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Redesigning Accountability Systems for Education

reviewed by Nicola A. Alexander - 2005

coverTitle: Redesigning Accountability Systems for Education
Author(s): Susan H. Fuhrman and Richard F. Elmore (Editors)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807744255, Pages: 312, Year: 2004
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Accountability systems should be a “capacity meter” – a tool that gauges the ability of a system or its component parts to engender change. This knowledge would make it easier for policymakers to know which mechanism to use to reform schools. Should policymakers transfer power, provide inducements, or build capacity? The collection of conceptual and empirical essays in Redesigning Accountability Systems for Education makes it clear that we are in need of more knowledge before we can hope to gain the wisdom required to design adequate accountability frameworks. A crucial challenge noted by many of the authors is the difficulty of addressing differences among individuals or organizations without discriminating against them. While it is important to hold all students to high standards, as Siskin (Chapter 8) notes, “high does not necessarily mean [the] same” (p. 181).

This important compendium has four major parts. Part I comprises two introductory chapters. Susan H. Fuhrman (Chapter 1), one of the co-editors, describes and summarizes each of the remaining book chapters. Both Fuhrman and Jennifer O’Day (Chapter 2) present a framework for evaluating accountability systems. Fuhrman presents a “theory of action” that places measurable performance as the key, an implicit hypothesis of each work in the volume. O’Day focuses on schools as units of analysis and emphasizes merging school practices with professional accountability. She describes educational accountability as “some people…trying to make other [emphasis by reviewer] people more accountable for some things in education” (p. 15). The remaining chapters put to the test the various assumptions laid out in the frameworks described.

Part II discusses in four chapters the often misunderstood methodological and logistical constraints inherent in building adequate accountability models. Eva L. Baker and Robert L. Linn (Chapter 3) analyze the methodological issues surrounding validity of measurement. A critical point of the chapter is their conclusion that “a lack of capacity (whether through selection, turnover, or inadequate professional development and resources) cannot be directly remedied by increased motivation to do well, especially over a short period” (p. 48). This caveat is especially important for policymakers, who recently have preferred policy mechanisms that induce system change rather than build capacity. In a separate chapter, Linn (Chapter 4) continues the discussion on the importance of methodology as a cornerstone in designing adequate accountability systems. He decries the great stock that many policymakers place in what is essentially undependable data. However, in this era of “keeping watch,” it is unclear how we can bring about patience in policymakers who are often responding to the impatience of the greater society.

While the need for more reliable data is clearly important for making sound policy decisions, addressing this need is not sufficient if we are unable to align the goals we seek with the means of getting there. Robert Rothman (Chapter 5) argues that there is a disconnect between test scores and learning, leading to gaps in the accountability system itself. The chasm between test scores and “real learning” is a theme revisited time and time again throughout the volume.

Martha L. Thurlow (Chapter 6) provides a descriptive overview that not only raises many key questions on how policymakers have recognized and accommodated differences, but also hints at how they should. Using examples from across the

United States , the author points out potential pitfalls in how policymakers currently choose to assess special needs students. While the author agrees that including all students in accountability systems helps to ensure that some are not simply placed in a holding format, she argues that policymakers need to decide what accommodations are appropriate. Less clear is how one can make sure that the various accommodations allowed do not lead to a holding format via a different route.

Part III provides a comprehensive overview of the effects of accountability systems on different components of the educational system – from teachers to schools, to students, to courts. Joan L. Herman (Chapter 7) describes the flow of incentives in an educational system and how this flow can affect instruction. Like many of the other authors in the volume, Herman notes that if we are not confident that test scores equate with learning then we should not have rewards and sanctions so clearly defined and associated with them. Leslie Santee Siskin (Chapter 8) presents a colorful description of standards-based accountability as it applies to high schools. The author argues the importance of motivating students, which Elmore (same volume) concludes is tied to the nature of the task and content of the work itself. There is a somewhat ‘Deweyian’ tone to her arguments though this progressive philosopher is not explicitly referenced. Moving from a conceptual to a more empirical approach Martin Carnoy and Susanna Loeb (Chapter 9) explore the effect over time of state accountability systems on student achievement. To address the question of whether accountability systems work, they emphasize the problem of not knowing what “real” learning is except to recognize that it is not synonymous with test scores.

Jay P. Heubert (Chapter 10) gives us a well-written chapter laying out the first steps in what it may mean for schools to have sufficient capacity to meet the challenges of a high stakes testing environment. I found this chapter to be particularly informative because the author not only grappled with the conceptualization of key accountability terms but also with operationalizing them. This practical, though not necessarily prescriptive, bent will provide good early steps for policymakers and researchers who search for helpful, concrete approaches for creating an adequate educational system.

Part IV contains two concluding, but forwarding-looking, chapters that provide a critical blueprint of where potential education land mines lie ahead for the field. Susan H. Fuhrman, Margaret E. Goertz, and Mark C. Duffy (Chapter 11) describe the various reactions of states to hurdles in developing accountability systems. The authors highlight the importance of providing “opportunities to learn” and underline the significance of court decisions on the evolution of accountability systems. Continuing the theme raised in earlier chapters (especially Chapter 10), the authors emphasize the importance of distinguishing between lack of capacity and lack of will as causes of reform failure as well as the difference between lack of appropriate opportunities and lack of appropriate motivations. The other co-editor, Richard F. Elmore (Chapter 12), concludes the volume by raising critical questions on key components of accountability systems. He stops short of providing a working definition of capacity, yet it is a working definition of capacity that seems to be an essential building block in any accountability design. Nonetheless, as the author himself concludes, “If nothing else, the chapters in this book demonstrate that performance-based accountability is much more a work in progress that a finished product” (p. 274). The same can be said for much of the research included herein, but what a wonderful work in progress indeed.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 7, 2005, p. 1424-1427
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11410, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 6:18:12 PM

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About the Author
  • Nicola Alexander
    University of Minnesota
    E-mail Author
    NICOLA A. ALEXANDER is an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. She is particularly interested in issues of adequacy, equity, and productivity as they relate to PK-12 education. An overriding concern in her research is an examination of the differential impact of educational policies on different groups and its implications for fairness. She is currently working on the interplay between institutional capacity and the adequacy of the school system as well as exploring the impact of charter schools on student achievement. Recent publications include, “Considering equity and adequacy: An examination of the distribution of student class time as an educational resource in New York State, 1975-1995” in Journal of Education Finance (2003) and “Race, poverty, and the student curriculum: Implications for standards policy” in American Educational Research Journal (2002).
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