Demanding Accountability at the State Level

July 15, 2013 • Demand Accountability

This summer, we’ll be exploring new research and best practices within each of our six policy recommendation areas. As we compile this information, we will be publishing updates on our findings, starting with this blog about the need to demand accountability at the state-level.

The word “accountability” is one that often comes up as part of the education reform discussion. “Accountability” describes an organizational structure in which authority is traded for the responsibility of meeting certain predetermined expectations. When accountability systems are implemented properly, standards and expectations are made clear upfront, and individuals at every tier of a hierarchy are given enough autonomy to be able to make meaningful changes in exchange for being held responsible for meeting those standards and expectations. In schools, for instance, implementing an accountability systems would make each student responsible for her own learning, each teacher responsible for the learning within his classrooms, and each principal responsible for the learning within her school, while giving them all some level of autonomy to make decisions and institute change.

Ideally, that same system should extend all the way up to the state level because, in order for education reform to be lasting and consistent across the state, we need our state department of education (SDE) to have enough authority and autonomy to make sure that everyone works toward the same high expectations. In other words, the SDE will need to reshape itself into a model of accountability that can monitor, report on, and when necessary, intervene in, the progress being made across the state.

And, indeed, the role of state departments of education has shifted in America. These entities were initially built mostly to allocate federal and state funds to local school districts and to ensure compliance with regulations;they were not originally built to set strategies to improve academic achievement. (For more on this history, see, for example, this article by the Center for American Progress.) But since No Child Left Behind began asking states to hold themselves accountable to grade level standards, and since Race to the Top has asked states to actively oversee district and school performance—the role for departments of education has changed. Instead of asking them to serve only as compliance monitors, we are now asking them to implement new policies and track their outcomes, compete with other states to improve outcomes for students, and intervene in low-performing schools and districts. In other words, we are asking departments of education to do a whole new kind of work—we are demanding accountability from them.

In order for the SDE to be successful in meeting these new expectations, it will need a makeover. It will need to restructure itself and develop a tight, hierarchical reporting system in which supervisors are held accountable for ensuring that their supervisees’ accomplish their goals. It will need to develop meta-goals with offices that are established around these goals and that report, hierarchically to the Commissioner, and then the Governor. It will need to launch a concerted effort to bring in talent and expertise that will allow it to fulfill new and unfamiliar roles within each of these offices.

In Connecticut, the SDE has begun to signal that it is inching towards this type of makeover. For instance, it has been reorganized to include a school turnaround office and a school talent office, both of which report to the Commissioner. Also, at the end of last month, Governor Malloy also signed Executive Order No. 35, which established the Office of Early Childhood (OEC) to oversee the delivery of early childhood services in Connecticut. What was once a disjointed and ineffectively monitored system of early childcare will now be replaced by a centralized system designed to develop expertise, monitor progress, and be accountable for improvement.

Both the reorganization of the SDE and the creation of the Office of Early Childhood are signs the state is moving in the right direction. The next step in building an accountability system that works will require the state to fill the critical leadership roles in these offices with individuals who have the expertise and support they need to institute meaningful changes that will drive reform forward.