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July 07, 2005

"internal accountability" in education

When we think of "accountability" in education, we usually envision standards (written by school systems, states, or the federal government), combined with measures to see if schools are meeting those standards--e.g., exam results, graduation rates, per/pupil spending, and teachers' qualifications. This is "external" accountability: it comes from outside of each school. Most people think such pressure is necessary and appropriate. Schools are public institutions, so they should be accountable to the public through its elected representatives. Besides, there must be some device for keeping educators honest and up-to-speed. The main alternative to external accountability is market discipline (i.e., letting parents decide which schools are working best). There may be a place for some market discipline in education, but it has severe limitations. Thus legally-mandated standards and tests seem necessary.

However, "external" standards demonstrate a lack of trust for teachers. I know from the experience and testimony of friends and close relatives who are classroom teachers that this lack of trust is hard to accept, especially when a person is a good educator and the standards and exams are at least partly foolish (as they tend to be). Moreover, "external" accountability measures are always blunt or crude, whether they are used in business, medicine, education, or any field. Any such measures will apply unjustly or inappropriately in certain particular circumstances. And if people want to resist them, they can--by shifting blame, "working to rule," or even cheating.

Therefore, we shouldn't forget about "internal" accountability. For example, a good teacher feels that she doesn't want to let her kids down or disappoint their parents, her peers, or her principal. "Internal" accountability is also what drives really successful students. It's not the grade they care about, ultimately, but what their teacher and parents think about their work.

So the question becomes: How can we increase "internal" accountability in schools? Some promising ideas: --

  • Dramatically shorten the list of "external" standards and yardsticks, but make the ones that remain really count. For example, school systems should be held strictly accountable for their graduation rates and the basic literacy and numeracy of their kids at specific grades. However, state assessments should not measure students' mastery of long and heterogeneous lists of facts. For the most part, teachers and schools should decide how to assess their students' knowledge of "content" areas, with some non-binding guidance from the state about what is important.

  • Make schools smaller, so that faculty can't as easily hide their performance from their colleagues. I know there's a lack of hard data that correlates school size to academic performance. Nevertheless, I think that small schools represent a promising development.

  • Use juries to assess some student work, and put several teachers as well as community members on each of these juries. That way, colleagues will be able to assess the work that's going on in other classrooms.

  • Pay for time during the day when faculty can meet to discuss students. Not only will such planning time allow them to develop appropriate responses to kids' problems; it will also help each teacher to see what the others are doing--or failing to do.

  • Without necessarily reducing class size at the high school level, reduce the number of kids who are in contact with each teacher during their four-year school careers. The goal is to strengthen relationships and prevent students and adults from hiding from one another.
  • Posted by peterlevine at July 7, 2005 01:14 PM


    Another aspect of internal accountability would be more student control and decision making within schools. Perhaps even include some student-centered "market accountability". Students are a lot smarter than people give them credit for, and they can sniff out bad teachers vs. good teachers much easier than politicians, administrators, parents, or even other faculty. Empowering students with greater control over what classes they take, and which professors they take them with could demonstrate quite clearly who the good and bad teachers are.

    Also of course student participation in school operations from curriculum, to hiring/firing, and everything else. Students are most affected by schools, know them better, and should have a much larger say.

    Posted by: KPalicz at July 7, 2005 02:20 PM

    As a former teacher who witnessed vast amounts of unprofessionalism, I think you may be on to something here! I'd be interested in viewing other's comments and ideas.

    Posted by: jellens [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 7, 2006 12:16 AM

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