It is a feature of the American system of education that the local school board has control of how students are educated. This local control promotes a kind of accountability that feels like each of our communities has their hand on the pulse of their child’s education. The real problem however is the amount of professional education knowledge available at the local level is dependent on who shows up to run for the school board, who gets hired as the principal and how strong is the funding for the school.
With the rise of federal oversight beginning with Head Start and a bunch of laws in the 1960s, the potential policy clash between local and federal ideas for great education began to develop. Fifty years later we can see the federal rules rubbing up against the local rules and the resulting confusion in defining what is accountability.
What is accountability? Well it changes depending on your perspective. From a parent’s point of view, we want to understand which school to send our child to, how that school will help our child get ahead and what it costs. From a federal point of view we want to understand how to help schools improve, how we can compare different types of schools and where we should allocate more federal money to help.
In the latest ESSA bill, balancing these two ideas of accountability, has resulted in a shift from the perception of too much oversight by the feds, to more local control. In the fifteen years that were ruled by the previous No Child Left Behind law, the federal role was to increase testing, increase standards, and increase the evaluation of teachers for their student’s test scores. The new bill, ESSA, is now an attempt to re-think how these ways of improving schools may have had a negative affect, and how we might use local control to do a better job of promoting real improvement. Only time will tell how well we have re-balanced accountability.