HIGH-STAKES STUDENTS TESTING has served as policymakers’ primary tool for holding schools accountable since the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002. The intensive focus on test scores ultimately produced a backlash, and last December Congress replaced NCLB with the Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives states substantially more flexibility to design their own accountability systems.

“This policy change makes now a propitious time to draw on the extensive evidence in behavioral science that identifies a wide range of different types of accountability, and points out that they can have different effects on performance,” says Jennifer S. Lerner, Professor of Public Policy and Management at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS).  “Policymakers have an opportunity to use the evidence from behavioral science to craft comprehensive systems that invoke a wider range of accountability tools and have the potential to provide educators with the means to improve their practice at the same time that they promote constructive incentives.”

new research study published in Behavioral Science and Policy provides such evidence.  The study, “Reimagining accountability in K-12 education,” is co-authored by Brian P. Gill, Senior Fellow, Mathematica Policy Research; Professor Lerner; and Paul Meosky, Harvard University.  They argue that a more multi-faceted and evidence-based approach – one that incorporates professional accountability – would prove a more successful method for improving public school performance.

“Since the turn of the millennium, American policymakers have tended to understand accountability in education in narrow terms,” the authors write. “The outcome-based accountability that has been the focus of policymakers’ attention has produced some positive results, but relying on it exclusively is unlikely to produce large, sustained improvements and can lead to unintended and undesirable side effects.”

The authors examine the issue through the lens of social psychology and behavioral economics, in order to broaden the discussion to include rule-based, market-based and professional accountability strategies. 

“Accountability comes in many forms,” the authors argue, “involving different mechanisms and different behavioral responses.”  The table below, reproduced from the paper, shows how different accountability types (the columns) make use of different psychological mechanisms (the rows), providing examples of specific tools that create accountability in multiple forms.

The analysis found that each of the mechanisms could help improve public school performance, in particular through an enhanced reliance on professional accountability, by making “teaching more transparent…Indeed, rich professional accountability systems emphatically reject allowing teachers complete discretion in the classroom, under the assumption that there are standards of practice to which teachers should be held.”

“We hope [policymakers] recognize that reducing a near-exclusive reliance on outcome-based accountability does not have to mean reducing accountability as a whole; that a wide range of tools are available for creating a richer accountability system that can promote continuous improvement; and that professional accountability should play an important role in that system, raising expectations for teachers and schools while providing better opportunities to meet those raised expectations,” the authors conclude. 

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