Making schools, districts, and states accountable for the student’s performance is one of the most hotly debated topics in the contemporary society, especially among the policymakers and the education community in general (MacPherson, 1995). After so many decades of directing efforts on inputs – for instance, curriculum offerings, funding levels, and resources – policymakers are presently laying emphasis on the students’ learning and performance as a means of measuring the viability of an education system. Nevertheless, accountability is only confined to the student’s performance considering the fact that the education system cannot only be measured by the way its students perform. There are other approaches that could be applied as a measure of accountability of a certain education system. However, it is worth noting that school accountability systems apply a range of the implementation strategies and function according to some outlined principles. Furthermore, the concept of accountability in education is not a new one. What differentiates the current systems from those that were used previously is basically determined by a number of issues, such as for what reasons is the system being implemented and to whom. This paper discusses and provides a comparison of the accountability trends in education. The paper will also provide a recommendation with regard to the accountability techniques.

Understanding Accountability

Basically, accountability is a multi-faceted concept and different authors have offered differing definitions of it with regard to their own understandings (Tucker & Clark, 1999). It incorporates various aspects, such as the responsibility, control, authority, and evaluation. Therefore, accountability in education can be defined as the responsibility accompanied by the authority to carry out a specific duty. However, in this case responsibility is defined as the application of authority credibly and justifiably. Therefore, accountability can be considered as a form of responsibility and entails at least two parties who are involved in a mutually acknowledged relationship.

However, the confusion that comes with regard to understanding accountability often results from its pervasive and fluid nature.  For example, accountability can either be linked to the process of carrying out a specific duty or to its outcomes.  That is if one has been given the authority to carry out a specific duty, then one is held responsible for carrying out the activity using the correct process, what is often referred to as procedural accountability. This may also extend to incorporate the outcomes of the actions, whether negative or positive, what is known as consequential accountability (Holloway, 2003).Therefore, in the field of education, while procedural accountability concerns aspects to do with the process in which educational activities are carried out in schools, consequential accountability is principally based on the results or performance.  Furthermore, a substantial amount of research highlights a close relationship between accountability and various topics like school evaluation models, educational indicator systems, educational reform or restricting, and school audit or review models. The main purpose of accountability in education is to assure that the public constituents, such as the state legislators and policymakers, parents, and other stakeholders, of the effectiveness, value, and quality of the educational systems (Tucker & Clark, 1999). It is worth noting that accountability does not only provide information with regard to the institutional performances but also provides an opportunity for the schools to show some commitment to continuous improvements over time.

The pressures for accountability in education has for a long time been a major concern of many stakeholders.  In addition, this pressure has been generated from a variety of sources and incorporates the concerns of the educational leaders, policymakers, elected leaders as well as the general public about the education’s responsibilities and roles, performance, and quality along with the perceived increasing costs. It is apparent that the constant search for accountability has resulted in the introduction of numerous legislative acts whose mandates have called for the implementation of institutional reporting systems about the educational performance or outcomes as well as other determinants of institutional productivity and efficiency (Holloway, 2003). The drive for accountability is basically derived from the expectations to meet the goals of schooling.  The major categories of such expectations are legal, political, professional, bureaucratic, and market-based.

Types of Accountability System

The field of education recognizes three major types of accountability system. However, it is worth noting that systems can sometimes be applied simultaneously even despite the fact that each one of them operates in line with the set principles while applying various implementation strategies (Hanushek & Raymond, 2002). Thus, these systems are explained below.

This system requires conformity to the regulations and statutes provided by the policymakers. The compliance systems are basically attached to an industrial model and provide a view in which the school is seen as an epithet of continuous processes, they also give room for the variation in results that are attributed to the differing students’ characteristics. In simple terms, this system states that educators are responsible for compliance to the outlined rules and regulations and are also accountable for the official procedure

This system is basically concerned with the adherence to the professional norms. Even though it is not mandatory or required, the effect of the common agreement about various practices and principles has greatly improved the state of education as a profession. For instance, in the United States, the evaluation standards and curriculum for school mathematics, often referred to as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics that was established in 1989, the program evaluation standards, known as the Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation formed in 1994, and the standards for psychological and educational testing, known as the American Educational Research Association that was formed in 2000, typify the professional norm that can be used to measure accountability (American Educational Research Association, 2000; National Council of Teachers in Mathematics, 1989). However, it is important to note that within this system, educators are often held accountable for conforming to the standards as well as to their peers.

This system is based on the results, and in this case, the results are defined with regard to the student learning. Increased political involvement in the field of education has been the main driving force behind this system. Various legislative acts have been introduced, for instance, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in the United States as well as the Australian National Education Performance Monitoring Task Force, in order to determine the accountability in education in consideration of the students’ results. In the results driven by the accountability system, the educators are responsible for the student learning outcomes as well as for the general public.

In most cases, educators are required to respond to all these types of systems and thus, are supposed to balance the necessities of each system (Hanushek & Raymond, 2002). However, professional norms go in line with both the results and compliance systems. Conversely, results and compliance systems usually conflict. This is in consideration of the fact that a significant part of this conflict often results from the fact that the introduction of the results-driven system was driven by the dissatisfaction with the previous results, meaning those that were attained under the compliance systems.  Furthermore, current accountability systems tend to focus more on the results while lesser efforts are directed onto compliance.  It is important to note that a defensible and workable accountability system that is primarily dependant on the results, whilst at the same time focuses on the regulatory and professional norms, is a viable system. This is one that defines the responsibility of the educators for all the students in spite of the merits and the demerits they generate to the school.  In addition, such a system has to be dependent on the various aligned components which are: the objectives, instructions’ assessments, rewards or sanctions, and resources. Furthermore, the technical component of the system should attain a high standard. The system should also act as a vehicle for advocating for a positive change.

The Purpose of Schooling

It is worth noting that accountability systems are founded on the prospect that the students have the ability and the will to attain the goals of schooling. Previously, schools were charged with the main responsibility of teaching students. Academic researchers postulate that it is only for the students who generate merits for the school to the school that are liable to get benefits from this teaching (Porter, 1991). The economically disadvantaged and disabled students, which constitute the minority group, are not thus expected to learn at the same level in which their advantaged peers do. Taking responsibility for the students’ learning transforms both the classroom and the school environment. This also helps in transforming the manner in which the teachers feel about their profession. Documented literature is stuffed with information about heroic educators who have the capacity to transform and enhance the school through their zeal, regardless of the devastating odds.  However, the challenge is in how to transform the heroic into customary.

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According to the results-based systems, the students’ failures are often the result of the general weaknesses that are present in the educational practices and programs rather than of the background and characteristics of the students (Blank, 1993). It is viewed that schools that are ensuring the success of all its students have strong and stable administrators and teachers. The strength is attributed to factors like visionary instructional leadership and wider knowledge content while stability is defined in terms of the dedication to the school, and it helps to shape the schools’ climate and culture. It is stability that fosters relationships between the school and the parents along with the community with an aim to fulfill the present as well as the future needs of the students.

An accountability system should be comprised of five components: the objectives, resources, instructions, assessments, and rewards or sanctions (Blank, 1993).  All the education systems throughout the world emphasize on mathematical reasoning, literacy, scientific inquiry, and social and historical understanding in order to prop up civic participation. The developing nations prioritize the aspect of literacy that is considered as the major learning outcome. Conversely, among the developed nations, much emphasis is laid on increasing the scientific and mathematical competence.

Generally, the curriculum represents the economic focus of a country. However, the introduction of content standards affected the structure and nature of the curriculum. It is expected that teachers should have an understanding of the curriculum’s structure, both within and across all its levels. The application of assessments to provide information with regard to schools, students, and personnel was speeded up by the fact that most of the contemporary systems are focusing on result-based accountability (Linn, 2000). Assessments, along with the content standards, are applied in deriving information with regard to students’ eligibility for and advancement to the next level in school for teacher's and administrator's rewards as well as the employment for the purpose of resource allocation (Gong, et al., 2002).

In addition, the assessments are used to generate the information that could be used to develop a general teaching process. However, due to the fact that they are often designed for a larger number of students, the accountability assessments do not always provide adequate diagnostic information that can be used for teacher's planning and for the students' class work (Fuhrman, 2002). The rapid transformation of the school curriculum, especially with regard to science and mathematics, has made teachers responsible for offering students some contents that they may not have even acquired in a formal setting. However, to sum it up, when talking about the components of accountability, there are various issues that have to be considered, for instance, the school funds, facilities, direct services, personnel, safeguarding the primary clients, organizational management, administrative services, and the support services. However, the general scope of accountability in education is huge as numerous factors can be considered in order to determine accountability.

Traditionally, most of the states are concentrated on monitoring the inputs, especially in the public education systems, for instance, the number of computers available in a classroom, or the amount of books available in the school’s library. In addition, little attention was paid to the students’ performance as most policymakers were concerned with ensuring that teachers comply with the professional norms and standards.  In the 1980s, there was a major shift towards some type of horse trade, whereby the government would provide funds to schools, along with more flexible regulations, but only if the administrators and the teachers would agree to stand accountable for the students’ performance (Brown, 1999).

It is, thus, apparent that previously, most of the internal and external demands concerned schools, especially the public schools. However, as documented literature highlights, of all the demands of accountability, the most challenging to meet was that of the student outcomes. Despite the fact that considerable effort is often directed to how a particular activity is conducted, regardless of the fact that the activity has been conducted using an acceptable approach, the final outcomes may turn out to be unsatisfactory. In essence, the essential provisions that are expected to provide a good outcome cannot be controlled. For instance, when looking at student learning, various factors have to come to play in order to attain a satisfactory outcome, such as those that are within the capacity of the school personnel to manage as well as those that are out of their control. Furthermore, it is worth noting that student learning is a process that is co-produced while its primary producers are considered to be the teachers, parents, and the students themselves. However, most of the contemporary accountability systems are basically focused on the performance of the schools.  In the United States, for instance, the latest accountability system documented in the federal law from the mid-1990s, which seeks to analyze the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that was established in 2001, lays greater emphasis on the performance of the students, continuous improvements, schools as entities of improvement, costs for the schools associated with the performance of the students, and public reporting with regard to attainment of the results (Cebulka & Derlin, 1995). 

All the states were required to submit accountability plans to the federal government, which would then be implemented by their schools.  In response, some states came up with the report cards where the student performance data were to be recorded while highlighting how the English language, special education, low income, and minority learners carry out on state tests. It is also a requisite under the No Child Left Behind Act that states conduct a public rating of their schools in order to determine if their schools have attained an adequate annual progress towards attaining the outlined performance targets. However, analysts of this system highlight that while almost all states have adopted some kind of a rating system for their schools, it is reported that most of them do not support the low performing schools while at the same time take no action for such schools by imposing penalties for the low performing schools (Elmore, et al., 1996).

In addition, the improving and the high performing schools are not recognized through rewards. In reality, however, the drive to have accountability in education has resulted in numerous unforeseen problems. One study conducted in 2004 with regard to accountability in education in the United States, gave the states an average mark in what concerns the degree in which the accountability systems were assessed in terms of the solid academic standards along with the tests and in line with the individual standards established by the state. In addition, there exists a capacity gaps whereby the low performing schools are faced with a bigger challenge of turning themselves into attaining better performance standards (Curran, 1999).

Furthermore, most of the states lack adequate resources that could be used to help each of the schools whose performance is considered to be low or rather in line with the recommended standards.  The strict mandates and timelines provided in the No Child Left Behind Act, as noted by some educational policy professionals, may encourage some states to adopt incentives that will lower the expectations and standards for the students in an aim to meet the outlined targets. However, states are required to not only hold the schools accountable for the results but also to involve the students in accounting for their individual performance.


  • Involvement of all the stakeholders

When talking about the accountability in education, it is crucial to involve all the important stakeholders. In most cases, the teachers are left with the blame for poor performance without even considering that most of the factors that contribute to the students’ performance are out of the teachers’ control. The fact that the teachers are the primary players cannot be disputed but then it is important to note that several factors come to play in order to bring out success in an education system.  In this case, therefore, the policymakers, teachers, parents, and students themselves, along with other important stakeholders, should be held accountable for the students’ performance. It is also important that each stakeholder understands their role towards attaining overall accountability.

  • Establish a reward system

It is important that a reward system is established in order to recognize the efforts put by the schools in attaining good results. Current accountability systems provide room to gauge both the high performing and the low performing schools. However, there is no system in place that can recognize these performances. A system should therefore be put in place to recognize the improving along with the high performing schools in order to encourage them to uphold their efforts. On the other hand, penalties should be placed on the low performing schools.

  • Information for policymakers

As prospective advocates, the policymakers require more information that will ensure the continuity of the accountability systems. As technical and substantive challenges come up, the accountability systems can be adjusted to concentrate on the desired approaches to better learning, to assess learning more precisely and accurately, and to convey the assessment results to the various audiences using proper forms. However, only defensible and sound policies can provide for such changes, provide room for the development over time.

  • Ensure equal distribution of resources

One of the main reasons for poor performance in schools is the lack of adequate resources. This, therefore, generates significant problems to the accountability systems as it becomes difficult to hold schools accountable for low performances when such have only a limited number of resources. This is in line with the fact that how a certain school performs is closely linked with the amount of resources available in the school.  It is thus important to ensure that resources are equally distributed.

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