Understanding Accountability in Education

reviewed by Yvette Daniel - 2003

coverTitle: Understanding Accountability in Education
Author(s): M. Evers & H. Walberg(Eds.)
Publisher: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford
ISBN: 0817938818, Pages: 198, Year: 2002
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This is the third book edited by members of the Koret task force in collaboration with the Hoover Institute.   The Primer (Moe, 2001) laid the groundwork for the task force to proceed with investigations into school choice and accountability.  This was followed by Choice with Equity (Hill and Campbell, 2002) that explored the contentious issues of school choice in public education in the United States.  School Accountability, edited by Williamson Evers and Herbert Walberg has gathered contributions from specialists studying educational issues from different perspectives including historians, economists, political scientists, policy analysts, and psychologists. 

This collection can be placed on the Right of the debates about accountability in US public education.  As is typical of analysts working within this political framework, their discussion might be enhanced by considering that the current emphasis on accountability is rooted in a “rationalistic assumption that it is indeed possible- and, indeed desirable- to measure performance” (Broadfoot 2001, p. 136).

In the first section, Diane Ravitch presents a historical overview of accountability and the various turns this concept has taken in the 20th century, especially in the last two decades or so.  She identifies a shift in focus from input to output measures, leading to different discursive practices.  She provides us with an account of the conflict between education professionals and lay people in the debate over accountability systems.   Ravitch outlines the arguments presented in the conflicting accountability paradigms as the public pressure for increased performance and accountability continues unabated.

Chester Finn approaches the accountability debate with an analogy to the film from the sixties, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice representing the bureaucratic/compliant version (Bob), the professional norms (Carol), the standards-based reform (Ted), and the marketplace versions (and Alice).  He explores the possible results of the various unions, each one with its advantages and its shortcomings and concludes that although our quest toward achieving perfection will never be fulfilled, the marriage of Ted and Alice with a little help from Bob and Carol is our best hope.

The possibilities of the union between standard-based reforms and the marketplace versions of education (Ted and Alice) are followed by Caroline Hoxby’s economic perspective on the conflicts between the two paradigms introduced by Ravitch.  Hoxby focuses upon the argument put forth by critics of accountability who claim that having a really fair, valid and trustworthy accountability system is just too cost prohibitive. 

The chapter presents facts, tables and figures taken from various state accountability systems, especially Arizona, Kentucky, California and Texas to show that accountability systems do not cost as much as the costs of spending on teacher compensation and reducing class size.  She wonders whether the prohibitive costs entailed in implementing the accountability systems will guarantee improved standards and the competency levels of the teaching profession.  From the economist's perspective, the dollars and cents aspect is taken into account to make the case for the cost effectiveness of accountability systems in the various states. Hoxby's argument, however, ignores the intangible and social costs that elude measurement in numerical values.


In the following section, “Sorting out Accountability Systems" by Eric Hanushek and Margaret Raymond, the mechanics of accountability are discussed in much detail.  This work is divided into three sections; the first provides an historical backdrop following the thread started by Ravitch.  The second section analyses the structure and function of accountability systems, and the third section investigates the issues of implementing accountability systems. 

The shift in the current accountability system is toward setting goals and then measuring progress toward these goals in the areas of content standards, measurement, consequences, and reporting set largely by the former President, George H.W, Bush’s 1989 policy of Goals 2000.  There are difficulties to be addressed in each of these areas of goal setting, especially in the area of measurement.  Various states are also considering other factors such as dropout rates, patterns of enrollment, attendance rates and the important issue of the value-added component in performance.  Hanushek and Raymond explain the difficulty in finding solutions to these ever-present dilemmas in the debate over accountability.

The accountability systems of three states, California, Texas, and Florida are explored at length by Lance Izumi and Williamson Evers.  They provide a comprehensive overview of the systems in each of the three states, especially with regards to the high stakes attached in the form of rewards and consequences.  They argue that despite the flaws in each of these systems, they are absolutely convinced that:

In a democratic society, public institutions including public schools must be accountable for their results.  Only when citizens can find out how their tax dollars are being used are they in a good position to demand change.  Although serious accountability in public schools is only in its infancy, the movements in this direction across the country are encouraging.  After decades of promises, we will now have incentives and accountability that can bring real improvement in student achievement (p. 152).

I include this quote to emphasize the underlying theme of the book that although there is room for improvement, a strong accountability system that measures performance on the basis of test scores is a step in the right direction.  According to Izumi and Evers, the public demands a serious account of its tax dollars spent on public education, and the present accountability systems are doing a fairly good job of satisfying that demand.

The last chapter by Herbert Walberg provides the design principles for accountability systems that are still fraught with ambiguities and a lack of consensus.  Walberg provides a brief description of the general principles (interdependence, focus on results, user friendliness, timeliness, and incentives), and the examination principles (objectivity, fairness, value-added, balance, score expression, desegregation, and supplementary opinion surveys). Examples of these principles supported by graphs, charts, and tables are also provided.  The concluding section of the book ends with a reminder that despite what the resistors to accountability, examinations, and standards contend:

they have in fact been tried and found successful in this country and overseas.  They are pervasive not only in sports and other leisure pursuits but in occupations and professions as well.  The big accountability exception is American schooling, which may account for its poor and declining productivity and students’ poor preparation for college, work and citizenship (p. 183).

The book, through its various sections and perspectives puts forth the argument that current accountability systems are working well and very much needed.  Just as other sectors are being held accountable, so must the public education system.  Each author makes mention of those who resist and are critical of standardized, numerically-based accountability systems but fails to draw upon the large corpus of evidence provided by many leading researchers in the field (Hanney, 2000; Klein, 2001; Madaus, 1991).   Their arguments rely largely upon data that does not address many of the statistical dilemmas such as Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty, regression to the mean, problems of sample selection and aggregation (Camilli & Bulkley 2001). So, too, their reasoning needs to address in detail whether the use of rewards and sanctions has a greater effect on student achievement.  This is not simply a matter of test scores (Cimbricz, 2002). Madaus (1991) warned that:

Before lurching down the road to national testing, we must be clear about why we will test, what we will test, and whom we will test, as well as about the forms of the tests, and the use of the results, the fiscal costs of testing, and the nature of the infrastructure that must be created to develop and to control the testing program (p. 276). 

More than a decade later, this book makes attempts to address the questions raised by Madaus about the advantages and disadvantages of testing programs. 

Notwithstanding the above concerns, this book could be useful to students and others studying and researching testing and accountability systems.  We need to become more knowledgeable about the technology of testing, including a critical appraisal of what this technology can and cannot achieve (Ramirez 1999). Accountability policy borrowing between states is not unusual. This book provides one perspective on the various forms of accountability currently being implemented in many states in the U.S and in other countries in the Western hemisphere.


Broadfoot, P.  (2001).  Assessment policy in the late twentieth century. In R. Phillips & J. Furlong (Eds).  Education, Reform and the State: Twenty-five years of Politics, Policy and Practice. Routledge: London & New York.

Camilli, G., & Bulkley, K.  (2001).  An evaluation of the Florida A Plus accountability and school choice program.  Education Policy Analysis Archives, 9, (7), March 2001.  Retrieved (19/9/02) from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v9n7

Cimbriz, S.  (2002).  State-mandated testing and teachers’ beliefs and practice.  Education Policy Analysis Archives, 10, (18), January 2002

Retrieved (10/10/02) from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v10n18

Haney, W.  (2000).  The myth of the ‘Texas miracle’ in educational reform. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, L.A.

Hill, P.T. & Campbell, D.E.  (2002).  Choice with equity.  Stanford, CA:  Hoover Institution Press.

Klein, S.  (2002).  Commentary: Response to Skrla et al.  Is there a connection between educational equity and accountability?  International Journal of Leadership in Education: Theory and Practice, v 4, (3), pp.26-266.

Madaus, G.  (1991).  The effects of important tests on students: Implications for a national examination system.  Phi Delta Kappan, 73, 226-231.


Moe, T.M.  (2001).  A primer on America’s schools.  Stanford, CA:  Hoover Institution Press.

Ramirez, A.  (1999).  Assessment-driven reform: The emperor still has no clothes.  Phi Delta Kappan, Nov 1999 v 81, (3), p. 204.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 4, 2003, p. 545-549
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11061, Date Accessed: 10/17/2021 2:35:29 PM

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