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February 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 5

Commentary / Needed: An Updated Accountability Model

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If you're in charge and someonewho works for you isn't doing thejob you hired them to do, you holdthem accountable. If you pointout that they're not delivering andthey still don't buckle down, you getsomeone who will do the job. Simple,right?
It must have seemed that simpleto the framers of No Child LeftBehind (NCLB) in 2001. They wereangry people, both Republicans andDemocrats. For years, leaders ofboth parties had poured more andmore money into federal programsfor disadvantaged students, at a rategreatly exceeding the increases ininflation; yet the improvements in reading performance,for the studentpopulation as a whole and for disadvantagedstudents in particular,had been modest or flat. It appearedthat the money had gone down a rathole, and Congress was ready to holdschools accountable. Under NCLB, themoney for school improvement wouldstill flow, but if the students were noton track to reach full proficiency by2014, schools could be closed, principalscould be replaced, and teacherscould be fired. It was time, Congressthought, to get tough.
Accountability became the nation'stop school improvement strategy.When NCLB was passed, that accountabilityfell on the school. When theObama administration implementedRace to the Top in 2009, that target shifted; now teachers would be heldaccountable on the basis of their students'scores on standardized tests ofbasic skills.
NCLB marked a sea change in therelationship between government andeducation in the United States. Up tothat point, it had been clear that thestates were in charge of educationpolicy, with the federal governmentproviding aid to the states. Now thefederal government was in the driver'sseat, and it was determined to makesure that it got value for its money.
It hasn't worked out very well. After10 years of test-based accountability,test scores are still flat. There's noindication that the performance ofdisadvantaged students is improving(Jennings, 2013); one nation afteranother is surpassing the United Statesin the Programme for InternationalStudent Achievement (PISA) rankingsof student performance; and we're stillamong the handful of nations withthe highest cost per student in elementaryand secondary education inthe world (Organisation for Economic Co-operationand Development,2013).
It would be bad enough if thisstrategy just hadn't worked. But it'sworse than that. Good teachers areleaving our schools in droves, citingtest-based accountability as a principalcause (Ingersoll, Merrill, & Stuckey,2014). Applications to schools ofeducation are plummeting (Sawchuk,2014), in part for the same reason.One can reasonably argue that test-basedaccountability not only hasfailed to make things better, but hasactually made things much worse.

An Obsolete Model

I believe the problem is not the ideaof accountability per se, but rather themodel of accountability we are using.That model is grounded in a theoryof industrial management that mayhave made sense a century ago, but nolonger makes any sense at all.
Factory work in the early decades ofthe 20th century was dirty, dangerous,exhausting, and often just plainboring. Few jobs required much skillor craftsmanship. To meet the needsof the industrial economy, schoolswere only expected to educate their students to basic literacy standards.School districts hired superintendentsto manage schools in the same waythat much-admired industrialistsmanaged their companies. There wasno reason to go to the expense of educatingteachers to university standards;the assumption was that quantity wasmuch more important than quality andthat docile and cheap teachers, toldwhat to do by management, would beable to do the job.
Following World War II, thecommon schools became lesscommon. As the suburbs developed,far more was invested in the sons anddaughters of the wealthy, who gotexcellent teachers and the best facilitiesand were expected to go on to fillthe professions and run governmentand private enterprise. The kids inworking-class communities got thebasic skills, which was enough to givethem a ticket to the growing middleclass. Although the sons and daughtersof former American slaves, AmericanIndians, and others were largelydenied access to decent schools, thesystem as a whole was very efficient,producing a remarkably successfulcountry for the majority of its citizens.
By the 1970s, however, events inthe global economy would renderthe cheap-teacher model obsolete.Employers the world over were discoveringthat they could produce goodsand services wherever they could getthe least-expensive workers at theskill level needed to do the work.Global labor markets developed. Atthe same time, advances in technologywere making it possible to automatethe routine jobs that had providedemployment to millions of Americansa century ago—the very jobs theeducation system had been designedaround.
The result has been a disaster forworking Americans who bring onlybasic literacy to the labor force. Theskills they offer often make themunemployable or only employable atpoverty wages. As a result, the masseducation system, which was designedto produce graduates with only thoseskills, is obsolete. We now need asystem that can produce far better-educatedgraduates, people whosework cannot be automated or shippedoverseas. For the first time in thehistory of the United States, the futuredepends on educating all children tostandards previously reserved for onlya select few.
That goal simply cannot be metwith the cheap-teacher industrialmodel. It can only be accomplishedby highly trained teachers who aretrusted to exercise their judgment andwho are treated as true professionals.And this new model is precisely whatthe world's top-performing educationsystems have adopted.

A Little Theory

What does all this history have to dowith accountability? Everything. It's allabout assumptions.
A century ago, few jobs were intrinsicallyrewarding. Most managers, not unreasonably, assumed that workerswould slow down and shirk theirresponsibilities unless employersheld them strictly accountable for thenumber of hours they worked and thenumber of widgets they produced.Workers, these managers assumed,would need close supervision andstrong extrinsic incentives to perform.
In 1960, Douglas McGregor, anMIT professor, called that assumption"Theory X." He posited that managerscould make a different assumption—that workers are ambitious, arewilling to work hard, want to takepride in their work, and with someencouragement can be very creative.McGregor thought the managers hewas training would get a lot moreout of their workers if they embracedthis assumption, which he called"Theory Y."
Almost a decade later, in The Age ofDiscontinuity, Peter Drucker (1969)said that the future belonged to countriesthat hired knowledge workers todo knowledge work. Unlike blue-collarworkers, who expected a fair day'spay for a fair day's work, knowledgeworkers expected an extraordinaryday's pay for an extraordinary day'swork. Instead of needing to be closelysupervised, knowledge workers applied a wealth of knowledge andskill to solve unique problems.
Recently, in Drive, Daniel Pink(2011) pulled together the literaturethat stands on the shoulders ofDrucker's iconic book. The old carrot-and-stick methods that industrial engineersdeveloped a century ago, he said,don't work anymore. Today's highlyeducated, professional workers need tobe able to find meaning in their work,autonomy on the job, and the opportunityto continually develop newskills and conquer new challenges.They're capable of great things, butonly if they're treated as professionals.

From Theory to School Practice

In the field of public education, implementingTheory Y would require awhole new approach to the teachingprofession. We'll need to attract themost high-performing high schoolgraduates into teaching. For that tohappen, we'll need to make teachinga high-status profession. Colleges ofeducation will need to be a lot harderto get into, teachers will need to havedeep understanding of the subjectsthey teach, and they will have to spenda lot of time mastering their craftunder the tutelage of master teachers.The standards for student performancewill have to go way beyond basicskills, and the tests we use to measurethe acquisition of those skills willhave to capture a far wider range ofstudent performance than the cheap,computer-scored,multiple-choice testswe have used for a long time.
In addition to these necessarychanges, we need to transform the waywe manage our schools. The essentialingredient of the new model ofaccountability is career ladders leadingto the position of master teacher, aposition that pays as much as schoolprincipal. For the first time, this wouldmake it possible for teachers to have a real career in teaching and to earnthe kind of recognition, status, pay,authority, and responsibility thatmembers of all the high-status professionsget if they make the enormouseffort to stay at the top of their gamethroughout their professional lifetime.
When advancement depends onincreasing professional competencerather than time on the job, when thejob a teacher has on the last day inthe classroom is nolonger the same jobthat teacher had onhis or her first day inthe classroom, whenpeople know that theperson who leads otherteachers in their workin the school not onlyreceived a rigorousuniversity educationbut also worked to getbetter and better athis or her craft, whena beginning teacher'spay is comparable to abeginning engineer'sand goes up only asa teacher goes up thecareer ladder—then,and only then, willwe be able to attractto our schools largenumbers of youngemployees that Googlewould have beenproud to recruit.The top-performingcountries do this at a fraction of ourcost (Organisation for Economic Co-operationand Development, 2013).
The way a school implementscareer ladders matters. Most of thetop-performing nations have teacher-pupilratios comparable to ours, butthey have larger class sizes (Organisationfor Economic Co-operation andDevelopment,2012). Teachers spend about a quarter of their time workingcollaboratively with one another,rather than facing students in theclassroom. In the best of these systems,all teachers, except those at the top ofthe career ladder, have mentors.
In many countries—among themJapan, mainland China, Hong Kong,and Singapore—teachers meet frequently,often weekly, by grade and bysubject taught. Teachers in the upperranks of the careerladder put teams ofteachers together andlead them. These teamsanalyze the data onstudent performance,figure out what'sworking and what'snot, determine whatpriorities they want towork on, do extensiveresearch about theissue, develop newunits of curriculumor new approaches toinstruction on the basisof the research, andbuild prototypes of thenew approaches.
Master teachersdemonstrate the newlesson or teachingtechnique while otherteachers critique them,and then they all goback to work to perfectit until they get it right.They repeat the sameprocess, over and over again, in otherareas where the data suggest theycould improve. They are continually inone another's classrooms, taking notesand talking with one another aboutwhat they've seen (Tucker, 2011;2014a).
This model provides the structuredfeedback—not from mentors alone,but from many colleagues, all the time—that is essential to becoming anexpert in any field (Tucker, 2014b).Everyone knows who is a spectacularteacher, who is getting better, who istrying but is not likely to improve, andwho has given up. The spectacularteachers and those who are gettingsteadily better go up the career ladder,and the ones at the bottom feel compelledto leave.
Being a good teacher is essentialto progress up the ladder, but it's notenough. One also has to show that oneis a good mentor and leader of others.Slackers don't survive in this environment.That outcome is not decreedand enforced by school administratorsor by policymakers—it's the result ofa professional culture in which everyprofessional is accountable to theother professionals.

A Different Kind of Accountability

The United States has been tryingto squeeze blood out of a turnip.It has been unable to improve itsschools, despite enormous increasesin spending, because it has failed torecognize that the management modelit adopted 100 years ago to meet theeducation needs of a burgeoningindustrial society has exhausted itsusefulness. This model cannot producethe results we now require, no matterhow much money we throw at it.We need another model of schoolingwith its own form of accountability—one that can get the best out of trueprofessionals.
The model I have just described is aprofessional development system, anaccountability system, and a continualimprovement system. It is a professionaldevelopment system embeddedin the way the school is organized anddoes its work. It is a model of howaccountability works in a professional,not a blue-collar, work environment.It is spectacularly successfulat improving both professional competenceand student performance. Whatis the biggest difference between thissystem and test-based accountability?This system works.

Drucker, P. (1969). The age of discontinuity:Guidelines to our changing society.New York: Harper.

Ingersoll, R., Merrill, L., & Stuckey, D.(2014). Seven trends: The transformationof the teaching force (CPRE ResearchReport # RR-80). Philadelphia, PA:Consortium for Policy Research inEducation.

Jennings, J. (2013, December 19). Arecurrent school reforms imperilinglong-term gains? Huffington Post.Retrieved from

McGregor, D. (1960). The human side of enterprise. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Organisation for Economic Co-operationand Development, Center for EducationalResearch and Innovation. (2013).Education at a glance 2013. Retrievedfrom

Organisation for Economic Co-operationand Development. (2012, November).How does class size vary around theworld? Educator Indicators in Focus,9. Retrieved from—N9%20FINAL.pdf

Pink, D. (2011). Drive: The surprising truthabout what motivates us. New York:Riverhead.

Sawchuk, S. (2014, October 21).Steep drops seen in teacher-prepenrollment numbers. Education Week.Retrieved from

Tucker, M. (2011). Surpassing Shanghai:An agenda for American education built onthe world's leading systems. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Tucker, M. (Ed.). (2014a). Chinese lessons:Shanghai's rise to the top of the PISAleague tables. Washington, DC: NationalCenter on Education and the Economy.Retrieved from

Tucker, M. (2014b, September 10).Tucker's lens: Dylan Wiliam on feedbackand improving the practice of teachers.Retrieved from the Center on InternationalEducation Benchmarkingat

Marc Tucker is the founder, CEO, and president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. A leader of the standards-driven education reform movement, Tucker has been studying the strategies used by the countries with the most successful education systems for three decades. He created New Standards—a precursor to the Common Core, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, and its successor, the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce; and he was instrumental in creating the National Skill Standards Board. Tucker also created the National Institute of School Leadership.

Tucker authored the 1986 Carnegie report A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century and the report of the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages, and was the lead author of Tough Choices or Tough Times, the report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. He coauthored or edited Thinking for a Living: Education and the Wealth of Nations; Standards for Our Schools: How to Set Them, Measure Them, and Reach Them; and The Principal Challenge.


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