Managing the intersection of internal and external accountability

Michael S. Knapp (Education Leadership and Policy Studies, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA)
Susan B. Feldman (Research Center for Learning and Leadership, Vancouver, Washington, USA)

Journal of Educational Administration

ISSN: 0957-8234

Publication date: 10 August 2012



The purpose of this paper is to direct attention to the intersection of external and internal accountability systems within urban schools, and the role of school leadership, especially that of the principal, in managing this intersection. In particular, the paper explores how school leaders are able to strengthen and sustain the school's internal accountability system, in pursuit of school‐defined learning improvement agenda, and at the same time respond productively to external accountability demands. The paper also seeks to identify consequences of these leaders’ efforts to navigate an often problematic set of converging demands.


This paper draws on findings from a larger multi‐case study of learning‐focused leadership in 15 schools in four urban school districts in the USA. Schools were chosen to represent those that were “making progress” (by local measures). Data were collected over 18 months, spanning two school years, from Spring 2007 to Fall 2008. Data collection included multiple site visits, semi‐structured interviews and observations of leadership activity across school and district settings, and a variety of documentary evidence.


Though working in substantially different contexts, these leaders found remarkably similar ways of crafting tools and creating occasions, from the array of external accountability demands and resources, to serve internal accountability purposes. They did so by internalizing external expectations and developing accountable practice within the school, leading through data, and modelling what it meant to learn to lead in a fully accountable way. As they did so, they reshaped the scope of instruction and the instructional improvement conversation, and also made teaching and leadership practice more public.


This paper extends discussions of school‐level accountability in two ways. First, it updates scholarship on accountability by examining school‐level responses at a time five years into the new accountability context in the USA defined by strict system‐wide expectations and mechanisms. Second, the paper demonstrates ways in which the often onerous demands of external accountability systems can be treated as a resource by school leaders and used in ways that bolster the school's capacity for accountable professional practice.



Knapp, M. and Feldman, S. (2012), "Managing the intersection of internal and external accountability", Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 50 No. 5, pp. 666-694.

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Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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