Accountability is a loaded term. Although it can mean many different things to different people, in the elementary and secondary context, the term has come to represent a set of expectations and obligations associated with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) – which has provided the overarching accountability regime in K-12 education for over a decade.

Accountability is a loaded term. Although it can mean many different things to different people, in the elementary and secondary context, the term has come to represent a set of expectations and obligations associated with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) – which has provided the overarching accountability regime in K-12 education for over a decade. Indeed, for most K-12 educators, in light of its long and somewhat tortured history, it is likely that NCLB is, in fact, among the first associations made when the topic of accountability surfaces. But that association is likely to change significantly in the next year or so – whether or not Congress and the President actually agree in 2013 on a reauthorization of that law with the establishment of a new set of federal guidelines in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. To best understand this lens on the future – and what it means for educators and policy makers – a brief history is in order.

High Standards Expectations

In the wake of a standards reform movement that galvanized among state and school system leaders in the 1980s and 1990s, the passage of the Improving America’s Schools Act and the Goals 2000 Educate America Act (both enacted in 1994) embedded a meaningful and new national focus on high standards expectations for all students. Building on those foundations, the bipartisan support and ultimate passage of NCLB heralded an even greater continuation of focus on setting expectations and obligations high – with requirements that, among other things, required disaggregation of data in the reporting and accountability for school, school system and state performance toward high standards (set state-by-state), and transparency in reporting of those results. (The two features of the law that were, as a general rule, strongly applauded.) The limitations of education systems – with insufficiently developed state data systems, as well as assessment systems that at best could capture a summative snapshot of student performance by grade, year-to-year (without actually tracking student progress over time) – presented major challenges. One such challenge was significant limitations regarding the underlying validity of the data that were to inform judgments about performance and accountability, which corresponded with a less than robust picture of the meaningful steps that should then be taken to improve systems and yield better student learning and outcomes.

In short, the NCLB Act materially but imperfectly galvanized a focus on meaningful accountability measures associated with high standards expectations, setting the stage for what is, by any estimation, a pivotal moment of transition and transformation in education policy and practice.

Transition and Transformation

There are many dimensions of action affecting this moment in time – a renewed focus and emerging consensus regarding the kinds of learning outcomes essential for success in today’s globally connected world; significant efforts to promote innovation affecting all facets of education, particularly regarding new teaching and learning strategies and opportunities; and a renewed focus on key elements of necessary systemic change, in which the roles of the federal government, the states, school systems and schools are better aligned and more coherently understood. These three dimensions are reflected in many key developments that have major consequences for educators and policy makers:

  • In a remarkably short period of time, 45 states and the District of Columbia have come together around a more rigorous set of college and career-focused common state standards, reflecting a “ground up” effort to establish important baseline expectations associated with the knowledge and skills that are demanded in today’s (and tomorrow’s) workforce.
  • A major shift from NCLB accountability is emerging on issues of testing and assessment – with a focus on a more sophisticated blend of summative and formative assessments as key foundations for improving teaching and learning, as well as on the capacity of state and school systems to track and monitor progress, by student, from year to year.
  • Correspondingly, advances in the science of testing and assessment are allowing more robust uses of test and assessment results to serve as key foundations for promoting more robust diagnostic review of school and system performance, along with the establishment of better continuous improvement strategies within schools and school systems associated with that review.
  • Technological advances are, at the same time, setting the stage for the transformation of student learning, which is increasingly personalized; reflective of a blend of teaching strategies and platforms, including online platforms; and centered both on knowledge and skills necessary to promote critical thinking, inquiry and exploration.
  • Federal policy also has reflected much of this change, with the U.S. Department of Education providing options for states to seek waivers from some of the dated NCLB requirements (in light of delays in Congressional reauthorization of that law), in an effort to promote innovation toward satisfaction of the rigorous kinds of standards established by the common core state standards.

These developments and trends do not come without challenges. Key issues associated with how the federal government appropriately defines its role among the various actors (with an appropriate accountability focus that is neither too rigid or mechanical [ala NCLB] nor too amorphous to have real meaning) must be addressed over time. And, in a related vein, ensuring that all students – including low-income students, students with disabilities and English language learners – are fully and fairly included in all facets of reform efforts remains a central point of focus.

In the end, success in achieving education goals – at the local, state and national levels – will require enhanced and good faith efforts to communicate and strategize around the many remarkable changes taking place that are literally redefining the world of education today. Everyone has a role. And all voices should be heard at this important and unique moment in time.

Arthur L. Coleman is a managing partner and co-founder of EducationCounsel LLC. Coleman has an extensive background in providing legal, policy, strategic planning and advocacy services to educators throughout the country. Prior to his current position, he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights from June 1997 until January 2000, following his three-and-a-half year tenure as Senior Policy Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights. Mr. Coleman is a 1984 honors graduate of Duke University School of Law and a 1981 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Virginia. He has served as an adjunct professor at two law schools and at one graduate school of education, and he has spoken widely and published extensively regarding legal and policy issues in education.