to remove the administration of choice programs out of DPI do not make much sense from an administrative perspective. I would hate to see administrative performance suffer due to political concerns.

Second, the diversity of opinion on accountability amongst school leaders clarifies how difficult it will be to create an accountability system for the MPCP that satisfies all stakeholders. In my opinion, this problem illustrates the challenge of imposing traditional bureaucratic controls on a decentralized system premised on market-accountability (The more academic-minded might want to check out some of the work on meta-governance by B. Guy Peters, he tackles this very problem).

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