Special Edition

Opportunities Under ESSA

What a Continuous Improvement Accountability System Needs to Do

What a Continuous Improvement Accountability System Needs to Do

Building an accountability system based on this approach requires state education agencies (SEAs) to start with a vision of what a successful education system looks like and how it performs. As described in more detail later in this whitepaper, this vision is informed by the best thinking about what students need to know and what schools need to do to ensure that all students are college- and/or career-ready.

Accountability systems should be designed to emphasize equilibrium, balancing school responsibility to do what states require with state responsibility to provide needed resources and support in schools.[7]

An accountability system also needs to recognize that schools are multifaceted organizations, shaped by the interplay of any number of actors (including teachers, administrators, students, parents, policymakers, and others) and all kinds of in- and out-of-school variables (from instructional quality to curriculum design, leadership, scheduling, budgetary decisions, state policies, community engagement, neighborhood violence, economic changes, etc.). In short, state accountability policies must be based on the recognition that every school is a complex ecosystem. We have learned that, in education, piecemeal and one-size-fits-all reforms never work. School improvement efforts cannot succeed unless they are guided by a nuanced understanding of the subtle ways in which that system’s many parts fit together.

In a continuous improvement system, data, test scores, and outcomes are used as evidence of performance but are not goals for the system or a main driver of accountability. That is because the information is not actionable, as it does not provide adequate evidence required to make improvements. Moreover, when benchmarks become goals, it is too easy for states to either change the targets or cut scores for success, and then declare victory without any meaningful change in the system.

"If one of our most important commitments is to graduate students who have all the skills and knowledge they need to be career-and college-ready then we need to ensure we have school systems that are responsive to their needs.This paper reflects the conditions that are essential for establishing our school systems and schools as learning and improvement organizations with higher levels of learning and performance. Only by rethinking our current systems of accountability will we achieve the outcomes our teachers and students deserve most."


-Dr. Stephanie Hirsh, Executive Director, Learning Forward

Today, SEAs need to rethink the purpose of accountability. In fact, “victory” in a continuously improving system is the ability of leaders and educators in all schools to identify and remedy their blind spots and make regular changes in how they work based on constant feedback on performance that increases the likelihood of school and student success.

An accountability system based on continuous improvement changes reporting from a compliance activity to a process that enables positive change at a local level. It is important for all districts and schools to receive comprehensive feedback and learn what they do well or do poorly. Positive results reaffirm for schools what they are doing well and enable educators to build on their good work and do better. Negative feedback based on real evidence makes it easier for superintendents and principals to identify the causes of under performance, and justify the need for improvement in those areas and push leadership to provide more consistency, clarity, and coherence around school improvement.

Reporting on and analyzing a broad range of indicators identify where revised resource allocation or targeted programs, such as support for new teachers and professional development, might make a difference. These actions provide opportunities for districts to update their processes and procedures to ensure better coherence across the system; help formalize baseline expectations around key processes; and force districts and their schools to pay more attention to every aspect of what they do.

The continuous improvement process not only shows educators where their schools stand, but also empowers them to move forward. It forces all schools to improve, including those whose high test scores mask complacency. It also can address what happens to a school or district that is performing at a high level but begins to drift. In these cases, we often discover that student engagement has plummeted, achievement has tailed off, teacher morale has declined or leadership has faltered.

And it is not just a process that begins and ends once a year. The continuous improvement process helps schools take continuous action as enrollments grow and shrink, teachers come and go, curricula change, technology evolves, and educational standards rise. Any or all of those factors may demand that a school or district adjust, rethinking the policies and practices that worked so well in the past.

[7] Darling-Hammond, et al., pp. 2-3. O’Day and Smith, p. 340.