The "A" Word: Accountability — The Dirty Word of Today’s Education Reform

Conversations with prominent education leaders on the polarizing topic of school accountability





A dirty word in education.

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? The truth requires us to look beyond the sound bites. The “A” Word seeks to do that through conversations with education leaders.

NEW – Why Accountability Matters for State Leaders
Updated January 2019

“I don’t think you can solve a problem if you can’t diagnose it, and I don’t think it is fair for parents of students not to be informed of how their schools perform relative to other schools and how their children perform relative to other children.”
—President George W. Bush


by Anne Wicks, Ann Kimball Johnson Director of the Education Reform Initiative at the Bush Institute
and William McKenzie, Editorial Director at the Bush Institute
Read the introduction

The Interviews

What is missing from today’s education debate are the voices of the many education leaders who have embraced accountability as a way to change outcomes for the students and families they serve.

These leaders seek and use data to measure progress and to determine which interventions are likely to increase student success. They operate transparently in drawing public attention to the challenges schools face and the achievements they make. They openly address the complexity of getting accountability systems right while maintaining their focus on measuring the progress of all students.

National Leaders

Margaret Spellings
U.S. Secretary of Education, 2005–2009

“You can’t solve a problem that you don’t diagnose correctly, fairly, accurately, and comparably.”
Read her interview

John King
U.S. Secretary of Education, 2016–2017

“[People] should see data as a resource to use to help students improve.”
Read his interview

Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds
Vice President of Policy for the Foundation for Excellence in Education

“The conversations around accountability have evolved, but not in the best interest of kids.”
Read her interview

State Leaders

NEW — State Leaders: Why Accountability Matters for Students They Serve
NEW — Policy Recommendations for State Education Leadership

NEW: Steve Canavero
Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction

“I don’t see accountability as a single thing, but it is grounded in clear outcomes and expectations.”
Read his interview

NEW: Bill Haslam
Tennessee Governor, 2011–2019

“We have to still insist on accountability for everyone. It can’t just be accountability for teachers. It has to be students and parents and elected people like me.”
Read his interview

NEW: Pedro Rivera
Pennsylvania Education Secretary

“Accountability is the agreement that sets the standards and conditions by which policy leaders, educators, and the communities we serve come together and share expectations.”
Read his interview

NEW: John White
Louisiana State Superintendent of Education

“[Accountability] is a simultaneous telling of a story as objective fact and showing the need to react and improve in light of that story.”
Read his interview

NEW: Jamie Woodson
Executive Chairman and CEO, State Collaborative on Reforming Education, 2011–2019

“The purpose of accountability has been to measure whether students are receiving a year of learning for a year in the classroom.”
Read her interview

Kevin Huffman
Tennessee Education Commissioner, 2009–2015

“At some level you’re rowing against a culture challenge in education, which is a culture of non-differentiation.”
Read his interview

Gerard Robinson
Virginia Secretary of Education, 2010–2011; Florida Commissioner of Education, 2011–2012

“I don’t have a word to replace accountability today, but we’ve got to get rid of the term. It’s simply too toxic.”
Read his interview

Hanna Skandera
New Mexico Secretary of Education, 2010–2017

“Accountability is about how well are we serving our kids? And what are those things we can learn to serve them better?”
Read her interview

Felicia Cumings Smith
Assistant Superintendent of Academic Services at Jefferson County (Kentucky) Public Schools

“An accountability system needs to be able to communicate how well a school, district, or state is meeting desired outcomes for student learning.”
Read her interview

District/Charter Management Organization Leaders

Tom Boasberg
Superintendent, Denver Public Schools

“Accountability is not about punishment. Accountability is about change and improvement to reach goals.”
Read his interview

Daniel King
Superintendent of Schools, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District

“Accountability has impact in all areas, from the way we work with curriculum, to how we schedule, to how we develop staff.”
Read his interview

Diane Tavenner
Founder and CEO, Summit Public Schools

“When we don’t meet our goals, we constantly reexamine what we’re doing. We use the data and information to get ourselves back on track towards where we want to go.”
Read her interview

Dustin Marshall
Dallas Independent School District Trustee

“It was shocking to me that there are actually arguments made in education that data is bad, that you need not talk about data because data’s misleading.”
Read his interview

Next Steps

A Policymaker’s Perspective: Holly Kuzmich
Executive Director, George W. Bush Institute

“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.”
Read her essay

Looking Forward: The Possibility of Accountability’s Next Phase
by Anne Wicks and William McKenzie

“Education accountability matters so intensely because young people deserve agency in their futures. We want the children we love personally to have that agency, which means we need it for all children.”
Read the recommendations