Integrating accountability and professional development

iStock_000021923625XSmall“Accountability at the state and district level should not interfere with professional development efforts in schools,” contends Jennifer A. O’Day, University of Wisconsin/Madison. Performance standards are crucial for identifying problem areas, for allocating resources to those areas and for monitoring progress across schools. “But it is the development of professional knowledge among teachers,” O’Day emphasizes, “that improves teaching and increases student achievement.”

O’Day contrasts the Chicago public schools’ outcomes-based bureaucratic accountability approach with the combination of administrative and professional accountability found in the Baltimore schools. She argues that the combination of administrative and professional accountability presents a more promising approach for implementing lasting and meaningful improvement in schools.

Goal should be improvement of instruction

The goal of all accountability systems is, or should be, the improvement of instruction and student learning. Accountability systems will foster improvement to the extent that they generate information relevant to teaching and learning and motivate school staffs to use that information and work to improve practice. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 represents the most widespread attempt to make schools accountable for student achievement. O’Day sees the Chicago public schools’ experience as an example of the promise and limitations of this approach to school accountability. She compares this to the way professional accountability is used in the Baltimore schools.

System change is complex. Bureaucratic and professional development systems differ in the way they respond to four central questions:

  • · Who is accountable?
  • · To whom are they accountable?
  • · For what are they accountable?
  • · And with what consequences?

Bureaucratic accountability systems differ from professional accountability in one very important respect: they hold schools and teachers accountable not for delivering specific instruction and educational activities but for producing specific levels or improvements in student learning outcomes. As an example, Chicago’s school board designated school level targets for student performance and instituted sanctions for schools that failed to reach these targets. The district now has six years of experience with its accountability system. Results indicate that teachers are working harder in response to accountability
measures and are more focused on externally-set student- learning goals. In each of the first four years following the institution of accountability measures, Chicago schools posted increased scores in both reading and mathematics (although reading scores appear to be leveling off since 2000).

However, schools within the system have responded unevenly to outcomes-based accountability policies, and O’Day believes this unevenness may be tied to internal conditions that make schools more or less able to use the information generated by the accountability system. Higher-achieving schools and those with higher socioeconomic populations responded better to performance-based accountability. Lower-performing schools appeared to lose ground relative to better performing schools. When schools that met goals were studied, they differed from less-responsive schools in terms of the amount of peer collaboration, teacher-to-teacher trust and collective responsibility for student learning. Schools with higher levels of interaction among students and teachers were adapting more successfully to accountability measures.

O’Day believes that the poorest-performing schools need more than outcomes-based accountability measures and additional resources, if student achievement goals are to be reached. Much of the criticism of Chicago’s model of school accountability has centered around the use of a single norm-referenced basic skills test that is not fully aligned with either the district or the state standards. It is argued that this test emphasizes fragmented and discrete skill knowledge and lacks validation for the types of decisions, such as grade retention, made on the basis of its results. School accountability systems that focus almost exclusively on outcomes produce little reliable information on how to reform instruction and organizational practices to improve achievement. Bureaucratic school accountability policies, in O’Day’s opinion, are insufficient to increase student achievement significantly in poorly functioning schools.

In addition, the emphasis on negative consequences tied to a single test result focuses the school’s attention on raising that test score to an acceptable level rather than on student learning. This often leads to an emphasis on test preparation and even to redesigning curricula to reflect the skills covered in that one test. With a focus on accountability at the school level, teachers are not rewarded for their individual efforts, no matter how high the quality of their work. This can lower their motivation and commitment to the school.

An alternative

Professional accountability is often posed as an alternative to bureaucratic or administrative accountability. The assumption is that effective teaching is complex and must rest with professionals’ acquiring specialized knowledge and skills in the specific contexts in which they work. This knowledge is described in professional standards of practice, and professional accountability involves teachers’ assuming responsibility for defining and enforcing standards. Mentoring, collaboration and collective problem-solving, as well as peer review to ensure quality of practice, are all part of school-level professional accountability.

O’Day is not calling for the elimination of outcomes-based accountability, but rather for a thoughtful combination of outcomes-based accountability at the state and district level and professional accountability at the school level. Outcomes-based targets and performance reports help districts and states identify problem areas, allocate funds to address those problems and monitor progress. But for the necessary changes to occur on the school site, professional development and accountability are needed. This includes mentoring and collective problem solving that enable teachers to respond effectively to student needs. Such professional interaction motivates individual teachers with intrinsic incentives. Combining the two systems can lead to the development of collective accountability as well as needed change in teaching and learning necessary for long-term improvement in student achievement.

O’Day contends that “attempts to control individual and group behavior by means of external rules and policies are notorious for their inevitable failure, especially in situations where tasks and environments are complex.” Collective responsibility for student learning, she asserts, is powerful and develops from professional norms and accountability. In O’Day’s opinion, improvement in instructional practice at the classroom level requires very detailed, specific and constantly updated information. Only teachers have access to this kind of information.

“Complexity, Accountability, and School Improvement”, Harvard Educational Review, Volume 72, Number 3, Fall 2002, pp. 293-329.

Published in ERN April/May 2003 Volume 16 Number 4

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