[This article was published in The Canadian School Executive, Dec. 1982]


School accountability: from defensiveness to disclosure

By Tunya Audain

I know it’s wishful thinking, but wouldn’t it be nice to know what schools are doing? And how well they are doing? Wouldn’t parents feel much more confident as they send their children to school? Wouldn’t taxpayers feel they are supporting a worthwhile cause?

In an era of cutbacks wouldn’t we all feel better if we knew that essential tasks were being carried out and that priorities in education were still being met?

Most parents admit they are poorly informed and easily bamboozled concerning the educational enterprise. Taxpayers usually get sensationalist impressions from the media, but even those who dare to question directly are equally befuddled and given the run-around. This is not to say that school people necessarily conceal information, or that they are nasty to customers. They are generally nice. “But, it’s like dealing with a marshmallow,” some say, “soft and sweet and bouncy. And, nothing to bite on.”

The amount of defensiveness by school people seems to be increasing. In the face of lack of accurate information about schools, it is not beyond one’s imagination to suspect a cover-up for covert and shady happenings, for damage to children, or for mismanagement. Whatever, there seems to be little pride or interest in sharing school information.

But, however frustrated consumers become, they at least expect that the policy-makers are equipped with facts and figures. But are they? Are the policy-makers–the school board members and legislators–adquately informed for their role in guiding schools? Do they have the tools to deal intelligently with questions of accountability and responsiveness? Probably not.

Acountability thwarted

It should be a scandal, but it’s not, that the school system has run for 200 years largely on blind faith and trust. The accountability efforts of the Seventies were meant to go beyond simple trust and tried to elicit hard data about standards, performances, cost-effectiveness, and goal attainment. But they were generally thwarted by the educational establishment.

While some plans were ill-designed and deserved to die, others failed for lack of internal enforcement, resistance, and indifference. As long as the public school system operated as a near monopoly, it had its captive audience and took its cutomers for granted. As long as administration was composed of educators who survived and worked their way up the ladder, the mind-set was generally “teacher knows best”, be it in the classroom, the office, or the board room. Consultation and accounting the customer was foreign and unthinkable.

Today parents in particular are resentful that cuts are made in total absence of any consultation with the public. Not only that, but the cuts are made without reference to any visible goals, plans, criteria, or standards. Political expediency, the retention of jobs, and maintenance of administrative levels seem to take precedence over student and parent priorities. This happened a few years back when declining enrolments took educators by surprise. And it’s happening again. How long will parents and the public continue to tolerate self-serving, irrational decision making in education?

Accountability revived

The earlier calls for accountability led, as one result, to increased teacher unionization. Teachers felt threatened. Protection lay in large organizations. But other outcomes also resulted.

Peter Hennessy, with many years of experience in Ontario schools, describes in Schools in Jeopardy how teacher militancy contributes to widespread disillusionment, anger, and despair, and to increased parental concern over the quality of education. Teacher collective bargaining, which ignores matters of competence, he says, “violates the best of the educational tradition with its supposed stress on quality and fine tuning.”

In 1977, Daniel Yankelovich made extensive studies of the American family. He found that four out of 10 parents felt that they could not rely on the schools to teach their children how to read and write. Because of information such as this and numerous polls which also revealed poor public confidence in the schools, legislators in the U.S. and elsewhere are again searching for ways to prove that schools are both responsible and responsive to their communities.

In North America we are beginning to see legislation that provides regular vehicles for parent participation in school decision making (Quebec, South Carolina, Florida. and California). In England parents are required to be part of the governing council of individual schools, and each school is to produce a prospectus of relevant information to aid parents in choosing schools and in their participation. As well, the very latest move has the Department of Education and Science earmarking in-service funds (in a period of serious restraint!) to upgrade heads (principals) in management techniques that equip them with skills in interpersonal relationships and consultation as well as other managerial tasks.

Though research serves us poorly in education (it is far too esoteric and impractical), some bits and pieces we can understand. In the field of educational governance, a 1980 study by Tucker and Zeigler is useful. They conclude that “poor responsiveness of schools, their rigidity, and their dominance by experts” is not unique. This is common to most public services run by bureaucracies. But, they say, education is the dubious leader, “a model,” in the field of conflict resolution. Where there are tensions, “the tensions will be resolved ultimately in favor of professionals.”

In other words, given the present governance models we have in education, in any dispute the public will always be the loser. The education establishment has a strong vested interest and everything on their side to maintain supremacy–even as lip service is paid to “parents are sovereign” and “lay control” rhetoric. Just as long as the public is reasonably managed, a minimum of information disclosed, it’s “business as usual.” A cynical observer might easily say the public is better managed (i.e., domesticated) than the system!

Even the periodic public fights we see between teacher unions, trustees, and governments are just more of the same incestuous infighting, which does not basically change the interlocking system of establishment control. Often it seems more like grandstanding, like “bread and circuses,” to keep the public placated and provide the illusion that there are checks and balances to protect the public interest.

My view is that as long as the public is excluded, the public interest is not protected. It is neither “seen” to be protected nor, given the Tucker and Zeigler analysis, will it ever be. The answer is accountability measures which substantially introduce the public (parents particularly) into school decision making.

In a democracy, we try hard not to leave defence policy to the military establishment. We try hard not to leave medical policies to the doctors. Why, then, in education, a field which is infinitely more sensitive as it deals with the shaping of tender minds, do we leave education decision making largely in the hands of the educational establishment?

Restraint, when every dollar must be made to count, may be the ally we seek to bring back the public into education. Defensiveness, protectionism, and exclusion of parents and public will have to be replaced by disclosure, cooperation, and closer working relationships with consumers. We will have to work in ways that clearly demonstrate that the school system is worthwhile and accountable to parents and students and the community.

How well these questions are answered will give some idea of the accountability consciousness in your area:

1. Do your schools produce a handbook for parents and students?

2. Are parents informed in concrete terms how their children are doing in the 3Rs?

3. Are there backup alternative teaching strategies to teach those students having difficulty in the 3 Rs?

4. Are student records open to parents to examine and use as background in educational planning with the school?

5. Does your school undergo periodic evaluation or accreditation? Are parents and staff and students involved? Are the results of these assessments publicly available?

6. Is there a parent group at the school which is consulted on curriculum and school climate?

7. Does the school board have a policy supporting parent involvement in schools? Is the parent community consulted on matters of significant policy, goals, budgets, and evaluation?

8. Is there a strong district program for personnel evaluation, remediation, and termination for cause? Can a parent or student trigger a “review of services” of a teacher or principal?

9. Is there a district planning process? Are there clearly stated educational goals? Is the public involved? Are results concerning achievement of goals disclosed?

10. Are teachers and administrators trained for parent and public consultation and communication?

Accountability questions will become more frequent and incisive as parents and other citizens become more skilled and confident in school relations. Legislators will be depending more on indexes of achievement and consumer satisfaction in future planning.

A recently published handbook will be useful to consumers and educators alike. Your School: How Well Is It Working? (A Citizens’ Guide to School Evaluation) is available for $4.50 (U.S.)from the National Committee for Citizens in Education, 410 Wilde Lake Village Green, Columbia, MD 21044.

Hennessy, Peter. Schools in Jeopardy: Collective Bargaining in Education. McClelland and Stewart, 1979.
Tucker, Harvey I. and Zeigler, L. Harmon. The Policies of Educational Governance: An Overview. University of Oregon, Eric Clearinghouse, 1980.

Tunya Audain is a parent who writes about education. From her home in West Vancouver, B.C., she also coordinates Education Advisory, a service promoting participation in education.

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