"Accountability" is the rallying cry these days for many concerned about improving public schools. But what are people talking about when they use that term?
Behind the idea of accountability are a few key questions. Who is supposed to make sure that student achievement improves? To whom are those people responsible? What are the consequences if students or schools succeed or fail?
As researchers who have studied community organizing groups addressing urban school reform, we have identified an approach to accountability that we call public accountability. Community organizing has developed strategies for bringing school stakeholders -- parents, teachers, students, principals, community members, district and elected officials -- together in a public dialogue where they commit to take action to improve urban schools. Because commitments are publicly made, participants can hold each other accountable.
Other accountability models
However, public accountability is not the form that most people refer to when they talk about accountability. Almost all current accountability systems are based on what is called a bureaucratic model. This is a top-down approach in which the personnel of a school (teachers and principal) are accountable to the school district, state, or, with the enactment of the No Child Left Behind legislation, the federal government.
The bureaucratic model typically relies on high-stakes testing. Improvement or success are defined in terms of student outcomes on standardized tests, and accountability is enforced by rewarding or sanctioning schools (and sometimes teachers and students) depending on both absolute levels of test scores and changes over a period of time.
Another model, which is incorporated to varying degrees in current accountability systems, has been called professional accountability. The accountability of professionals can be seen when a principal takes a strong role as an instructional leader, when teachers meet to agree on standards for student work, when teachers receive in-class coaching. These kinds of activities enable a school staff to develop a collective sense of responsibility for children's learning and a shared commitment to high standards.
The professional approach relies on internal motivation. The consequences for educators are in answering to one's peers about students' success and the reputation of the school.
Although each of the predominant ways of viewing accountability can make important contributions to an accountability system, the bureaucratic and professional models, even when combined, are not sufficient for solving the problems of urban schools. These models are limited because they view schools in isolation, failing to take into account the complex social and political contexts in which schools function.
Public accountability, in dealing with the complex realities that influence student learning, broadens the range of stakeholders that contribute to school improvement.
Public accountability in action
Since 1999, Research for Action (RFA), in collaboration with the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, has been studying community organizing groups across the country that are working for school improvement in low-income communities.
As an example of public accountability in action, take the organizing process that brought about a dramatic turnaround at Zavala Elementary School, which serves a very low-income Hispanic community in East Austin, Texas. Until 1990, Zavala was consistently at the bottom of district rankings on standardized test scores.
When a parent expressed anger about the discrepancy between students' low scores on state tests and the A's and B's they received from their teachers, the principal invited the parent to read the test scores aloud at a PTA meeting to raise the issue publicly. He also invited to the meeting Austin Interfaith, a community organizing group that was beginning to develop a track record for its work in schools. The confrontation provoked angry feelings among both parents and teachers, but Austin Interfaith succeeded in using the situation as an opening to start building parent and teacher involvement in Zavala.
Gradually, Austin Interfaith helped to build parent/teacher connections and brought attention to parents' concerns and ideas for school improvement. The turning point in building a collective community of action came when large numbers of parents mobilized around the urgent need for a preventive health clinic at the school. After parents developed a proposal, teachers and parents together attended countless meetings and rallies with public officials, won financing from city council, defeated opposition from the school board, and made the clinic a reality.
As Austin Interfaith continued its organizing work, other successes followed. Over the next few years, Spanish-speaking parents became more involved as the school adopted a bilingual communication policy; teachers implemented more challenging curricula such as the "Young Scientists" enrichment program; and a tutoring program and city-funded afterschool activities were put in place.
Student scores on standardized tests also rose and in 2000, Zavala was placed on the state's list of "recognized" schools, one level below the top ranking of "exemplary." In order to sustain these gains, the Zavala community continues to organize, monitor programs, and look for further ways to improve.
Communities add resources and power
The work of Austin Interfaith helped the Zavala community to build "public accountability," in which goals and priorities came from the most immediate stakeholders -- parents and teachers, in this case -- and these stakeholders developed the power to win commitments from public officials.
In this model, parents and guardians, community members, students, educators, school and district administrators, city and state elected officials, and civic leaders can all be involved in determining how "success" is measured and working to ensure that schools are moving toward greater success. Because public accountability involves the participation of large numbers of people, it also has the potential to build political will for necessary changes in policies and funding.
Locally, parent, student, and community organizing groups are building public accountability to bring improvements to schools and also joining with advocacy and other groups in citywide coalitions, such as the recent campaign by Philadelphians United to Support Public Schools.
Although "public accountability" is not a widely understood concept, we feel that it is essential for improving urban public schools. Broad-scale, collective responsibility increases and diversifies the resources available for improving schools and also permits new voices to participate in defining when a school is "successful."