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A Perspective on Accountability

by Vito Perrone & Warren Strandberg - 1972

With the decline of public confidence in our schools has come a plethora of devastating critiques. Serious discussion of alternatives such as voucher plans, free schools, and de-schooling has grown enormously. A decade of promise in which billions of dollars were expended for education has born limited fruit for Americans. Too many schools have failed, not only to assist children in their learning of basic skills, but also to provide a vision of a humane and sensitive life.

With the decline of public confidence in our schools has come a plethora of devastating critiques. Serious discussion of alternatives such as voucher plans, free schools, and de-schooling has grown enormously. (What was a "radical" posture a few years ago today has credibility across the entire political-social spectrum.) A decade of promise in which billions of dollars were expended for education has born limited fruit for Americans. Too many schools have failed, not only to assist children in their learning of basic skills, but also to provide a vision of a humane and sensitive life.

How do we explain the deficiencies outlined in Charles Silberman's Crisis in the Classroom! His poignant indictment of the schools for "mutilation of a child's spirit ... of spontaneity, of joy in learning, of pleasure in creating, of a sense of self"; as places that are too often "grim, joyless . . . oppressive and petty . .. intellectually sterile and esthetically barren . . . lacking in civility . . ."' has heightened the defensiveness of school boards and their professional staffs. In their defensive posture, school officials have eagerly embraced accountability as a contemporary educational engineering concept.

In its most basic form, accountability responds to the questions: How much are we (taxpayers) getting for our money? Can our children read, perform mathematical computations, get a job, and successfully compete at a higher level of education? These are appropriate questions. Schools should have asked them seriously decades ago, but not to the exclusion of broader concerns.

It is interesting to observe how quickly accountability has caught on. In our own efforts at creating open classrooms we are increasingly confronted by school officials who say: "All that you advocate is fine but we have to be ac­countable." What they mean is that children must be at "grade-level" on various standardized achievement tests and exhibit some predetermined level of growth during the school year. Can an open classroom with an integrated curriculum be "risked" when school officials have such concerns?

Administrators do not like to discuss issues such as whether children can be trusted to initiate more of their learning, or the community become a major learning environment. Instead, they question whether setting such directions will cause children to produce appropriate scores on a first grade standardized reading test or a third grade achievement test in social studies, mathematics, or science. Local educa­tion leaders feel obligated to report results of such testing to taxpayers who, they feel, deserve to know how children are performing in relation to state and national norms. They believe parents are demanding that kind of accountability. School officials have long justified their evasion of challenges and issues by an­nouncing that a particular position is what "parents want." Accountability may provide another such "opportunity."

If school districts really knew what parent concerns were, the issues would be quite different. However, three years of rather intensive discussion with sev­eral thousand parents in communities throughout North Dakota and other parts of the United States has made us skeptical of the knowledge most school offi­cials possess of parental interest in education. Some of our initial meetings with parents were awkward—it was the first time many of them had talked about educational issues. But interaction with these people has provided us with more insights into education than we ever gained in our professional training. They clearly recognize that children are different, that they learn in different ways and have different interests, and they believe that schools should affirm this basic understanding in practice. They are sensitive to the effects on children of rejec­tion and failure. Their awareness that a separation existed between the school and the home—that what children were about in school did not carry over into the home, and that children's interests at home were not beginning points for study at school—was enlightening. For them, it was simply "common sense" that such activities should intersect, and that such an intersection would cause their children to become more interested in school.

Parental Contributions

Those who are primarily concerned with accountability have yet to deal seriously with parents and the concerns they have for their children's education. The significant intervention of parents, we believe, will stimulate more creative reform efforts in education. Those efforts, in turn, will enlarge our conception of accountability. But if par­ents are to become more involved in the life of their schools, schools will need to become more open institutions. Parents will then be able to assume a larger role in defining the outcome of their children's education.

During one informal discussion we had with a group of parents, a mother began to take the University to task for not preparing her son's fifth grade teacher properly. It seemed that her son was absorbed in a self-initiated study of astronomy, which he was not permitted to pursue in school. The mother's solution was to send the teacher back to the University to learn astronomy so she would be qualified to teach it to the child. When asked how her son had come to know astronomy, the parent realized that he had learned it indepen­dently of the formal educational structure. It became obvious that a more reasonable solution to this problem was possible: create a school environment that encourages children to pursue those things in which they are deeply interested.

Within this context, what did accountability mean to this particular parent? She was concerned about the level of her son's involvement and the intensity of interest he exhibited in school. It would have made little sense to talk to her about performance contracting or skill-oriented tests in reading, math, etc. Such discussion simply would have negated her intuitive sense of what the edu­cational encounter is all about.

We often assume that parents are not in a good position to contribute to the direction schools will take, or to evaluate what transpires there, and, in fact, many parents do not feel they are in a position to define the areas in which the schools will be accountable. The parent cited in the above example did not have a very clear sense of what was occurring in the school, except as she viewed her child's reactions to school. Yet even this limited awareness does pro­vide a basis for judgment.

This awareness is manifested in different ways. For example, a reporter asked a group of parents who had children in classrooms with New School interns if their children were learning anything in school. After a long period of silence one parent replied, "I don't know if my child is learning anything, but I do know that each morning for four years I have literally pushed my child off to school. This year I have had trouble keeping her from leaving home too early." That parent, in spite of her lack of specific knowledge of her child's learning, did have a good sense of her child's response to school. It is this latter knowledge that is seldom tapped by teachers and school officials as they define the limits of accountability.

In spite of what has been said above, we acknowledge that the accountability movement has gained considerable support from parents. However, where par­ents have made demands for accountability, the demands have been centered on a narrow range of abilities (for example, the confrontation over inner-city children's inability to read). Parents turn to those things with which they are most familiar (the three R's) because they have had few opportunities to con­sider other possibilities. Our experience suggests that, when parents gain ac­cessibility to schools, they can expand their own educational horizons. Increased sensitivity to the options open to children in a classroom leaves them dis­satisfied with defining accountability in terms of test performance. Instead they have become more interested in supporting such broadly based concerns as in­dependence-in-learning and joy-in-learning. Such objectives are not easily articu­lated or measured. Growth is often slow. Yet where schools are accessible to parents such limitations have been tolerable and manageable. In contrast, these limitations are much more difficult for the performance contractor to handle. The performance contractor, so much a part of today's accountability scene, has difficulty in responding to objectives that move beyond the narrow range of skill development, since his reimbursement is often based upon the kinds of growth that can be measured over a short term.

While school officials claim that their schools are open to parents, our experience has shown that many parents feel ill at ease when in the school build­ing, as if they didn't belong. They find it difficult to become active participants in the life of a school especially if they do not have a professional background. For active participation to occur, a learning environment must be created that will facilitate parental interaction with children. This simply is not possible, beyond a limited level, in traditional classrooms. Nor is it possible in a setting where the highest priority is given to assessment of performance measured in specific and limited terms such as word-recognition skills, adding two column numbers, and recognizing properly spelled words. Is it more possible where the school district is paying a contractor for predetermined performance improve­ment? In a highly structured classroom setting with limited objectives it be­comes difficult for parents to become significantly involved with children. Where parents are encouraged to devote time to such settings, special training is us­ually demanded. Obviously, special training is less necessary in informal class­room settings. As a result, parents are taking part in such activities as wood working, cooking, sewing, arts and crafts, reading stories, listening to children read stories, leading field trips, and just being with children. Such participation has increased parents' understanding of the classroom and its possibilities for enhancing children's educational and personal growth. And in the process their perspective on what schools should be accountable for has changed.


We must begin to think of ways of open­ing entire school systems to broader parental participation. One method would be to establish at each school a participant council consisting of constituent parents and teachers which could interpret the school to the community, rep­resent it in its relations with the board of education, and keep the principal and staff informed of community needs and concerns. Equally important, the council could join in organizing parents and others who wished to contribute to the life of the school. Because they would be in close touch with their constituents, the members of the participant councils would be in a better position to respond quickly and effectively to the educational concerns and aspirations of teach­ers and parents. The school board would maintain its constitutional responsibil­ity for the overall budget and major decisions which affect the entire school sys­tem. However, it would relinquish to the participant councils a high degree of responsibility.

Accountability tends to limit the opportunities open to children, creating more rigid systems of schooling. This tendency is illustrated by another informal conversation we had with a parent and her son's fourth-grade teacher. We were discussing the youngster's lack of interest in school. The parent, having described in some detail her son's intense interest in working with radios on winter days when school was not in session, then turned to the teacher and asked why her son could not spend time with radios in school. In response, the teacher indicated that she felt accountable for the child learning, among other things, American history, and in general being "prepared" for the next grade. Simi­lar incidents could be cited that would underline the limitations created by the current accountability movement.

In spite of the claims that accountability will make the schools more open, more humane, and more accepting of diversity and alternative patterns of edu­cation,2 we feel that in practice the situation has been vastly different. The pres­sures placed upon children, teachers, administrators, and school boards by the demands for accountability have only reinforced the artificial divisions found in most standardized curricula. Accountability is certainly not responsible for the division of knowledge and skills into subject matter areas which have long been with us. But it has had the effect of discouraging recent attempts to build a more integrated curriculum.

A number of educators are beginning to explore the integrative qualities of knowledge, skills, appreciations, and understanding, out of an enlarged aware­ness that knowledge has a personal dimension and that the disjunction be­tween subjectivity and objectivity is artificial. In addition, there are those who do not see the traditional disciplines treated in isolation from one another as having a significant connection with contemporary social, political, and eco­nomic concerns. Both groups have stimulated, not only the exploration of new relationships among traditional subject matters, but also new ways of looking at knowledge in relation to learning. In becoming accountable, we should not turn away from these new directions. Recent efforts have narrowed those areas in which we seek to become accountable.

Accountability's Limits       

The "break-up” of the curriculum into smaller, more isolated, limited units is due in large measure to a growing dependence upon behavioral objectives and systems analysis. It has been argued that to be accountable goals and objectives must be translated into specific behaviors that can be observed and measured. But in doing this, an essential quality of human action, as distinguished from behavior, is lost. It is the intentional or purposeful nature of human action that distinguishes it and makes it intelligible. All normal people, including children, act primarily out of a sense of purpose. Recognition of this fact, we believe, rules out a strictly "be­havioral" account of human action. Our sense of purpose gives learning what­ever integrative quality it has. Achievement tests, typically used to measure ac­countability, simply are not sensitive to the intelligible quality of human action. They are not able to capture the intentional aspect of learning. Most of those who advance the notion of accountability would argue that you simply start with performance criteria, specifications of what student behaviors are desired, and then develop a systematic educational program designed to produce those behaviors. But to conceive human action as separate and isolatable behaviors which are caused by certain temporal antecedents introduced by the teacher reduces student opportunities for integrative experiences arising out of goal-seeking action. In creating instructional programs that inhibit the cultivation of purposeful action, we limit a student's freedom. "A man becomes more and more a free and responsible agent the more he at all times knows what he is doing, in every sense of this phrase, and the more he acts with a definite and clearly formal intention."3 Education must be about nothing less than nurtur­ing free and responsible persons. In being accountable to children (something educators talk about very little), we can do no less than evaluate their success in relation to the intentions they themselves form.

Perhaps a practical example will illustrate the above point. Not long ago we observed a school resource teacher giving a physical education demonstration to other teachers. Using a group of her children for demonstration purposes, she showed how various large and small muscles could be developed syste­matically. The children were put through a variety of coordinated but isolated exercises which would probably accomplish what they had intended. Yet, the children clearly lacked enthusiasm for what they were doing. Their bored ex­pressions changed when they were allowed to play a game. They became ex­uberant. The game had a "wholeness" about it that was lacking in the skill-oriented exercises. In the game there was more clearly a fusion of natural ability, skill, and purpose that exemplifies human action.

There is no need to assume that "accountability" necessitates a narrow focus. But, because of our limited conception of human behavior and our likewise limited ability to measure it, evaluation quickly turns to those things that are easily conceived and measured over short periods of time. Broader, more diffuse goals dealing with human action are difficult to translate into specific behaviors. Even where the translation is accomplished the inferential leap from behaviors to objectives tends to be great and, in the process, the intentional quality of human action is lost. The aims associated with accountability make it much easier to narrow our vision and limit our objectives.

Throughout our discussion of accountability we have intimated that our present notions of curriculum are quite limited and often bare little relation to the lives of children. In our own efforts at creating more open classrooms we have recognized the need to enlarge our conception of what are acceptable and significant areas of involvement for children. To do this we have had to break out of the traditional subject matter mold. In emphasizing the need to create alternative learning environments, we would not want to suggest that basic skills are unimportant. They are fundamental, but they must be seen in relation to the more encompassing need to nurture in children a higher level of personal motivation and involvement in learning. The skills of literacy—reading, writing, speaking, and thinking—develop more effectively when they are not treated as academic exercises which exist in a vacuum. They should be taught in settings which stimulate children's imagination and thought, and thus foster their desire to communicate. In this sense all forms of creative expression are important and should be an integral part of every program.

In this age of the "knowledge explosion" there is probably no sacred body of information to which all children must be exposed. What is taught in each com­munity should reflect the local environment to a high degree. Children must learn to cope with unknown complexities they have not specifically been taught to manage. Thus our concern is not so much the specific content of instruction as it is the process by which children are taught. We think it particularly im­portant that children be able to initiate activities, that they be self-directed and able to take responsibility for their own learning. Children should feel intense involvement in learning, and that intensity should arise out of their won­der, imagination, and curiosity, leading ultimately to concern and commit­ment. In addition teachers should cultivate a setting in which children are hon­est and open, and where they are respectful of themselves, adults, and other children. In such a setting we believe children will learn responsibility as an integral part of freedom.

Directions for Accountability       

Our belief that we need to expand our idea of what are acceptable and significant areas of involve­ment for children suggests not only a desire to be accountable for the outcome but a direction for accountability that is not part of the current literature. This leaves us and others interested in classrooms that foster some of the foregoing dimensions with the issue of evaluation. Inasmuch as I.Q. and grade level equivalency scores, the typical "hard data" for many educational researchers and performance contractors, are not critical to what we want to measure, new tools are necessary.4 Evaluation instruments for dealing with some of the broader dimensions outlined above are not particularly well developed; how­ever, considerable pioneering efforts are being made.

In our efforts in North Dakota we are depending to a high degree on obser­vation and individual diagnostic conferences. And we are becoming convinced that such activities can provide the kinds of evaluative data that will respond to what we wish to be accountable for. Trained observers can certainly answer questions such as: To what degree do individual children initiate their own learning? To what degree are interactions among children, and between children and the teacher, becoming more open? Individual diagnostic conferences, in addition to a teacher's records and children's, can respond to such issues as: What has the individual child accomplished? What has he understood of his experience? In what ways has he extended his learning?

The increasing interest in the foregoing types of measurement is encouraging. The Columbia Teacher's College Indicators of Quality has been used by teach­ers, and in many cases parents, quite successfully. It provides an observational mechanism for analyzing what teachers and children do that is most productive in learning, analyzing individualization, interpersonal regard, creativity, and group activity. The Personal Record of School Experiences (PROSE), an Edu­cational Testing Service instrument used initially in Headstart evaluation, also appears to have good potential. (We are using it in a number of schools in which we have instructional responsibility.) PROSE is designed to yield a rec­ord of experiences the individual child has in school, including such dimensions as instructional content, adult role, level of participation, peer interaction, level of involvement, and activity level. In addition, there are two promising ef­forts that are influencing our evaluation program and to which we would like to call attention. Analysis of an Approach to Open Education, a study con­ducted by the Educational Testing Service, is a significant attempt to translate an educational position, "one which embodies a philosophy of learning, a craft of teaching, a vision of life . . . into terms which . . . have implication for psy­chological assessment and research."5 While it does not present an observational instrument, it does suggest a variety of cognitive and affective dimensions of learning which can be analyzed by trained observers. Since its publication the ETS staff has developed several interrelated observational and interview instru­ments which they are testing in the field. Furthermore, TDL Associates in Newton, Massachusetts have just completed an impressive study, Characteris­tics of Open Education: Toward an Operational Definition.6 An outgrowth of the study has been a Classroom Observational Rating-Scale and a Teacher Questionnaire which add considerably to our ability to evaluate what teachers do as they teach and children do as they learn.

One of the clear advantages of observational evaluation is that it enlarges the numbers of individuals, including parents, who can be significantly involved. The tie to accessibility should be clear.

As schools become more accessible we are convinced that issues such as ac­countability will take on a more creative direction; testing, in traditional terms, will diminish in importance and schools will become more supportive of the integrative educational dimensions that enhance children's ability to deal with themselves, with others, and with a world of change.


1 Charles Silberman. Crisis in the Classroom. New York: Random House, 1970, p. 10.

2   See Leon Lessinger, "Teachers in An Age of Accountability," Instructor, June/July 1971; and Leon Lessinger. Every Kid A Winner. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970.

3   Stuart Hampshire, Thought and Action. New York: The Viking Press, I960, p. 91.

4   Henry Dyer, Vice President of Educational Testing Service, has made a number of interesting observations about traditional testing that we feel are relevant to this discussion. About the I.Q. and grade equivalency scores, he says: "[They are] psychological and statistical monstrosi­ties. I have denned the I.Q. as a dubious normative scale wrapped up in a ratio that is based upon an impossible assumption about the equivalence of human experience and the opportun­ity to learn. A grade level equivalency score has many of the same properties, and as such it lures educational practitioners to succumb to what Alfred N. Whitehead called the 'fallacy of misplaced concreteness.' " The United Teacher, April 14, 1971, p. 15. Dyer's point becomes even more relevant after noting how few additional correct responses it takes on most popular achievement tests to raise the grade level equivalency one full grade level. See Robert Stake, "Testing Hazards in Performance Contracting," Phi Delta Kappan, June 1971, pp. 583-588.

5   Anne M. Bussis and Edward C. Chittenden. Analysis of an Approach to Open Education. Princeton, New Jersey: Educational Testing Service, August 1970, p. 1. The study is a preliminary effort to evaluate the Educational Development Center's Follow Through Program, "A Plan for Continuing Growth."

6   Herbert Walberg and Susan Thomas. Characteristics of Open Education: Toward an Opera­tional Definition. Newton, Massachusetts: TDL Associates, May 1971. This study also focuses upon the EDC Follow Through Model and uses Analysis of an Approach to Open Education as a starting point.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 73 Number 3, 1972, p. 347-356
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1564, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 2:16:13 AM

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