Performance-Based Accountability: Expecting Data to Inform Improvement

There is a lot of emotion when it comes to performance-based accountability. The high stakes of testing seems to make everyone nervous because weaknesses will become public. Contrast that fear against a basic truth:

If we don’t know what is wrong, we can’t make it better.

Suddenly, it seems a little bit of an over-reaction to be afraid of performance-based accountability. Especially if we consider how much we trust it for our public health.

For example, I can’t imagine the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) deciding that they did not want any doctors to test for the H1N1 Influenza virus because if they found a cluster of cases, the world would know something was wrong and they would need to react.

In fact, we count on these agencies to monitor public health in all communities to be able to quickly identify what is wrong and react fast – for all our sakes. Imagine if you had a child who you are trying to protect from infections and the CDC and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service decide to stop collecting data on cases of E. Coli because if they find a cluster, then the world would know there was something wrong and they would have to react.

This is why we trust them. Because they systematized accountability without emphasizing finger pointing and blame. Instead, they focus on problem identification and solutions.

So why not have the same expectations in education? OR do we?

Recently, a group of researchers from the states published a review of performance-based accountability in educational reform in the US   in the Harvard Journal on Legislation. They offer that in the operations of educational reform, performance-based accountability can take on many forms and mechanisms – but – that there is always an underlying three stage process:

  1. Standards are set
  2. Tests against those standards are conducted
  3. There are consequences for failing to meet those standards

This process does not have to be negative, it can be positive. For example, if a school fails to meet the standards, a consequence can be extra support to help the school improve. However, it does have to exist and it should be public if a culture of accountability and trust is going to develop between ministries, authorities, districts, schools, principals, teachers, parents and students.

The good thing about performance-based accountability is that it does tend to focus the attention of the entire community and bring everyone onto the same page. That page should be constructed by standards (#1 in the process) and the results rather than the most influential and loudest voice in the room.

There are a lot of problems that can develop when performance-based accountability is pursued in an authoritative and unconstructive manner. We have seen the depth of desperation that some teachers will reach when the pressure is too high and there is inadequate support (e.g., Teachers in Texas caught cheating).

But we have also seen that there is a lot of good that can come out of collecting standardized information on education systems to direct collective attention and improve a part of the system. In fact, the evidence in the US from the 90s indicate that states with performance-based accountability systems had significant gains in student achievement as compared to states without these systems. We also know (thanks to these and other researchers) that systems that (i) promote common core standards, (ii) make better use of data, and (iii) concentrate on teacher effectiveness are all on the right track for system-wide improvement.

Note that all of the proven suggestions for successful performance-based accountability systems involve supporting educators to engage in data-based decision making in their educational practice!

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