Data-Based Accountability in Education

James W. Guthrie
Policy Analysis for California Education
Michael W. Kirst
Stanford University
Guy Benveniste
University of California, Berkeley
Walter Irving Garms
University of Rochester
Gene Dawson
University of California, Berkeley
Edward Haertel
Stanford Graduate School of Education
David Stern
University of California, Berkeley


Accountability can be part of the solution. That is, accountability can lead to school improvement. However, accountability can also be part of the problem. It can lead to gross distortions. Teaching is a complex task. Our best understanding of the learning process suggests that good teaching has to be tailored to the particular intellectual structure of each learner. This suggests the need for considerable teacher discretion. It also suggests that there is no easy way to measure effective teaching because there is no easy way to assess how different teaching strategies contribute to actual value added learning. It is difficult to know how instruction affects the extent the learner has been able to move from point A to point B. Yet we tend to believe we can assess learning achievement and therefore assess teaching effectiveness. Since we believe we know how to assess results we are prone to institute accountability schemes based on achievement testing. Some of these, in fact, do not work well, but we tend to use them more and more. One purpose of this paper is to explain how testing might be improved so that some of its deficiencies be minimized.

This paper argues that teachers are important. We begin by describing teacher performances we would all like to encourage. We want to establish a consensual nonpolemical view of the teacher's role, a starting point for discussing how to design accountability schemes. We then proceed to discuss accountability and how it can be used (1) to inform (i.e.,provide feedback), (2) to reorient action, and (3) to justify action. This leads us to a more detailed discussion of how accountability actually works. We examine the importance of establishing a linkage with teacher rewards or sanctions and the greater importance of rewards over sanctions in motivating teachers. We come to the inevitable conclusion that the teaching profession, as presently structured, does not provide sufficient incentives. Accountability with little incentives leads to little change. We recognize also that excessive use of accountability—i.e., excessive use of testing of one kind or another—tends to lower the status of the profession. We believe that accountability schemes should be parsimonious. They should enhance the quality of life among teachers and not require excessive paper work. Given these realities, we present a set of design considerations for controls that enhance the profession.

Suggested citationGuthrie, J. W., Kirst, M. W., Benveniste, G., Garms, W. I., Dawson, G., Haertel, E., & Stern, D. (1984, June). Data-Based accountability in education [Report]. Policy Analysis for California Education.