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December 1, 2008
Vol. 66
No. 4

Accountability with Roots

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Accountability is the catalyst that drives educational progress. But if accountability doesn't grow out of a local context, with roots in what the community values, it loses meaning.
Too frequently, educators rely on test scores as the primary measure of how well a school is doing. Externally mandated data rather than community priorities shape the public conversation about education. Newspapers publish school rankings, parents look to see how their child's school stacks up, and teachers are left to handle community pressures centered on test scores with no other measures as a balance.
We could certainly gather a multitude of data and aggregate, disaggregate, and interpret that data endlessly. But data are not informative until we see them within a social context. So Needham Public Schools initiated focus groups to determine what many sectors of the community felt was important to know about its schools.
Needham is a small homogeneous district of seven schools located 10 miles from Boston. What we learned from our focus groups surprised us and led to a reshaping of how our district communicates with the public.

Launching the Discussion—With Surprising Results

  1. What are the qualities of an excellent school or school system?
  2. What core competencies should we expect from our high school graduates?
  3. What evidence would indicate that our graduates had achieved these competencies?

What Makes an Excellent School?

  • Safety is fundamental. Every group agreed on the importance of a safe physical environment for students and teachers. Students need to feel protected from harassment and discrimination and feel safe enough to take risks academically and socially.
  • Students need to be engaged and happy. Participants unanimously believed that all students should look forward to school and develop a love of learning. They painted a picture of students eagerly attending school and excited about daily experiences—and stressed that this picture must include all students.
  • Teachers are key. All groups put good teachers—those who motivate students, care about their needs, and engage parents as partners—high on the list.
  • Good schools prepare students for the real world. Students must learn to be good citizens and develop life skills. They should know how to advocate for themselves, manage their finances, and take care of their children if they become parents. Students also need strong interpersonal skills. Participants believed that most Needham students were learning the basic academic skills necessary for success, but they were less convinced that students were gaining essential life and social skills.
  • Communication is at the heart of a good school system. In a successful school, professionals coordinate services, share information, and support students effectively as they go on to middle or high school. Communication between home and school is essential so that parents know what is going on in school, trust the institution, and can reinforce their children's learning.
  • Schools should be clean and attractive. Every group stressed that the school's buildings and grounds should be clean, properly maintained, and conducive to learning.
  • Good schools get students into good colleges. Participants wanted to know both the percentage of a school's students who attend postsecondary institutions and the particular institutions that accept a school's graduates.
  • Diversity is important. Ensuring diversity had a wide range of meanings for participants. For some, it meant encouraging minority participation in schools; for others, it meant achieving parity in achievement between the genders; and for others, showing sensitivity to different learning styles.
  • An excellent school system includes enrichment offerings and extracurricular activities. Groups talked about athletic teams, clubs, and community involvement as necessary for a good school.

What Core Competencies Should Graduates Have?

  • Personal competence. Most groups and individuals pointed to personal competence—problem solving, social communication, decision making, collaboration, and respect for others—as of first importance. To be truly successful, participants asserted, people must be self-aware, know how to manage complex emotions and situations, and be able to collaborate and relate positively to others.
  • Metacognitive skills. Stakeholders valued such skills as thinking critically, learning how to learn, conducting high-quality research, and studying effectively. All participants thought education must change in light of new digital technologies and the information explosion. Knowing how to acquire and evaluate information and apply this information in new areas, participants agreed, is more important than learning specific information.
  • Academic proficiency. The groups valued traditional academic skills, although not as highly as they valued the first two competencies. Participants highlighted oral and written communication, reading, and math as the most important skill areas, followed by science and technology.

How Can We Know That Students Have These Competencies?

Most participants said they relied on personal experiences to form opinions about local schools and whether students are achieving the competencies they value. Even group members who had no direct connection with Needham schools found conversations with friends and neighbors more telling than traditional assessment data. Almost every group indicated that the state testing program (the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) was not important to them.
Elementary parents were more interested in discussions with their children's teachers, work samples, and portfolio assessments than in grades or test scores. Parents also looked to their personal observations of their children. In addition to such informal data, parents of older students wanted information about how their children's learning compared with that of students from other communities. Parents sought data on college acceptance rates, class sizes, and test scores (particularly the SAT and advancement placement tests), as well as information about the curriculum.
People who had no direct experience with Needham's schools were more likely to want concrete data they could use to evaluate the schools (such as per pupil spending or suspension and dropout rates) than were community members with children in the schools.

Forging a New Approach

Our goal from the beginning was to communicate better with the community about its schools, including their successes and challenges. Focus group results showed that traditional measures of reporting we had used, which relied primarily on test scores, were not telling the community the whole story. So we looked for alternatives, keeping in mind what citizens told us about their preferences for data showing where students stand on the competencies they listed. With the assistance of a team of students from Harvard Graduate School of Business, we looked at a performance measurement model called the Balanced Scorecard. Developed by Robert Kaplan and David Norton and primarily used in the business world, the Balanced Scorecard model looks beyond quantitative performance data to give organizational leaders a more balanced view of an institution's performance and health. ( for more detailed information.) When leaders focus accountability only on outcomes, a quick fix often hinders long-term progress. In Needham's case, by focusing on test scores, we had neglected to share data on the aspects of student development that our community most valued.
We considered ways to report on other aspects of student development and on features of our school system that affect student performance, such as teacher professional development and school planning. We identified five areas to include in an annual performance report: (1) student performance, learning, and growth; (2) staff performance, learning, and growth; (3) financial performance; (4) educational planning; and (5) stakeholder satisfaction. The focus groups helped us see that we needed to include this last area because the community drew heavily on the satisfaction of various stakeholders in making judgments about local schools.
We developed a series of surveys that we now administer every two years to parents, staff members, and students to gauge satisfaction with the district's services, programs, and personnel. Our return rate is high enough to give a good read of community attitudes: On average, 35 percent of parents, 40 percent of alumni, and 100 percent of current students and staff members return surveys.
The focus group process and our exploration of the Balanced Scorecard model culminated in Needham School District's annual Performance Report, a 24-page document that we have mailed to all Needham households every year since 2001. We divide the report into the five performance areas. Each area is rich with objective data and analysis, including the kinds of data focus group members said would give them a clearer picture of schools. For example, the 2008 report breaks down what percentage of Needham high school students played on an athletic team or participated in school-connected arts activities; it also reports parents' responses to survey questions on school safety, among much other data. Each area also describes one or more challenges. We strive for objective reporting; each year at least 10 community members review a draft to help us eliminate any biased wording or potentially misleading presentations. ( sample performance reports.)
Although the report requires a significant time investment, it is time well spent. The process helps us evaluate our work using a wide variety of measures; look at nontraditional data (such as students' satisfaction) more deliberately; and extract meaning from aggregate data rather than from a data point here and there. It also provides an important vehicle for internal planning.
The performance report has become a valued institution in our schools and community. A recent survey indicated that more than 90 percent of parents read the report and find it useful. We often see the performance report quoted at town government meetings and in the newspaper. Taxpayer groups use its data to support campaigns for increasing school revenue. The report even helps us attract—and retain—excellent teachers and administrators.
The performance report has turned the public focus away from test scores. Parents, local leaders, and the media now more often ask us for data on things like our schools' technology planning, students' levels of risky behavior, or the district's efforts to attract a diverse teaching staff than for data on test scores. Needham's public conversation about education has changed.
End Notes

1 Fullan, M. (2007). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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