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In the context of education, accountability refers to the concept that schools are responsible for ensuring that students meet agreed-upon standards of academic achievement. While governmental entities claim accountability is essential for the allocation of resources and the evaluation of policies and budgets, the term has taken on several distinct meanings. The principal dilemma was articulated by Susan Fuhrman and Richard Elmore (2004):

It is evident that what policy makers and the informed public think performance-based accountability is, differs considerably from what it actually is. In political discourse, it is common to hear both opponents and advocates speak as if test results were the metric of success in performance-based accountability [but] the idea of equating student learning with test performance is suspect, both in terms of the technical characteristics of tests and the incentive effects of testing on instruction. (p. 275)

David Figlio and Cecilia Rouse (2006) suggest that accountability in the United States involves two distinct alternatives. The first is the use of test-based performance indicators, followed by sanctions for low-performing schools. The second alternative uses market forces to reward some schools and punish others as parents and students make personal resource-allocation decisions through the use of vouchers. Similar market-based accountability systems occur through the exercise of enrollment choice in charter schools, magnet schools, or open-enrollment systems (Finn et. al. 2000; Coulson et al. 2006). This article reviews accountability before recent changes in federal legislation and provides alternatives for consideration.


Until 2001 compliance-based accountability was the primary mechanism by which school systems and many other recipients of governmental funds were held accountable. If procedures were followed and rules were enforced, then the entity was sufficiently accountable. Despite the evidence that a lot of wasteful and counterproductive effort is spent on generating strategic plans and submitting proof of school improvement (Schmoker 2004; Reeves 2006), compliance-based accountability remains a dominant force throughout the United States and in many other national and provincial school systems.


The prevailing example of results-based accountability is the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, legislation that is scheduled for reauthorization in 2007. The essence of NCLB is a focus on results as defined by state test scores. While the law makes the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) a calibration device (Reeves 2001), it also allows each state to establish its own academic standards and its own assessment procedures. Thus, two states using the NAEP can show, respectively, 20 percent and 80 percent of students scoring at a proficient levelbut show precisely the reverse when the results under consideration are scores generated by state-created tests. Moreover, results-based accountability emphasizes the effects of education without providing insight into the results. Wealthy schools have better results, but it does not necessarily follow that those results stem exclusively from better teaching, leadership, and policy, any more than poorer results in poor schools stem exclusively from inferior teaching, leadership, and policy (Rothstein 2004).


To supplement exclusive reliance on test scores, expanded accountability systems have been employed in many school systems (see Reeves 2002, 2004a, 2004b). Holistic accountability is based on three tiers of indicators: system-wide indicators, including test scores; school-based indicators, including professional practices of teachers and educational leaders; and school narratives, providing qualitative context for quantitative data. One of the best examples of a governmental entity systematically examining both student achievement data and professional practices is provided by Alberta Learning, the system used in the Canadian province of Alberta (unlike the United States, Canadas educational governance is decentralized). Albertas rigorous standards, consistent tests, holistic accountability system, public reporting, and long-term improvements in achievement suggest that accountability policies can be effective and constructive governance tools.


A growing number of schools are using value-added accountability, in which progress is measured by comparing students present performance to their performance in previous years (Sanders 1998). As of November 2006, ten states have been authorized to experiment with this system. Value-added accountability has the advantage of showing more meaningful comparisons and focusing on growth in achievement, thus encouraging low-performing schools and challenging high-performing schools. Value-added models are complex and in some cases proprietary. Moreover, any test that can show progress will, of necessity, include items below grade level and above grade level. Such tests are not consistent with the prevailing NCLB requirement that state tests reflect grade-level academic standards. This inevitably leads to tradeoffs: A test that addresses multiple grade levels in order to allow students to show progress will require more items in order to maintain the reliability of the testbut more test items can subject students (and teachers) to test fatigue, which itself can impair the validity of the test. If, on the other hand, a fifth grade student takes a test with only fifth grade items on it, it would be possible for immense progresssay, from a second-grade to a fourth-grade reading levelto be substantially overlooked. Emerging models using item response theory are being experimentally implemented in some districts, notably by the Northwest Evaluation Association. Item response theory (IRT) is the study of test and item scores based on assumptions concerning the mathematical relationship between abilities (or other hypothesized traits) and item responses (Baker 2001). While the mathematics of IRT can be complex, the practical application in the realm of educational accountability and assessment is straightforward. Without IRT, every student would take the same test. Using IRT, each student would take a test uniquely suited to his or her abilities.

For example, if student A and B are taking a test of Grade 4 reading, student A might get the first question right, while student B gets the first question wrong. In a traditionally constructed test, both students would continue to take the same test, with student A doing wellin fact, failing to be challengedwhile student B might become increasingly frustrated, perhaps to the point of enduring test fatigue and giving up on the exam. Using IRT, however, student A would proceed to a more difficult question, while the next question given to student B would be easier.


As educational accountability policies are revised in future years, leaders and policymakers can learn from the successes, errors, and unintended consequences of previous policies. In a wide variety of fields, opinions hold sway over evidence, and as Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton (2006) warn, leaders are deluded by dangerous half-truths and total nonsense. Many faulty educational practices, often incorporated into detailed long-term strategic plans, continue, even though the evidence does not support them (Childress et. al 2006; Reeves 2006). While market-based accountability surely leads to definitive rewards and sanctions, the invisible hand of the market does not shed light on how accountability policies can be employed to attain their central aimthe improvement of school performance and student achievement. To advance this cause, three essential aspects of accountability need to be kept in mind:

  1. The purpose of accountability is to improve performance. It is not merely a reporting vehicle used to rate, rank, and sort students, teachers, schools, and states. Therefore, of necessity, an effective accountability system must include not only results, but also inferences about how to improve results. An accountability system that includes only student test scores without a measurement of teaching and leadership practices is like a healthcare accountability system that counts death rates, but does not ask how patients died.
  2. Accountability requires coherent data. To allow for hypothesis testing, data must be distributed and warehoused in a way that makes it accessible and usable. While national educational standards remain politically impossible, there should be national standards for accountability systems that would permit meaningful comparison of the data generated by them.
  3. The smaller the unit of analysis, the more meaningful inferences from the data will be. The evidence on the impact of classroom teachers on student learning is overwhelming (Darling-Hammond and Sykes 1999). Goodlad (1990, 1994) also makes a persuasive case that the individual school leader can have a profound impact on student achievement. However, when considered on a larger scale, the relationship between policy and results is less clear. Attempts to track district-level progress are bedeviled by countless confounding variables. Even school-level accountabilitythe focus of present lawcan lead to a label of success or failure for an entire school based on the performance of one group of students in one grade in one subject.

SEE ALSO Bureaucracy; Corruption; Democracy; Education, Unequal; Education, USA; Government; Principal-Agent Models; Private Sector; Public Sector; School Vouchers; Schooling in the USA; Transparency; Whistle-blowers


Baker, Frank B. 2001. The Basics of Item Response Theory. 2nd ed. College Park, MD: ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation.

Childress, Stacey, Richard Elmore, and Allen Grossman. 2006. How to Manage Urban School Districts. Harvard Business Review 84 (11): 55-68.

Coulson, Andrew J., with James Gwartney, Neal McCluskey, John Merrifield, David Salisbury, and Richard Vedder. 2006. The Cato Education Market Index: Full Technical Report. Policy Analysis 585, December 13.

Darling-Hammond, Linda, and Gary Sykes. 1999. Teaching as the Learning Profession: Handbook of Policy and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Figlio, David N., and Cecilia Elena Rouse. 2006. Do Accountability and Voucher Threats Improve Low-Performing Schools? Journal of Public Economics 90 (1-2): 239-255.

Finn, Chester E., Jr., Bruno V. Manno, and Gregg Vanourek. 2000. Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fuhrman, Susan H., and Richard F. Elmore, eds. 2004. Redesigning Accountability Systems for Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Goodlad, John I. 1990. Teachers for Our Nations Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Goodlad, John I. 1994. Educational Renewal: Better Teachers, Better Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pfeffer, Jeffrey, and Robert I. Sutton. 2006. Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Reeves, Douglas B. 2001. Crusade in the Classroom: How George W. Bushs Education Reforms Will Affect Your Children, Our Schools. Riverside, NJ: Kaplan/Simon & Schuster.

Reeves, Douglas B. 2002. Holistic Accountability: Serving Students, Schools, and Community. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Reeves, Douglas B. 2004a. Accountability for Learning: How Teachers and School Leaders Can Take Charge. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Reeves, Douglas B. 2004b. Accountability in Action: A Blueprint for Learning Organizations. 2nd ed. Englewood, CO: Advanced Learning Press.

Reeves, Douglas B. 2006. The Learning Leader: How to Focus School Improvement for Better Results. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Rothstein, Richard. 2004. Class and the Classroom: Even the Best Schools Cant Close the Race Achievement Gap. American School Board Journal 191 (10): 16-21.

Sanders, William L. 1998. Value Added Assessment. The School Administrator, December.

Schmoker, Mike. 2004. Tipping Point: From Feckless Reform to Substantive Instructional Improvement. Phi Delta Kappan 85 (6): 424-432.

Douglas B. Reeves


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Professionals in any field can be called upon to justify their professional actions. The criteria against which they can be held accountable are those embodied in the normative standards of their particular profession. These standards are expressed in ethics guidelines or codes of conduct for each specialty area within public health. They also may be embodied in law. Likewise, other professionals engaged in public health work, including physicians, policy makers, and corporations, are accountable according to their own professions' codes of conduct.

If any undesirable consequences result from a health professional's work, every effort must be made to undo the damage, without dismissing or denying the problem. Consultation with other professionals or a professional organization can be helpful. Furthermore, various assessment techniques are available to help ensure that one's work is serving its intended purpose.

People can defend themselves against accusations of malpractice of any kind when they can show that they have behaved in an ethical fashion consistent with professional standards. Documentation helps in defending one's actions and makes a person's professional actions "transparent" or easily assessed. Transparency is necessary because accountability may involve defending one's actions or decisions to a professional or legal authority. Because public health professionals are ultimately responsible to the people they serve, transparency and accountability generally mean that processes and criteria for decision making are available for public inspection. Public health researchers have a duty to make their research practices transparent to the scientific community.

In a research context, researchers commit to maintaining the confidentiality of information provided by study participants. The process of informed consent provides assurances to this effect and provides both documentation and transparency. If a research participant discovers that a friend has received information that could only have come from a confidential research study, then the researcher could be called to account for a breach of confidentiality. By virtue of the written consent, the research participant would have grounds to hold the researcher responsible, and the transparency provided by documentation makes it possible to do so.

For two reasons, confidentiality and transparency do not generally conflict in public health. First, transparency relates to the process of data collection, analysis, and archiving, whereas confidentiality relates specifically to the data (i.e., the content). Second, any apparent conflict between confidentiality and transparency is always easily resolved because confidentiality trumps transparency, except in the rare circumstance where the researcher is legally required to breach confidentiality.

Colin L. Soskolne

Lee E. Sieswerda

(see also: Codes of Conduct and Ethics Guidelines; Confidentiality; Ethics of Public Health; Informed Consent; Practice Standards )


Gellermann, W.; Frankel, M. S.; and Ladenson, R. F. (1990). Values and Ethics in Organization and Human Systems Development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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accountability (ă-kownt-ă-bil-iti) n. (in nursing) the obligation of being answerable for one's own judgments and actions to an appropriate person or authority recognized as having the right to demand information and explanation, according to the terms of reference of the NMC Code of Professional Conduct (see NMC code of professional conduct: standard, The). A registered practitioner (nurse, midwife, health visitor) is accountable for her or his actions as a professional at all times, on or off duty, whether engaged in current practice or not.