Redefining Accountability In the ESSA Era

After two decades of test-based accountability, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) opens the door for a new vision of educational accountability.   Of course, great schools have always known that accountability was more than the sum of their test scores, but it was not easy to focus the public’s attention (or that of state and federal governments) on much aside from the latest batch of scores from tests that may or may not have had much relationship to classroom learning.  Although the ESSA and educational officials will continue to care about reading and math scores, the opportunity for states and local school districts to redefine accountability is an exciting one.  My vision of Next Generation Accountability systems has three elements:  Causes, not just effects; learning, not just “gotcha’s!; and physicals, not autopsies. 

            Causes, Not Just Effects:  Imagine two schools in the same system.  They have similar student demographics, similar levels of teaching experience, identical teacher and administrator assignment policies, identical per-pupil funding, and nearly identical facilities.  Yetstudent achievement in one is dramatically higher than in the other.  The similarities of these two schools eliminate many of the traditional explanations for differences in student achievement and we are left with banal descriptions of “good teaching” in one or “ineffective leadership” in the other.  But without systematic observation of what those teaching and leadership practices are, it’s impossible to crack the code of why one school was so much better.  When I’ve conducted observations to dig into these differences, the explanations for the higher performing schools are not very mysterious. They spend more time on literacy, engage in more nonfiction writing, conduct collaborative scoring with a common definition of what student success looks like, and they have clear intervention plans for every single student that is in danger of failure.  Their Professional Learning Communities are consistently focused on the work of real PLC’s (not simply a changed label of the faculty meeting). Their leaders provide feedback on instruction that is completely separate from the typically unreliable and ineffective teacher evaluation system.  But it is very rare for an accountability system to include these essential teaching and variables.  It is as the schools had a goal of reducing student obesity, but they never knew if student weight loss was caused by diet and exercise or by eating disorders and drug abuse. In other words, causes matter, and the Next Generation accountability systems will include them.

            Learning, Not “Gotcha!”:  The fundamental purpose of accountability is to improve the performance of educational leaders, teachers, and students.  But accountability never serves that purpose when teachers and administrators perceive that the central purpose is to rate, rank, sort, and humiliate teachers, administrators, and students.  When the focus is on learning rather than punishments and rewards, there are no incentives for cheating and mindless test prep.  The only quest is to determine the best methods to serve students in each school.    

            Physicals, not Autopsies:  It doesn’t take long in most dramas about police and medical examiners for the camera to turn to the autopsy table, where clues to the cause of death are revealed.  To be sure, autopsies can provide valuable information, but if you watch those scenes closely, you will rarely see that the procedure helps the patient get any better.  After decades of accountability systems which reported on “failing schools” one year after another, we should not be surprised that these educational autopsies are without value.  Physicals may not be the most pleasant of medical encounters, but they can reveal information not only about what is wrong with patients, but also about how to improve their health. 


            Of course, the potential of the ESSA depends entirely on the willingness of states and local districts to use the flexibility they are grated to engage in new and creative accountability systems.  If we simply replace one narrowly focused bureaucracy with another one, we will have no one but ourselves to blame.


*Dr. Reeves is the author, most recently, of Inspiring Creativity and Innovation in K-12 and Elements of Grading (2nd edition), both published by Solution Tree.  He Tweets @DouglasReeves and can be reached at