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High-Stakes Reform

High-Stakes Reform: The Politics of Educational Accountability

Kathryn A. McDermott
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 236
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  • Book Info
    High-Stakes Reform
    Book Description:

    Performance accountability has been the dominant trend in education policy reform since the 1970s. State and federal policies set standards for what students should learn; require students to take "high-stakes" tests to measure what they have learned; and then hold students, schools, and school districts accountable for their performance. The goal of these policies is to push public school districts to ensure that all students reach a common threshold of knowledge and skills. High-Stakes Reform analyzes the political processes and historical context that led to the enactment of state-level education accountability policies across the country. It also situates the education accountability movement in the broader context of public administration research, emphasizing the relationships among equity, accountability, and intergovernmental relations. The book then focuses on three in-depth case studies of policy development in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Kathryn McDermott zeroes in on the most controversial and politically charged forms of state performance accountability sanctions, including graduation tests, direct state intervention in or closing of schools, and state takeovers of school districts. Public debate casts performance accountability as either a cure for the problems of US public education or a destructive mistake. Kathryn McDermott expertly navigates both sides of the debate detailing why particular policies became popular, how the assumptions behind the policies influenced the forms they took, and what practitioners and scholars can learn from the successes and failures of education accountability policies.

    eISBN: 978-1-58901-788-7
    Subjects: Political Science
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments (pp. ix-x)
  5. List of Abbreviations (pp. xi-xii)
  6. CHAPTER ONE Scrutinizing Educational Performance (pp. 1-10)

    The author and cartoonist Dr. Seuss, best known for creating the Cat in the Hat, once produced a commentary on public-sector accountability. In Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?, he introduced readers to the predicament of the people of Hawtch-Hawtch:

    Oh, the jobs people work at! Out west, near Hawtch-Hawtch, there’s a Hawtch-Hawtcher Bee-Watcher. His job is to watch—is to keep both his eyes on the lazy town bee. A bee that is watched will work harder, you see.

    Well, he watched and he watched. But, in spite of his watch, that bee didn’t work any...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Performance-Based Accountability (pp. 11-25)

    Throughout the public sector in many countries, administrators and frontline workers have been under increasing pressure to demonstrate that their agencies are performing effectively. A vast academic literature analyzes the myriad forms of public-sector accountability and the reasons why these forms change and accumulate over time. A “new public management” has emphasized the results of government activity and has attempted to replace the many competing accountability demands with one unified system based on performance. In public education the focus on results has taken the form of policies that hold schools and school districts accountable for their students’ performance on standardized...

  8. CHAPTER THREE The Evolution of Educational Accountability (pp. 26-53)

    The forms that accountability policies take—who is accountable to whom for what—depend on the larger political context in which the policies are situated. This context generates the “institutional conditions” and “expectations” identified by Romzek and Dubnick as the forces that shape accountability (1987). To get a sense of the institutional conditions and expectations that shape educational accountability, consider Ms. Carlisle, the principal of a public elementary school. If Ms. Carlisle had her way, she would spend most of her day observing teachers and students, helping her less-experienced teachers learn the tricks of the trade, gently but firmly disciplining...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Education Standards and Performance Accountability, 1970–2001 (pp. 54-80)

    By the 1970s U.S. public schools and the people who worked in them were enmeshed in multiple systems of accountability. However, discontent with the schools’ performance was mounting. Critics charged that excessive pressure for equity had crowded out attention to excellence in education. Economic dislocation inspired elected officials to link educational improvement with economic development strategies and to seek greater control over education policy. Emphasizing schools’ performance seemed like the answer to these problems, and new kinds of tests provided a means of measuring performance. Increasingly, state policies used test scores as the basis for accountability sanctions: withholding diplomas from...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Educational Performance Accountability in Three States (pp. 81-90)

    Chapter 2 identified equity and intergovernmental relations as crucial issues for performance measurement and accountability. Chapters 3 and 4 surveyed how educational accountability has evolved in general, and how policymakers’ understanding of educational equity came to emphasize the attainment by all students of a threshold level of knowledge and skills. This conception of equity was at the foundation of the standards-based reform movement that spread through the states and the federal government beginning in the 1980s. During this period many states enacted performance-based sanctions such as graduation tests and school or district takeovers. Many states that had begun minimum-competency testing...

  11. CHAPTER SIX Education Finance and Accountability in Massachusetts: The “Grand Bargain” (pp. 91-115)

    On June 18, 1993, Gov. William Weld signed into law the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 (MERA). The signing ceremony marked the end of two years of debate over how to improve the finance and governance of public schools. A few days earlier, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had declared the state’s education finance system unconstitutional, and many school districts were in financial trouble. The press and the public thus paid most attention to how MERA addressed the fiscal issues that were facing public schools across the state. However, the rest of the bill included a major departure from...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN Accountability and Equity in New Jersey: “Where Home Rule Hasn’t Worked, the Legislature Must Do What Home Rule Has Not Done” (pp. 116-138)

    In 1986 the New Jersey legislature began considering a set of bills that would make it the first state in the United States to be able to seize control of local school districts in cases of poor academic performance and bad management. Opponents of the bills claimed that they flew in the face of the state’s tradition of home rule. State board of education president John Klagholz countered this view with the assertion in the subtitle of this chapter, expressing state officials’ frustration at some local governments’ failure to operate effective school districts (New Jersey Senate, Committee on Education 1986a,...

  13. CHAPTER EIGHT Incrementalism and Local Control in Connecticut: “I’m Not Out Looking for Your Keys” (pp. 139-164)

    In the spring of 1997 a bill that would place the Hartford Public Schools under direct state control sped through the Connecticut legislature. The original version of the bill would have given the state the power to intervene in any district that met a set of criteria for underperformance, but what reached the floor of the house and senate applied only to Hartford. At the time Connecticut Education Commissioner Ted Sergi said to the state’s school districts, “I’m not out looking for your keys” (Frahm 1997). This statement nicely summarizes the view of performance-based accountability that has prevailed at the...

  14. CHAPTER NINE Assessing Performance Accountability in Education (pp. 165-179)

    As the historical account in chapter 3 showed, public schools in the United States have always experienced accountability pressures, beginning when the first board of education members dropped in to observe the first one-room school. Since the 1970s education accountability policies have emphasized measurement of what students have learned and have increased state and federal governments’ authority to hold schools accountable. Although this book has emphasized the reasons why policymakers have found it appealing to add performance measurement to earlier layers of educational accountability, it is also important to consider the effects of performance accountability in education, not just on...

  15. CHAPTER TEN Lessons for Performance Measurement Research and Practice (pp. 180-188)

    Performance measurement has been established longer in public education than in most other policy areas, and sanctions based on performance are especially extensive in public education. Thus, study of performance measurement in education can produce insights applicable to other policy areas. This chapter begins with a review of the main points from the review of performance accountability research in chapter 2. It then considers how public education compares with other policy areas and draws general conclusions about performance accountability. Analyzing educational performance accountability highlights several general challenges for performance accountability: the identification of goals, the setting of thresholds, the role...

  16. References (pp. 189-204)
  17. Index (pp. 205-223)