Education Up Front

August 14, 2002

September 4, 2002

September 18, 2002

Accountability begins and ends at the top

What students should be learning in school and how well have they learned it are the cornerstones of school accountability, the singular issue that drives public opinion about the state of our public schools and shapes educational policy.

Everybody talks about accountability and agrees on how important it is. Trouble is, we don't always agree on how to do it accurately, or, for that matter, who should be held accountable for improving student achievement in our classrooms.

Most school districts are celebrating the recently released SAT-9 standardized test scores administered in schools this past spring. They are looking at the scores as the chief barometer of academic progress in California schools. Progress, or the lack of it, is what triggers accountability, despite the fact that few people understand the scores themselves. News stories report the scores at the district and school levels and struggle to make understandable interpretations of the numeric scores for a lay audience that has no idea what "norm-referenced" tests, "percentiles," and many other assessment terms mean.

Now, there's talk about the fate of the present standardized testing system with some wanting to scrap it altogether while others want to revise it to provide data that makes testing a more effective accountability instrument.

Included as critics of the present system has been the Business Roundtable for Education. We support the notion of standardized testing, but we have long anguished over the fact that the present testing program ignores the use of individual longitudinal matched data and instead tries to "compare" the achievement scores of two entirely different populations of students.

For example, under the present system, a group of fifth graders who attend a certain elementary school during the 2000-01 year and takes the SAT-9 is a totally different group from the fifth graders who take the test a year later at that school. The testing program doesn't track the academic progress of individual students as they proceed through the grades to see where and when effective or ineffective teaching and learning takes place.

Instead, we have advocated that districts compare each student's "pre-test" score his or her score from a SAT 9 test series of one year to the same student's "post-test" score -- his or her score from a SAT 9 score a year later to obtain matched data. Such data collected and reported in this matter over a period of several years are referred to as "longitudinal" data.

Without such an approach, we cannot obtain testing data that helps us identify where effective and ineffective teaching and learning takes place. While the matched data concept is now embraced by the National Center for Educational Accountability and is in fact being modeled in Texas, it is astounding that this common sense methodology has fallen on deaf ears in California. However, San Diego Unified has looked at a major accountability system that might move the district in this direction.

Standardized tests themselves are not the sole determinant of a sound accountability system. If we are to believe the rhetoric that education is everybody's job and that we should hold everybody concerned accountable for improved student achievement, then let's look at everybody, including those at the top of the school district leadership.

To help do so, I've given some thought of late to a "District Leadership Report Card" that assesses the effectiveness of district superintendents and their senior administrators and perhaps school board members. Such an annual report card would measure progress in several district-level functions and responsibilities that impact student achievement at individual school sites.

Areas to be assessed might include the following:

  • Leadership/district culture How well do district leaders empower others to help shape school culture and climate as well as mutual understanding of and respect for multi-cultural and ethnic differences?

  • Policy and governance Is teamwork used to formulate internal and external district policy? Have expectations of performance and good school governance been demonstrated to site staffs, students, and the community?

  • Communications and community relations What is the district leadership's track record in establishing effective two-way communications with students, staff, and parents as well as the community as a whole? Are there good relationships with the news media? Is there in place ways to obtain and respond to community feedback and build community support for the district?

  • Organizational management How effective are district leaders in gathering and analyzing data for decision making and making recommendations to their boards? How well does the district meet internal and external "customer" expectations and allocate district resources?

  • Curriculum planning and development How current are district leaders with the latest designs in curriculum, teaching, learning, and testing theories? How does the district use electronics and other technology tools?

  • Instructional leadership How effective are the district's teaching techniques in place and how are instructional resources used to maximize student achievement? How are research and best practices applied?

  • Human resources management Is there an effective staff performance evaluation system in place that applies ethical, contractual, and legal requirements for personnel selection, development, retention, promotion, and dismissal?

  • Values/ethics of leadership Do district leaders model appropriate value systems, ethics, and moral leadership? Is there evidence of multi-cultural and ethnic understanding coordination with social agencies and human services to help students grow up as caring and informed citizens?

  • Labor relations How well do district leaders provide technical advice and keep their board apprised of labor negotiations? Are there productive relationships with collective bargaining units? Do district leaders administer labor contracts effectively? Are they abreast of legislative changes affecting collective bargaining and do they develop bargaining strategies based on those new laws?

  • District goals Do district leaders strive for and attain district goals adopted by their board? Do they report progress towards these goals on a regular basis to their board and general public?

    It's a safe bet that the notion of a report card that holds district leadership accountable will not be well received. However, accountability, if it is to be effective, begins at the top of any organization. School districts and school boards included.

    Hovenic, Ed.D, is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. She can be contacted at

  • August 14, 2002

    September 4, 2002

    September 18, 2002