Supporting Continuous Improvement in California's Education System

David N. Plank
Stanford Graduate School of Education


California’s new accountability system originated in the radical decentralization of power and authority from Sacramento to local schools and their communities brought about by the Legislature’s adoption of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) in 2013. Under California’s previous accountability policies and the federal “No Child Left Behind” law, the state set performance targets for schools and districts based almost entirely on students’ standardized test scores. Schools that fell short of their targets were subject to a variety of increasingly harsh sanctions, ranging from designation as a “failing” school to reconstitution or closure. California’s new accountability system is different from the previous system in nearly every important respect. The new system is grounded in the concept of reciprocal accountability: that is, every actor in the system—from the Capitol to the classroom—must be responsible for the aspects of educational quality and performance that it controls.

Key Elements of California’s New Accountability System

The state has made three fundamental commitments:

  • To pursue meaningful learning for students – through the adoption of new standards and curriculum frameworks more focused on higher order thinking and performance abilities;
  • To give schools and districts the resources and flexibility they need to serve their communities effectively – through the new LCFF, which allocates funds based on student needs and allows communities to determine where the funds should be spent to achieve the best results;
  • To provide professional learning and supports for teachers and administrators – through stronger preparation and ongoing professional development.

At the same time, the state has adopted three complementary mechanisms to hold schools and districts accountable:

  • Political accountability, operationalized through Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs), created by districts with their communities, updated annually, and reviewed by county agencies. The LCAPs, intended to ensure that resources are used wisely and effectively, articulate local goals for schooling and report outcomes.
  • Professional accountability, through effective licensure, professional development, and productive evaluation, to ensure that educators deliver high-quality instructional and other services to their students, and
  • Performance accountability, to ensure continuous improvement in the performance of schools across the state’s eight priority areas, plus other priorities identified locally. The eight priority areas include student achievement, student engagement, school climate, parent involvement, provision of basic services, curriculum access, and implementation of the state’s new standards.
Suggested citationDarling-Hammond, L., & Plank, D. (2015, January). Supporting continuous improvement in California’s education system [Report]. Policy Analysis for California Education.