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This article first appeared in the Data & Society publication Points in September 2016. It’s a response, in part, to the organization’s primer on accountability in education: “The Myth of Accountability: How Data (Mis)Use is Reinforcing the Problems of Public Education.”

To be accountable is to be answerable; to be required to justify one’s actions; to be called to account. That reckoning could take the form of an explanation; in an obsolete usage of the word –obsolete according to the Oxford English Dictionary at least – accountability explicitly involves calculation. But this particular meaning isn’t completely lost to us; in its contemporary usage in education policy, “accountability” certainly demands a calculation as well, one derived primarily from standardized test scores.

A Brief History of Accountability


“Accountability” in public education has a long history, but today it's most commonly associated with one of the key pieces of legislation passed under George W. Bush’s presidency: No Child Left Behind, the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. No Child Left Behind is credited with ushering in, at a national level, an education reform movement focused on measuring students' performance on reading and math assessments.

Of course, standardized testing pre-dates the NCLB legislation – by over a thousand years if you trace the history of testing back through the examinations used in Imperial China to select candidates for civil service. But No Child Left Behind has always been positioned as a new and necessary intervention, one aimed at the improvement of K–12 schools and one coinciding with long-standing narratives about American educational excellence (and the lack thereof). As such, NCLB and its notion of accountability has shaped the public discourse about how we know – or think we know – whether schools are good or bad; and the law has, until its recent re-write as the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, dictated what is supposed to happen when schools are categorized as the latter: these schools will be held accountable.

Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit


“Accountability” now provides the framework for how we measure school success. And to be clear, this is a measurement. But only certain things “count” for this accounting.

As the pro-business American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has described these sorts of policies, accountability in US public education in the last few decades has taken the shape of “carrots, sticks, and the bully pulpit.” This includes policies that demand a school’s performance be evaluated annually based on its students’ performance on standardized tests. Depending on how well or how poorly a school performs, it might be rewarded or punished, carrots or sticks – by being allocated more or less funding, for example, or by being prompted to hire or fire certain staff members, or in the most extreme cases, by being shut down altogether. But as the AEI’s phrase suggests, a key part of accountability has become “the bully pulpit” and involves a number of powerful narratives about failing schools, incompetent teachers, underperforming students, and as such, the need for more oversight into how tax dollars are being spent.

There are other shapes that accountability efforts might take (and do take and have taken), no doubt: “Accountability” could refer to the democratic process; that is, elections for local school boards and other education-related offices such as Superintendent of Public Instruction. Accountability could be encouraged through more information transparency, publishing publicly more school data (and not just test scores). Accountability could also be pushed via “markets”; that is offering “choice” or even vouchers to parents so they can opt where they send their children to school beyond simply their neighborhood school. Accountability could focus on mechanisms that reward and punish individual teachers or students (as opposed to entire schools or districts). While that could conceivably involve teachers or students defining their own teaching and learning goals and responsibilities, accountability is often a framework imposed by administrative forces with a narrow set of what educational data and what educational outcomes “count.”

What Accountability Practices are Missing


Accountability tends to focus on the outputs of the school system – by measuring different levels of “student achievement” via standardized testing. As such, it is less apt to examine the inputs – at inequalities of funding, at differences in staffing, and so on. It presumes that students’ success or failure is the responsibility of the school, ignoring or at least minimizing the role of poverty or structural racism. Its calculations posit a highly instrumental view of student achievement, not to mention student learning. To be held accountable, it must be quantifiable.

This instrumentality dovetails quite handily with the increasing use of technologies in the classroom – technologies that collect more and more data on students' various activities. This data collection goes far beyond standardized test scores, making assessment an ongoing and incessant practice. But it’s a practice that, in part because of the very demands of today’s accountability framework, remains focused on surveillance and punishment.

The word “accountability” is related to the word “responsibility.” As public institutions, there is an expectation that schools spend taxpayer money responsibly. Schools are responsible for teaching students; they are responsible for students’ safety and well-being during the school day and, according to our popular narratives surrounding the effects of education, responsible for their success far beyond school. New digital data collection and analytics promise to improve the responsiveness of teachers and schools to students’ individual needs. But it’s a promise largely unfulfilled. So when we think about “what counts” and who’s held to account under public education’s accountability regime, it’s still worth asking if accountability can co-exist with “response-ability” – accountable to whom, how and to what ends; responsible to whom, how, and to what ends.

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Audrey Watters


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