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Accountability in Education

by Sidney P. Marland - 1972

To obtain an accurate picture of education in this country, the U.S. Commissioner of Education, suggests we use all available technology and work systematically. The outcome, he feels, would be new methods, materials, and techniques, and new ways to motivate young people and define objectives. (Source: ERIC)

Accountability is a relatively new term in the language of education. It is not, however, a completely original concept. As far back as 1649, the Great and Central Courts of Massachusetts Bay Colony required that each town teach its children to read the Scriptures. Noncompliant towns were fined five pounds. That was a form of accountability.

As our modern system of education developed, board of education mem­bers, school administrators, and teachers were required by the people to perform certain duties. When today we see a board of education changed, or a teacher asked to resign, that too is a form of accountability.

Accountability as we have known it thus far, however, has been a relatively fumbling, ad hoc process. The new dimensions of accountability which appear to be emerging bring better organized and more precise methods of measure­ment to the practice of accountability. Efforts are being made to establish objectives in more systematic ways. Management by objective has been recognized as an important key to the smooth operation of our contemporary educational institutions.

Office of Education Objectives

One way to il­lustrate the management by objective concept is to describe its operation within the United States Office of Education.

Major educational objectives are established. Though these are called the "Commissioner's Objectives," many other people share in their selection and definition. Some objectives may derive from the law, some from the direction of the White House or the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, but far outweighing these external persuasions is the inner commitment of responsible people at all levels in the Office of Education itself.

Eight objectives for fiscal year 1972 were determined and refined over a period of several months last year. They will undoubtedly be further refined and modified as we progress toward their fulfillment, but, simply stated, as they stand today they are:

1. Career Education: To encourage the establishment of school or­ganization, curricula, and educational methods that will enable all stu­dents to leave school prepared either to continue their education or to enter the job market with a truly saleable skill.

2. Racial Integration: To achieve between 1972 and 1977 equal educa­tional opportunity for all racial, ethnic, and cultural minorities.

3. Innovation: To promote more responsive alternatives to existing forms of education and pursue significant improvements and modifica­tions of current educational practices.

4. Education of the Handicapped: To obtain a national commitment to specialized training and other essential educational services for all handicapped children.

5. Education of the Disadvantaged: To assure, at all levels of educa­tion, equal access to educational opportunities and similar patterns of edu­cational attainment to persons of all economic circumstances by targeting federal dollars on the dissemination and installation of programs that will help to accomplish this goal.

6. The Right to Read: To assure that 99 percent of all people in the United States who are 16 years old and 90 percent of all over 16 will be functionally literate by 1980. This will necessitate the development of procedures by which to determine a community's reading problems, the evaluation of promising programs and an analysis of the resources re­quired for each, and the design and placement of a technical informa­tion system regarding these programs.

7. Special Revenue Sharing: To assist in the passage and implementa­tion of legislation for Special Revenue Sharing for Education and to prepare for necessary organizational and administrative changes once this legisla­tion is enacted.

8. Management: To improve the overall management of the Office of Education, particularly to coordinate financial and manpower resources, simplify program administration, and systematize program responsibili­ties.


It is laudable to establish objectives in a radiant atmosphere of consensus and make confident statements of our good intentions. But that is only the very first and relatively modest step in the management by objectives process. Once large objectives have been hammered out, each must be broken into specific and carefully defined subobjectives. Ac­countability is implicit from day to day and from month to month as all eche­lons in the Office of Education focus their energies on the objective and its sub-objectives and perform the various tasks which lead to their completion.

To use a concrete example, let us look at a subcomponent of the Education of the Handicapped Objective which calls for the training in 1972 of 17,000 teachers of the handicapped. The goal was clear as the year began and there was a specific timetable for its accomplishment. In July, the Office selected the train­ing institutions according to carefully defined criteria. In August, the students to receive special training were chosen. In October, field trips were made to each institution to assess the progress of their training program. The programs will be conducted throughout the remainder of the school year, and evaluated upon their termination by each participating institution.

The complexities of training 17,000 special education teachers can perhaps best be illustrated by describing some of the work involved in choosing the teacher training institutions. The Office of Education disseminates materials it has prepared to inform institutions of higher education and state education agencies of the possibilities open to them in the area of special education train­ing. When a university or state education agency applies for funding, it uses these informational materials and the OE program administration manual as guidelines in outlining its plans to prepare special education teachers. The Office of Education, in conjunction with consultants who are sensitive to the needs in the field of education of the handicapped, studies the staffing and other characteristics of the applicant, as well as its specific program proposal. OE not only chooses those institutions which have proven their excellence, but also assists those which could help to meet the great demand for specialists in edu­cating the handicapped if their programs were upgraded. From this careful re­view system, this year three hundred universities and fifty-five state education agencies (SEAs) and territorial education agencies were selected and have received awards.

The financial aspects of the awarding process are also intricate. Some col­leges and SEAs choose to apply for funding through the traineeship system. These institutions receive $2,000 for program support for each undergraduate student receiving a traineeship, and up to $2,500 for each post-graduate student receiving aid. The second form of funding for which universities and SEAs can apply is the block grant. Block grant funds are used at the discretion of the institutions which receive them, and separate scholarships are not awarded. The entire process involves many long hours of planning, establishing criteria, designing financial formulas, and otherwise assuring that selection of training institutions will be carried out efficiently and in accord with the criteria for meeting the overall goal. Each step of the process is tracked on a management-by-objectives system, to insure accountability from one echelon of responsibil­ity to the next higher.

When one person in the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped involved in any part of the teacher training effort completes his taskfor example the observation of an institutional programhe informs his immediate supervisor. The supervisor then informs his bureau chief, and reports of completed acts are compiled and transmitted from level to level, culminating in a progress report presented by a deputy commissioner to the Commissioner of Education. This check-up occurs at least monthly. Where there are shortfalls, these must be explained, and by discussing ways to avoid future shortfalls, the entire effort of the Office is upgraded. The accountability process does not end with the Commissioner, of course, for he accounts monthly to the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, who is accountable to the Congress and the President and, through them, to the people.

The major point here is that goals are established, broken into their subparts, and defined as specifics which can be measured. These measurements tell us whether the objectives have been met.

Having defined by illustration a form of accountability which has translat­able parts in other institutions of education, I must hasten to add that not all things in education can be easily measured and tracked through a systems ap­proach. The art of drafting objectives is still quite young and unrefined in edu­cation, and this is not surprising. We are dealing with human beingsteachers, parents, children, Congress, the public. And we are dealing with politics and legislation.

All these considerations have, until now, made educators reluctant to adopt real accountability. The development of a sound educational system is unlike the development of a scientific product like the Salk vaccine which, complex and elusive as it might have been, was still dealing with something relatively tangible and capable of definition. But who is to say what happens in the heart and mind of a 10-year-old when he perceives for the first time the breach, let us say, of a democratic ideal? An unintended brush-off by his teacher? The academic failure or triumph of a friend? How does it affect him and his view of life, of truth, his home, his school, his community? These are vague concepts, difficult to apply yardsticks to. Nevertheless, the theory of accountability calls for us, if we establish goals such as "the socialization of the child," to verbalize these goals in measurable terms, and we must seek ways to do so.

Accountability Through Objectives

As we de­fine accountability as the process of establishing objectives and assessing the degree to which those objectives have been fulfilled, we must be rational in es­tablishing our methods of measurement and realistic in setting our goals for fulfillment at a given time. Yet we must also know what the people want, for we are ultimately accountable to them. It is, after all, they who own the schools.

Leon Lessinger, sometimes called the high priest of accountability, has said, "Without decision-making responsibility, accountability is a hollow concept." The only way to ensure the accountability system's responsiveness to individuals is to involve as many people as possible in the decision-making process. This is not to say that the schools will be turned over altogether to the people of the communities in which they are located without professional leadership. To advocate that would be to deny the education profession and to say that no expertise is required for excellent schooling. But it is to say that we must en­courage as many persons as possiblerepresenting a broad spectrum of inter­ests and backgroundsto become involved, through the boards of education, in the work of the schools.

One of the programs administered by the Office of Education which seeks to match the talents of community people with the needs of the schools is the Career Opportunities Program. This program combines work opportunities with study opportunities for those adults, mostly young, interested in the broad field of education as a career, in a blending of talent and interest which results in a stronger school and a fulfilled community. Program participants, often from disadvantaged circumstances, are enrolled as part-time students in col­leges in order to gain more expertise in their fields of interest while they receive practical knowledge in those fields through work experience. The emphasis is on long-term study, as opposed to the kind of once-in-a-lifetime study which has been common.

The Career Opportunities Program places great confidence in the individual school district and its community instead of looking to teacher colleges to solve all educational problems. It places confidence in the people, and as a result the 8,000 COP participants have responded with new self-confidence, with in­creased trust in the schools, and with a willingness to help their schools be accountable to the needs of the children they were designed to serve.

Humane Goals

As we pursue the practice of management by objective, we must always remember the basic imperative of education: the eternal and transcending obligation to be humane. Our primary concern must always be the fulfillment of individual human beings rather than the fulfillment of managerial concepts.

Yet even our commitment to individuals can often be stated in measurable terms. Consider the very complex and challenging goal of ending racial isola­tion. Our objective is to end the dreadful curse upon our land that is inherent in the separation of races, either by law or by fact. It is an overriding goal, per­haps the most humane of all the goals we have set for ourselves, and yet in its subparts it may appear to be inhumane. Counting children, counting buses, counting houses, counting teachers (and recording the color of their skin) how cold, how callous, this numbers game appears to be! Yet the impersonal numbers play an important part in the achievement of the broad humane goal. Wise people, creative people, conscientious leaders blending together the im­plied inhumaneness of the subparts can relate them to the greater good of the major goal. This is a challenge to the wisest and best school leaders, and calls for the involvement of as many people from the community as possible. Again, to bring accountability into full force and avoid the possibility of its being reduced to a mere structure, we must solicit in-depth participation in decision-making from the very start.

Close to $77.6 billion8 percent of our Gross National Productwas spent on education in the United States in academic year 1970-71. This is double that portion of the GNP devoted to education in 1956, and double the actual dollars spent in 1963. Never before have we invested so heavily in education, and never before has our society so sorely needed the reform which only education can bring. It is apparent that education must find new ways to respond to the public more systematically and meaningfully than it has in the past.

Indeed, within our timeperhaps within the next ten yearsthere could well be a nationwide accounting process or institution which would act like a certified public accountant in business, objectively assessing the success and failure of our schools and reporting the findings to the public. This agency would find ways to assess both the structure and the content of the educational process. We must know, for example, not only how many teachers are being trained, but how well they are being trained, and we must be able to judge whether the curriculum in the institutions in which they serve is truly relevant to the lives of students and to the needs of the society into which they will graduate.

There are other issues which we must explore, and which a systems approach can elucidate. We need to know how to move from a mass teaching approach to a highly individualized approach, how to go about the important work of treating each child as an individual human being, how to succeed with those youngsters who have never before experienced success. How do we substitute a vigorous, enjoyable classroom atmosphere for one that has too often been marked by competition and pain and fear of failure?

How productively are our teachers being used, and how effectively is their time and wisdom being applied to the needs of the learner? What technology is available to multiply greatly the teacher's talent? What is the full scope of the university professor's mission? There is typically a ratio of one faculty member to seven or eight students; is the professor using his time and talents in such a way as to change the lives of his studentsand of how many? These are perti­nent questions of accountability, and as our schools and colleges face economic crisis, the questions become even more crucial.

The answers to these questions elude us now, but we can draw indications of answers by studying which kinds of schools have holding power as opposed to those with high absenteeism and dropout rates.

By looking at what happens to people when they leave school, by looking at the stereotypes which non-schooled people have placed upon the institutions, and by talking with people who have been in the system and are now in a position to judge their own experience, we can begin to define objectives which will help us to evaluate the less tangible aspects of education, an evaluation of which is essential to educational success.

A System for Change       

In the meantime, I laud such elements of accountability as are present in performance contracting and the independent audit of performance. Crude as they are, these are beginnings toward the kinds of assessment instruments which we must have if our edu­cational system is to be truly responsive to the needs of the society which it was created to serve. I do not hold that performance contracting is likely to transform the traditional ways of structuring education, that is, that education firms will set objectives and will strip teachers, superintendents, and school boards of their decision-making powers. The beauty of a systems approach is that it will reveal new methods, new techniques, new materials, new ways to motivate young people, and indeed, new ways to define objectives. The advent of performance contracting and other profit-making systems approaches may also help us to develop the science of evaluation, for this is an important tool in ascertaining the success of the contractor. Few contractors would resort to chicanery in an effort to increase their profits, but some might build into their curricula techniques which would ensure the correct responses without neces­sarily ensuring the child's actual assimilation and application of the subject matter. The science of educational evaluation must over time become more re­fined and exact. This, along with other elements essential to accountability, will continue to challenge our social scientists, our theoreticians, and our educa­tional philosophers so that progress will continue as education accounts to the people in more and more systematic ways.

Accountability, then, is concerned with both people and process. In order to attain the best critique of the process of education, we must weigh educational goals against the needs and goals of all our country's people. We are being severely criticized by many who have not had the opportunity to join in our search for new and better ways to educate. We are even more harshly criticized by some who would not join with us if they were presented with the opportun­ity. But let us invite everyone to assist in some way in the process of systemati­cally tailoring education to the needs of our rapidly changing society. Together let us consider such elements as the changing structure of the family, the infor­mation explosion, the mobility of our citizenry, and the express need for disadvantaged and minority children to learn effectively.

It is true that accountability has always been with us. Until now it did not have a name. While our instruments for its realization are still very blunt, they are gradually being sharpened and refined. One thing seems clearthe expecta­tions of the American people now call for accountability, and that call will not go away.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 73 Number 3, 1972, p. 339-346
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1563, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 5:37:11 AM

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