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A Policymaker’s Perspective on Accountability Today

November 14, 2017 7 minute Read by Holly Kuzmich
Accountability – what does it mean today?

The "A" Word

Accountability simply means accepting responsibility for one's actions. Accountability applied to schools, however, has become so polarizing that it is now the equivalent to a dirty word.

How did we get here? As with all polarizing issues, the truth requires us to look beyond the sound bites. THE “A” WORD seeks to do that through conversations with recognized education leaders.

Read interviews from education experts

Accountability – what does it mean today? We have been discussing this question for several years at the Bush Institute. We’ve always stood for accountability in education, but it seemed that instead of getting heads nodding in agreement when we talked about our work on accountability, there’s been growing skepticism of the concept. We wanted to talk to experts, those charged with implementing educational accountability at the federal, state, and local level, which is what led to this series of interviews.

Upon reflecting on what each of these experts said, the good news is that the core principles of accountability that have guided progress in our schools are still widely agreed to: setting high standards, assessing regularly to those standards, measuring improvement, and providing supports for students and consequences for schools that don’t improve. Disaggregation of data is vital and has led to a focus on closing achievement gaps, especially for poor and minority students. Those basic tenets guide the work of these experts no matter what political party they are affiliated with or what position they hold.

But they also acknowledged the fundamental truth that policymaking is an imperfect process.  No policymaker gets all the details right, and policymaking in and of itself requires different sides to bring together their varying points of view, which inevitably leads to some level of trade-offs. 

This imperfect policymaking process has led to shifts over time in how accountability has been implemented at the federal, state, and local levels. The focus on accountability largely grew out of efforts by several states back in the 1980s and 1990s. 

While some states were leading the charge, others were lagging behind, so the federal government took on a much more significant role through passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. But we’ve now seen a shift back to the state and local level with the perceived overreach of the federal government. The Every Student Succeeds Act keeps some of the fundamentals in place, but shifts authority for the design of accountability systems back to the state level.

No matter where the balance of control lies and what kind of progress we’ve seen to date, there still is serious room for improvement. The experts we interviewed outlined a series of issues that have yet to be fully addressed if we are to improve outcomes for kids and remove barriers that stand in the way.

Some of these issues should be addressed by policymakers, but many of the challenges still in place can’t be tackled via policy change. They instead are in the hands of administrators, schools boards, teachers, parents, and engaged citizens. For example:

  • While we have general agreement on the importance of an annual test to measure whether students are learning to read and do math on grade level, we still often find too much test prep in our schools. There is widespread support for the annual assessment, but an overreaction to that assessment with too much test prep.
  • Parent voices in communities across the country are too often limited to a segment of parents — often white, upper-middle income parents. But they are usually the minority of parents within a community, so it’s important to that low and middle income parents are engaged and heard from as well.
  • There’s room to grow the accountability system and look at not just how students do through high school, but beyond high school. Danny King in Pharr-San Juan-Alamo wants to know how students graduating from his South Texas district are persisting into higher education. That signifies a local leader willing to take ownership.
  • Data is often too slow to be actionable. For all the progress we’ve made on the use of technology to deliver real-time information, there are still serious lags in getting data and information to parents to understand how well their child is performing and whether they are on track.
  • Finally, there was an acknowledgement from several experts on the disconnect between what accountability and data tell us and how resources are aligned — or too often misaligned — to the priorities that data tells us we should focus on. Kevin Huffman discussed that the billions of dollars that are spent on professional development across the country are often spent independently of accountability. It’s been a widely-known fact that professional development dollars have been poorly implemented and targeted for years, and yet we’ve seen little change. That’s a significant set of resources that, if aligned more seriously to the needs of kids and teachers in a particular district, could make a real difference.

What was particularly encouraging from these interviews was the leadership each person has demonstrated. The implementation of accountability at the ground level can lead to different reactions. It can be seen as a tool for improvement or can stoke a culture of fear. These leaders all view it as a tool for improvement. They are committed to using data, and are not afraid to admit when more of the same is not working. 

We could use more like them, and I hope they continue to lead. Our students will be better off for it.

The implementation of accountability at the ground level can lead to different reactions. It can be seen as a tool for improvement or can stoke a culture of fear. These leaders all view it as a tool for improvement.

more from the A Word

Read interviews from education leaders who have embraced accountability as a way to change outcomes.
The "A" Word:  Accountability -- The Dirty Word of Today's Education Reform


Holly Kuzmich
Holly Kuzmich

Holly Kuzmich serves as Executive Director of the George W. Bush Institute. She oversees the strategy and management of the Institute, an action-oriented policy organization that develops leaders, advances policy, and takes action to solve today’s most pressing challenges. The Institute’s work focuses on education reform, military service, economic growth, human freedom and democracy, global health, and women’s empowerment. Holly also oversees the Presidential Leadership Scholars program, a unique leadership development program in collaboration with the Clinton Foundation, George H.W. Bush Foundation, and Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation. In addition to her role in the Institute, she also serves in a management role as Senior Vice President of the Bush Center.   

Holly has over 20 years of public policy experience, serving in senior positions in the government, private, and non-profit sectors. She is a veteran of the White House, the U.S. Department of Education, and Capitol Hill, where she developed her expertise in education policy. She served in President Bush’s Administration for seven years, first on the staff of the White House Domestic Policy Council and then as Deputy Chief of Staff and Assistant Secretary for Legislation and Congressional Affairs at the U.S. Department of Education. Prior to that, she worked for two United States Senators on domestic policy issues.  She has also consulted on education and workforce issues with major foundations, companies, non-profits, and policymakers. 

Holly is a Pahara-Aspen Institute Fellow and a member of the Texas Lyceum. A native of South Bend, Indiana, she received her Bachelor's degree from Northwestern University.

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