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Ask Dr. Lynch: Achievement and Accountability

EducationWorld Q&A columnist Dr. Matthew Lynch is an associate professor of education at Langston University. Dr. Lynch provides expert advice on everything from classroom management to differentiated instruction. Read all of his columns here, and be sure to submit your own question.

Dr. Matthew Lynch

This week, reader Kate B. asks:

I am a California middle-school teacher who is a proponent of increased accountability in K-12 education. How important is accountability in promoting student achievement?


Kate, in a nutshell—very important. Educators, parents, politicians and concerned citizens agree that the American educational system is in poor shape, and that far-reaching changes are needed for improvement. One illustration: in today’s junior high schools, more than 80 percent of Black and Latino students say they intend to go to college. For those who get to college, up to 60 percent require remedial work to prepare them for college courses. Furthermore, 25-50 percent of these students drop out of college after only one year.

Accountability in education refers to holding school districts, school administrators, educators and students responsible for demonstrating specific academic performance results. The word accountability, which describes a host of educational activities, is held up as a banner by some and feared by others. Throughout the country, policymakers are moving toward systems designed to reward educators for achievement and punish them for lack of improvement.

Historically, school system reform was guided by “inputs” into the system. Schools were given more resources, more funding, more staffing, and in some cases, more days to the school year, in an attempt to improve learning outcomes. The focus on inputs did not necessarily lead to noticeable improvements in student achievement.

A paradox remains where low-performing schools are having the most difficult time making significant improvements. As a result, these schools risk losing the funding and support they so desperately need to advance.  Of course, many people are worried about making such huge funding and support decisions based on a single high-stakes test. Clearly, there are no easy answers to fixing our education system, but accountability and assessment are the current avenues we are taking. When discussing how to improve our educational system, it is important to understand the language and the relevant issues.

School reform can no longer rely mostly on giving schools more resources and more support. Time has shown that inputs have no real impact on student performance. Federal edicts such as NCLB have enforced protocols based on standards, testing and accountability. These standards emphasize performance objectives and require high levels of accountability from educators.

The required reforms, particularly those that impose sanctions similar to those imposed by NCLB, often create much stress and anxiety. Many educators ask whether it is fair to hold schools accountable for student achievement. And, even if it is “fair,” how are we to measure such achievement? What testing and evaluation formulas will be used? The answers to questions like this are not easy. Obviously, achievement can only be guaranteed if we assess it in some way. However, current assessment models are flawed.

Research suggests that standards and accountability may improve learning for some disadvantaged students, particularly those with disabilities. When some schools implement accountability guidelines, they promote an environment of increased collaboration among educators and create an environment where teachers expect all students to perform well academically. This, in turn, encourages better learning outcomes.

Some countries have been able to show effective and useful outcomes based on their use of certain accountability policies. However, American policymakers and researchers still do not have any real evidence that these latest accountability reforms are working to improve outcomes for the vast majority of students.

Conversations around school accountability have been polarized. Politicians and parents often want to hold schools and teachers completely responsible for student achievement. Teachers point to disinterested students and uninvolved parents, saying that there is only so much they can do. But studies have shown that if teachers and students work together, and schools hold themselves accountable, great strides can be made. Open discussions of accountability and standards bring us to a place where schools are performing better and our children are learning. This is what the American education system should focus its attention and resources on. Then and only then can we make substantial progress in our quest to close the achievement gap.

About Dr. Lynch

Dr. Matthew Lynch is a Chair and Associate Professor of Education at Langston University and a blogger for the Huffington Post. Dr. Lynch also is the author of the newly released book It’s Time for a Change: School Reform for the Next Decade and A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories. Please visit his Web site for more information.

If you have a question for “Ask Dr. Lynch,” submit it here. Topics can be anything education-related, from classroom management to differentiated instruction.

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