Accountability-the idea of holding schools, districts, educators, and
students responsible for results-has become the watchword in education. In
more and more states, policymakers are moving to reward achievement and
punish failure in an effort to ensure that children are getting a good
education and that tax dollars aren't being wasted. "Accountability for
student performance is one of the two or three-if not the most-prominent
issues in policy at the state and local levels right now," says Richard F.
Elmore, a professor at Harvard University's graduate school of education.
As of the 2000-01 school year, all 50 states test students to see what
they've learned, and 45 states publish report cards on individual schools,
based largely on test scores. More than half the states publicly rate their
schools, or at least identify low-performing ones. And 14 states have the
legal authority to close, take over, or replace the staff in schools they
have identified as failing.
The push for accountability grew out of a common perception that, until
recently, states had monitored the "inputs" in public education-such as the
number of books in the school library or the number of computers in the
classroom-but had paid too little attention to whether students were
actually learning anything.
In the 1980s, the nation's governors proposed a "horse trade": They would
provide more flexibility in how schools
operated, if educators would agree to be held more accountable for student
achievement. In practice, the push for
accountability has encountered some problems. No consensus has been reached
on how to design a strong accountability system that educators and the
public perceive as fair and legitimate. In many places, accountability has
focused almost exclusively on raising scores on state-mandated tests.
States are increasingly holding students accountable for performance. In
2000, 18 states required students to pass a test in order to graduate from
high school. Three states tie student promotion to test scores and four
others are planning to do so. Some states and districts are also attempting
to tie teacher evaluations and pay to students'
scores on state tests. But many educators and teachers' unions contend that
too many factors contributing to student performance are outside their
control. Critics also argue that the focus on "high-stakes testing" will
impoverish the curriculum, encourage cheating, and fall most heavily on poor
and minority students, who traditionally have done least well on
standardized exams. Opponents of such testing also complain that states
have rushed to hold students accountable before they've put in place the
curriculum, instruction, teacher training, and other resources that would
enable young people to meet the higher standards.
In some places, concerns about the results of high-stakes testing have
produced a backlash. In California, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, and other
states, grassroots opposition campaigns are encouraging parents to keep
their children home on test days.
Legal challenges against testing programs are pending in Arizona and
Louisiana. And in such states as Colorado, Minnesota, and Virginia, citizens
are putting pressure on legislators to rethink accountability. For now, most
state policymakers say they are committed to their agenda: setting higher
standards for students, measuring whether they are learning, and then
providing incentives for schools and students to achieve. Opinion polls also
show that the public and educators continue to support the principle of
higher standards by large margins.
But the next few years could well determine whether states and districts can
design accountability systems that work in practice, as well as on paper.
A substantial body of research suggests that a school's quality can be
directly linked to the quality of its teachers. But states and school
districts face significant challenges in maintaining and measuring
consistent levels of teacher quality.
The evidence shows, for example, that students whose teachers have been
trained in their subjects perform better than students whose teachers lack
subject-matter preparation. Yet each year about a third of teachers in U.S.
schools are assigned at least one class a day for which they have not been
Teachers also tend to be more effective when they have more than a few years
of experience in the classroom. But more than 20 percent of newly minted
teachers leave the profession after four years, creating constant turnover
and an experience drain.
There is far less evidence that pedagogy-or knowledge of teaching methods-is
as important as content knowledge, although many experts believe that lack
of strong pedagogical training may contribute to the teacher quality
The growing demand for more qualified teachers couldn't come at a more
challenging time for schools. Enrollment in public elementary and secondary
schools is projected to grow by 4 percent between 1997 and 2009, to 48.1
million. And with the average teacher now 44 years old, many districts are
bracing for a wave of retirements in the coming years.
In light of current and potential teacher shortages, many observers say that
states and school districts must take systematic steps to ensure a qualified
teaching force for years to come. Teacher quality will only suffer, they
say, if school systems merely scramble to fill classrooms with warm bodies.
To address high attrition rates, many schools have introduced induction and
mentoring programs to help provide support for new teachers. As of 2001, 10
states require and fund induction programs. Many states and districts are
also attempting to raise teacher salaries and improve working conditions in
an effort to curb early departures.
To ensure that teachers are well-prepared, meanwhile, some states and
districts have established stronger minimum requirements for initial
licensure. For example, as of 2001, 23 states require that all high school
teachers must have at least 30 credits or a major in the subject area for
which they are licensed.
States also are encouraging clinical experiences during teacher training,
commonly referred to as student teaching.
Twenty-one states require at least 12 weeks of student teaching prior to
completion of a teacher preparation program.
Finally, many states have turned to testing as yet another measure for
ensuring quality. As of 2001, 37 states require prospective teachers to pass
a basic-skills test, 29 require candidates to master a test of subject
knowledge, and 24 require passing a subject-specific pedagogy exam in order
Notwithstanding these efforts, an opposing faction of educators and
opinionmakers believes that a better way to improve teacher quality would be
to keep licensure requirements to a bare minimum. In this view, school
administrators should be free to hire the people they want and pay them
based on performance marketplace
demands. Accountability for school performance would ensure they hire and
retain only competent teachers.
It's easy to see why efforts aimed at reducing class sizes are an appealing
remedy for curing what ails the nation's schools. Many educators and
policymakers have long argued that, with fewer students, teachers can give
each of them more individual attention.
Through the federal Class-Size Reduction Program, all states are receiving
federal dollars to recruit, hire, and train new teachers, especially in
grades K-3. In December of 2000, Congress appropriated $1.6 billion for the
2001-2002 school year. States, too, are jumping on the bandwagon. Since the
early 1980s, at least 20 have begun their own class-size reduction efforts.
Research, for the most part, seems to support the belief in the benefits of
small classes. While not all studies on the subject have shown that students
learn more in smaller settings, most studies have found benefits. The
biggest and most credible of them, a statewide study begun in Tennessee in
the late 1970s, has even found that the learning gains students make in
classes of 13 to 17 students persist long after the students move back into
average-size classes. What's more, the Tennessee researchers found, poor and
appeared to reap the greatest learning gains in smaller classes. After
kindergarten, the gains black students made in smaller classes were
typically twice as large as those for whites.
But, as school improvement ideas go, reducing class sizes is costlier than
many and more complicated than it appears on first blush. With the current
predictions of looming teacher shortages in many areas, the worry is that
the press for quantity will come at the expense of quality, forcing schools
and districts to hire underqualified teachers.
California learned that lesson firsthand when the state undertook its own
class-size-reduction initiative beginning in
1996. In the first year of implementation, more than a fifth of the new
teachers hired in that state had only emergency credentials. Hit hardest
were schools serving poor and minority students. And, in the hunt for new
space, administrators found themselves carving classrooms out of broom
closets and erecting portable classrooms on top of playgrounds.
California's experience has some researchers wondering whether other
improvement strategies, such as better
professional development for teachers, might be more cost-effective. Both
California's and Tennessee's class-size-reduction efforts were aimed at
pupils in kindergarten through 3rd grade. Less is known about the effects
of smaller classes on older students.
Researchers agree, however, that shrinking the number of students in a class
does not automatically translate into better learning. To squeeze the most
out of their new settings, teachers may need to alter their teaching
practices and drop lecture-style approaches. But studies so far show that
many teachers teach smaller classes the same way they did larger ones.