For some time now, school leaders have come under fire to demonstrate greater accountability for the learning of all students. While there are pockets of educational excellence that exist, the preponderance of public schools are considered underperforming and that is unacceptable. Who is accountable for student learning?
The Meaning of Accountability
What is educational accountability? In the context of reform and restructuring, accountability has different meanings for various stakeholder groups, i.e., political leaders, education officials, teachers, parents, community and business leaders and the general public. Far too often, the concept of accountability is inextricably linked to high stakes testing of students. Unfortunately, based on the results of a single test, huge numbers of schools are declared failures, while much lesser numbers are considered high performing. Accountability is multifaceted. It includes responsibility, authority, evaluation and control. Moreover school accountability is a complex issue, because it involves both internal and external relationships. While local school governance bodies, superintendents, school staff, parents, etc. may be viewed as internal accountability relationships; policymakers, government agencies, education officials, etc. may be viewed as external accountability relationships.
In Matteson School District 162, located in the south suburbs of Chicago, we have witnessed a dramatic improvement in student learning over the past 10 years. It is an incredible story about accountability and student success.
From 2002 to 2012, our students have demonstrated a 30 percent gain in students meeting and exceeding the state standards. This was the result of strategic leadership. Also on this journey, one of our schools was identified as a Blue Ribbon School. This was the result of our students’ achievement level of 90 percent or higher as measured by state assessments for seven consecutive years. Additionally, we opened a public charter high school approved by the Illinois State Board of Education to ensure that our students continue to experience high levels of learning. What drove this effort is the well documented fact that too many students are failing to learn, failing to improve academically, and failing to complete their education in Illinois. That failure is compounded by the reality that youth of today will be confronted with a world information economy that demands better than we produced in the past—and therefore makes the prospects for those who fall short of success even gloomier than we now see.
What drove this effort is the well documented fact that too many students are failing to learn, failing to improve academically, and failing to complete their education...
Ron Edmonds the leader of the Effective Schools movement, states, “We can whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to do that. Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.” Edmonds and his colleagues provide a plethora of research literature that hits at the core of the accountability question.
All high performing schools share certain essential characteristics that reflect the Correlates of the Effective Schools literature. Our school system’s student success record is reflective of Edmonds’ work. An examination of this body of scholarly research is central to ensuring successful outcomes for all students.
The Leadership Difference
Without question, leadership at every level in the internal organization is pivotal to student success. This leadership includes school boards, superintendents, system office staff, principals, teachers and parents. These are the areas where we exert the greatest control over the educational enterprise. Accountability in the aforementioned areas i.e., internal relationships, will have a gargantuan impact on student success today, tomorrow and in the future.
We must overcome perceptions that have a stranglehold on the public’s collective belief that improvement is impossible – such as the belief that our schools do not and cannot educate the “urban child;” that the difficulties of overcoming the effects of poverty, high mobility rates and the dropout rate may be insurmountable; and that we simply cannot find global success in teaching children to read at accepted levels. All of these are mental assumptions that must be climbed and conquered. To not fix these problems would be remiss for any caring society, but merely fixing them is clearly not ambitious enough. We propose to go all the way in our effort to have an ultimate goal of providing Illinois children the finest public education in the nation.
What works for us? At the highest level of the organization, we have dynamic leadership with the school board and the superintendent. The relationship is like a textbook 101 in school governance. Ostensibly the board empowers the superintendent to provide unequivocal leadership for the school system without interference. This professional relationship sets the tone for the school system and communities we serve. Our mission is clear – it is learner-centered. Our superintendent’s performance goals are clearly articulated throughout the internal organization and enthusiastically embraced by the community of learners. A well conceived and designed accountability system allows every adult to work unrelentingly on behalf of our children. We have achieved against the odds in large part because accountability is at the core of our school system mission.
Edmonds, R. (1979) Effective Schools for the Urban Poor. Educational Leadership, 37 (1), 15-24.
Darling-Hammond, L and Synder, J. (1992) Reforming Accountability, Creating Learner-centered Schools. In A, Lieberman (Ed.) The Changing Contexts of Learning, Chapter 2, pp. 11-36. Chicago, IL University of Chicago Press.
Heim, M. (February 1995) “Accountability in Education”. Honolulu, HI, Hawaii State Department of Education.
Lezotte, L and Snyder, K. (2011) What Effective Schools Do: Re-envisioning the Correlates. Solution Free Press.