The Evolution of Accountability: Look Who's Accountable Now

We hear a great deal these days about “accountability” in the academy. Many states (including South Carolina, where I try my best to be a “responsible” college administrator) have some kind of state law mandating that public schools—and, in some cases, colleges—demonstrate that they are indeed “accountable.”

Typically, this means that institutions file reports that show the institution to be in compliance with certain standards as demonstrated by statistical assessments. (Remember that the art of statistics is the ability to draw a perfectly straight line from a faulty assumption to a fallacious conclusion.) Who could be opposed to “accountability,” a term as revered as “Mom” and “apple pie”? But dig deeper and some might wonder: Who is accountable to whom for what?

It might be helpful for academic leaders to reflect on such questions. It seems to me that the concept of educational accountability has morphed through several murky, even mysterious, stages, in less than a straight line from assumptions to conclusions:

Stage #1—The Parent is accountable. One of the earliest educational laws in colonial America was a statute in 1642 in Massachusetts, declaring that “the great neglect of parents … in training up their children in learning” could result in the court assessing fines to said parents. Churches also took on a major role in ensuring that students were accountable for certain values in the young. Only after the development of schools in the 18th century did accountability for student learning shift elsewhere.

Stage #2—The Student is accountable. Once students became the charges of public schools, the expectation was that they would follow the established curriculum, standards of behavior, and evaluation processes. Parents would get report cards showing progress, and if a student was punished in school, the parents would follow suit at home. Such accountability concepts assumed that teachers, administrators, and school board members would make the rules and issue the judgments.

Stage #3—The Teacher is accountable. By the middle of the 20th century, testing of students was joined by testing of teachers. Certification of teachers by states often mandated successful passing scores on such standardized tests as the National Teacher’s Exam (now itself morphed into the PRAXIS exams developed by the Educational Testing Service). By this time, state departments of education, other governmental agencies, and accrediting bodies were requiring teachers to be accountable for their professional and academic knowledge and performance. State dismissal laws specified “just cause” for firing “incompetent” or “unfit” teachers.

Stage #4—The Institution is accountable. This is our current stage, and it extends from the pre-K level through higher education. Today the entire educational system is being held accountable, not merely for the quality of its faculty, curriculum, and facilities (so-called inputs) but also student learning, behavior, and success—in the school and beyond. To enforce this latest form of educational accountability, institutions have developed elaborate planning and assessment mechanisms and face increasing levels of inspection to see if “student learning outcomes” have been achieved. If not, accreditation, funding, and reputation are in jeopardy. And now the federal government is itching to make colleges accountable to it.

So, academic leaders, what is next? I have no idea. Dealing with the responsibilities of institutional accountability for learning outcomes keeps me too busy to speculate on the future of this “conundrum” for administrators.

What future do YOU see for accountability in higher education? Please leave your comments below.

Thomas R. McDaniel is a professor of education, senior vice president, and acting dean of graduate studies at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C.

Excerpted from Parting Shot: The Accountability Conundrum, Academic Leader, Feb. 2007.