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Aurora Institute

Why Next Generation Accountability for Continuous Improvement is Important

Education Domain Blog

Authors: Dale Frost, Maria Worthen, Natalie Truong, Susan Patrick

Issues: State Policy, Redesign Accountability Systems for Continuous Improvement


State and local education systems need to focus on supporting an accountability system that continuously improves to meet the needs of a changing society, economy and student populations.

Policymakers, school leaders, teachers, parents and communities want systems that are transparent and aligned to improving teaching and learning over time. Next generation accountability systems can serve this purpose by providing the right information to the appropriate stakeholders. Further, next generation accountability can be an effective tool to inform capacity-building in schools aimed at supporting teaching and learning in a student-centered, competency-based education system.

Next generation accountability focuses on designing systems that are adaptive and iterative towards continuous improvement. It focuses on distributing responsibility across the education system’s stakeholders towards reciprocal accountability. Through multiple measures, accountability systems can provide data towards greater transparency for all stakeholders and towards informing and enabling school improvement.

Next generation accountability systems focus on continuous improvement and equity to examine progress of students over time – against the same high standards of rigor for every student – and provide students (and schools) with the supports they need to achieve them.

Continuously improving education systems use evidence-based practices to improve learning and monitor progress of schools and systems in real time. In response to ongoing feedback and data, they evolve their practice, culture and structures to ensure that students get the supports they need, when they need them.

An accountability system based on continuous improvement requires:

  • Creating a new, more holistic definition of student success that reflects the comprehensive range of knowledge, skills and dispositions students will need to succeed in higher education, the workforce and civic life;
  • Benchmarking using multiple metrics for the new definition of student success;
  • Providing transparency around mastery, gaps and depth of student learning so educators can ensure that learning gaps are filled and all students have the opportunity to learn at deeper levels of knowledge;
  • Monitoring student pacing and employing evidence of what works best to improve student learning; and
  • Tracking both student proficiency in relation to time-bound targets, evaluating progress on the trajectory of growth along learning progressions towards the next level of proficiency and monitoring the relative performance on these metrics between student subgroups;

Reciprocal Accountability

A core concept in next generation accountability systems is building capacity, trust, and professionalism toward the powerful idea of “reciprocal accountability.”

To explain the concept of reciprocal accountability, in Bridging the Gap Between Standards and Achievement, Harvard Professor Richard Elmore explains:

“Accountability must be a reciprocal process. For every increment of performance I demand from you, I have an equal responsibility to provide you with the capacity to meet that expectation. Likewise, for every investment you make in my skill and knowledge, I have a reciprocal responsibility to demonstrate some new increment in performance. This is the principle of “reciprocity of accountability for capacity.”

In reciprocal accountability, “Each level of the system — from federal and state governments to districts and schools — should be accountable for the contributions it must make to produce high-quality learning opportunities for each and every child. States and districts must be accountable for providing the resources, supports, and incentives that result in well-staffed, effective schools. Schools must be accountable for using these resources wisely and enabling strong teaching. Educators must be accountable for teaching the standards in ways that respond to their students’ needs. Everyone must be accountable for continuous learning.”

Reciprocal accountability recognizes the critical contributions that educators, communities, and stakeholders provide to school effectiveness. The goal of reciprocal accountability is to create an environment in which all participants recognize their obligations and commitments in relation to each other and to students, in the state and in communities. For example, state educational agencies (SEAs) are responsible for identifying schools that are in need of support and intervention; but, with reciprocal accountability, SEAs would also deliver on the promise of supporting schools with the capacity and resources required to ensure that every student can realize their full potential.

With reciprocal accountability, accountability does not fall disproportionately on the shoulders of any one stakeholder group and collaboration is prioritized. As a first step, states can begin to engage with diverse stakeholders at different levels of the system, thinking about how reciprocal accountability designs can increase equity and improve outcomes for every student.

State Policy Action Steps

The opportunity is here for state to rethink accountability with models that provide transparency across multiple measures, drive continuous improvement at each level of the system and empower stakeholders with the information and supports they need to meet students where they are in their learning with timely supports. Some actions state policymakers could take to create accountability systems for continuous improvement include:

  • Action Step #1: Convene diverse stakeholders to redefine student success. The definition should reflect the knowledge and skills that all students will need to succeed in college, career and civic life;
  • Action Step #2: Determine the measures the state will use for accountability purposes. The multiple measures should be aligned to the state’s vision for student success, provide transparency with timely data and empower stakeholders to drive continuous improvement, identify schools for improvement and target supports and resources where they are needed most;
  • Action Step #3: Engage with education stakeholders to develop or support professional learning communities across schools and districts and create a culture of continuous improvement where educators and leaders from across the state can learn and grow;
  • Action Step #4: Empower communities and build trust by developing a framework for reciprocal accountability, to ensure that resources and supports are responsive to the needs of local communities, districts and schools; and
  • Action Step #5: Identify school improvement models to support student-centered learning with personalized, competency-based education and to advance equity. States have the flexibility under ESSA to empower communities to determine school improvement models that work best for them as opposed to prescriptive models under NCLB.

As states begin to consider and design next generation accountability systems that are dynamic and responsive to stakeholders, they should remember they can submit a request to the U.S. Department of Education to amend their state accountability plans at any time.

Results of Action Steps: Rethinking Accountability to Support Continuous Improvement of Student Learning and School Quality

Next generation accountability has the potential to transform K-12 education to student-centered learning, and result in:

  • Creating more equitable education systems that provide students with the support they need, when they need it, to reach success in higher education, employment and civic life;
  • Providing greater transparency about student learning through data reporting systems and dashboards that empower stakeholders with the information they need to support student success;
  • Moving beyond one-size-fits-all accountability based on grade level proficiency in reading and math and a limited menu of school turnaround options, to school quality reviews and turnaround strategies that examine multiple measures aligned to graduate profiles and local needs;
  • Supporting district and school capacity to analyze and continuously improve on their practice;
  • Encouraging growth and improvement amongst all schools through networked professional learning communities, rather than only those identified for improvement under the old accountability models;
  • Cultivating meaningful collaboration with experts and practitioners to implement and improve on innovative school improvement models that advance student-centered learning;
  • Fostering more evidence-based practices rooted in learning sciences;
  • Building trust across the state education system under shared goals and responsibilities for all students in communities across the state with reciprocal accountability; and,
  • Driving coherence of K-12 education systems by ensuring that assessments, teaching and learning are complementary and supportive of each other with accountability systems providing appropriate supports and opportunities for continuous improvement.

This is the eighth article in the Current to Future State series that explores the ideas in the recent iNACOL report titled: Current to Future State: Issues and Action Steps for State Policy to Support Personalized, Competency-Based Learning.

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