It’s time to rethink the “A” word

Education news site The 74 Million is currently partnering up with education experts at the Bush Institute in Dallas to answer a simple question; why is “accountability” seen as a “dirty word” in education debates? The answer is equally simple. Accountability is uncomfortable, and it forces adults to work really hard.

For the purpose of this blog, I will focus on an interview with Margaret Spellings, a former key player in the accountability movement in Texas and at the national level.

Accountability, put simply, is holding someone responsible for a desired outcome. The responsible parties are school systems and the adults that make decisions within them. The outcome is education that meets the needs of students.

Texas, once a national leader on accountability, is currently scraping by to retain a focus on accountability that works for students. So what went wrong? Today we’ll take a look at a short history of the movement, where we are now, and how we can get back on track.

Accountability’s roots

To borrow a mantra of the University of Texas, “what starts here changes the world.” Texans have long been creative problem solvers and trailblazers. That’s why Texas was one of the first states to introduce a statewide school accountability system—one of two state systems that drove the greatest gains in student achievement during the 1990’s.

Texas’ accountability model forced schools to face the inequities and achievement gaps that had long gone undiagnosed. And its popularity with policymakers was driven by a moral imperative: addressing schools’ shortcomings is simply the right thing to do.

As Margaret Spellings put it, “left to their own devices, [school systems] are going to go easy on themselves.” That meant state leaders had to do their level best to force schools to change how they were educating students. Accountability proved to be the push they needed to begin that work.

Texas’ success inspired President George W. Bush to bring an emphasis on accountability to the nation as a whole, ushering in a new era in American education. Largely a bipartisan effort, the accountability movement was fiercely defended by President Barack Obama for the duration of his time in the Oval Office.

The slow retreat

Today, accountability is under attack from all sides. There are coordinated efforts to undermine the fairness and accuracy of school ratings. Folks have tried to link accountability to privatization and have labeled it “anti-public-education.” Many have blamed it for the struggles of school systems in their pursuit of academic success.

In more ways than one, the resistance is growing. Policymakers have called for complete repeal of Texas’ accountability framework. Proposals have been made to decrease transparency and clarity in evaluations of school performance. District leaders are calling for the ability to create their own systems to self-evaluate their performance.

In addition to these efforts, the conversation about school quality and school improvement is often redirected to issues of school funding. So goes the argument: “accountability is not the key—increasing resources is.” These two pieces of the puzzle, however, don’t have to exist in isolation.

As Spellings says, the “put the money out there and hope for the best” approach has been tried before and has failed. Therefore, we must use accountability to uncover areas of need in order to “resource our problems.” In that way, accountability and funding can go hand-in-hand.

All in all, pushback to accountability is all about what Spellings calls the “pinch.” Looking straight into the face of an ugly reality makes people uncomfortable, and assessing the scale of work that still needs to be done can be daunting. So, instead, many advocate for the removal of the policies that uncover hard truths.

Looking forward

Clearly, a moral imperative to just “do what’s right for students” is no longer sustaining support for accountability. But the importance of a continued focus on the academic success of each and every Texas student is too great to dismiss.

With that in mind, let’s begin the conversation about education’s part in enabling students to contribute a thriving workforce and a strong economy. Its part in preparing democratic citizens. Its part in building safer communities. Its part in elevating families out of poverty. Let’s restart the conversation about how we can ensure all students have access to an education that serves all of those needs.

Better accountability—and policies that address the systemic issues it brings to light—can be in Texas’ future. We must work together now to rebuild a consensus that supports that goal.


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