Strong States, Weak Schools: The Benefits and Dilemmas of Centralized Accountability: Volume 16


Table of contents

(14 chapters)

Given this casting of the problem, the logical question by the late 1980s had become, how should government craft policy tools to motivate stronger efforts by local educators? A variety of central governments in the West had tried to lift children's learning curves through new funding for particular categories of students, along with tighter regulation of how these dollars must be spent. But this assumed that legislators and education bureaucrats knew how to best organize instructional “inputs” and social relations inside classrooms. The conceptual breakthrough with the new buzz around standards-based or performance-focused reform was that government would concentrate on clarifying learning outcomes, leaving local educators to tailor school inputs and pedagogical practices. (Several chapters in this volume show how, in fact, central governments have difficulty resisting the exercise of control over output standards and input mixes.)

The design of the ISBA project was guided by an analysis of the SBA theory of action, its likely effect on educators’ work across levels of the educational hierarchy, and prior research on the impact of SBA policies on teachers’ work. We begin placing our work in the context of theoretical accounts of school organizations and the occupational norms of teaching.

We examine how school districts in California help their high schools respond to state accountability requirements. We discovered two contrasting forms of district interventions: those aiming to increase schools’ internal coherence and those encouraging direct but narrower responses to state requirements. Drawing on interviews in six districts and eight high schools, we find that many district efforts focus on immediate responses to state requirements to raise test scores. Yet, our analysis suggests that without strong district efforts to increase internal coherence, interventions aimed at eliciting school responses will be less beneficial over time.

The most recent development in the accountability movement occurred in January 2002 when the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was signed into law. Surprisingly little work has illuminated how teachers experience standards-based accountability policy. Using survey data and interviews, this chapter explores the impact of NCLB requirements, namely adequate yearly progress and needs improvement status, on teacher perceptions of working conditions, especially the use of time and empowerment. I show how the policy has led to restructuring of classroom time and increases in collaboration and yet, simultaneously, a decrease in teachers’ perceptions of empowerment.

California enacted a standards-based accountability regime in 1999, aiming to boost achievement overall and narrow gaps among subgroups. Yet we know little about the efficacy of specific accountability practices and reform tools observed by teachers and principals. The loose-coupling critique of school organizations, positing that local educators steadily buffer interventions mounted by state actors, is challenged by a selective-coupling representation where school-level actors do experience rules and incentives that encourages compliance with state advanced curricular standards, pedagogical practices, and standardized testing. After surveying educators across a band of similar elementary schools, we can account for sizeable shares of the variance in mean Academic Performance Index (API) scores among schools and in the size of achievement gaps within schools. We found that achievement levels are higher when principals report a stronger district focus on a unified curriculum and their teachers share high expectations for learning. Gaps between white and Latino students are smaller when teachers report steady attention to meeting accountability targets. Latino achievement is more sensitive to these accountability practices, compared with the performance of white students. Even after sampling schools with similar student populations, the social-class background of students continued to heavily influence achievement levels, explaining greater shares of the variance than accountability practices.

This chapter examines organizational and instructional responses of California's high schools to the introduction of a High School Exit Examination through interviews with 47 high school principals across the state. I found that most schools changed little about their organizational structure, and provided little support for students until after they failed the exam. Findings also indicate that the exit exam influenced the curriculum most significantly in low-performing schools and in low-track classes within higher performing schools. While the exit exam spurred some positive changes, it also led to unintended consequences inside classrooms.

Scholars and reform activists see district-level leaders as key actors in improving teaching and learning. This study examines the efforts of one district that successfully narrowed achievement gaps by largely focusing on teacher professional development. I employ the concepts of physical capital, human capital, and social capital as key ingredients of the process of instructional reform. I highlight the district's role in creating system-wide changes in instruction through investment in developing teachers’ knowledge and pedagogical skills.

This chapter examines one vocational high school's response to a state exit exam. Many states now require high school students to pass an exit exam before graduating, a key element of standards-based accountability reforms. Little is known about how educators and students inside vocational schools respond to these exams which typically emphasize literacy and academic skills. We examine how one such school attempted to respond to demands linked to the exit exam and the state's labeling the school as underperforming. While teachers reported support for state intervention and placing stronger demands on the school, one remedy involved becoming more selective in terms of new students admitted. As a result, tensions arose between academic subject and vocational teachers. Deep frustrations were voiced by several teachers and students about whether preparation was sufficient to ensure a reasonable pass rate. We employ a critical public policy framework to illuminate how this policy shock spurred positive action while penalizing students for years of insufficient preparation in the public schools.

Soung Bae is a doctoral candidate in the Human Development and Education program at the University of California, Berkeley. Her work examines how teacher learning and development is best cultivated and the relation between beliefs and practice.

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Research in the Sociology of Education
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
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