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February 1, 2007
Vol. 64
No. 5

All About Accountability / The Twin-Win Tactic

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      Accountability in education, as is true of accountability in any profession, is almost always spawned by skepticism—that is, by doubts about whether the professionals involved are performing satisfactorily. And when doubts arise about the competence of professionals who are paid from public funds, as is the case with those who operate our public schools, every taxpayer has a right to register dismay about the quality of schooling.
      Given the likelihood that education accountability isn't apt to evaporate soon, it makes sense for educators to try to mold accountability-related policies that have a positive, rather than a negative, effect on education. Unfortunately, a substantial number of existing accountability policies are flat-out harmful to students. We need to do our best to change them.
      One obvious flaw is the way most states have chosen to implement the assessment provisions of No Child Left Behind. For accountability purposes, officials in most states have chosen to administer tests that are unable to show whether teachers' instructional quality is blindingly brilliant or truly tawdry. Because students in these states need to attain ever-higher performance on the tests each year, some teachers have, in desperation, succumbed to classroom practices that harm kids. For example, they subject their students to mind-numbing and seemingly endless test-preparation exercises that soon stamp out the joy that students can, and should, experience while they're learning. The culprits in this destructive, kid-harmful caper are not the test-harassed teachers. Rather, the fault lies with a boneheaded policy calling for a state's schools to be evaluated using accountability tests that cannot detect teachers' instructional prowess.
      I have often urged educators to try to get that policy altered. Recently, a number of readers—exercising the magic of electronic mail—have relayed doubts to me regarding their ability to make a difference in changing existing accountability policies, even those policies that adversely affect students.
      Well, I've never said that altering an indefensible education policy would be easy. It isn't. But before tossing in the policy-changing towel, educators should try one promising approach: the twin-win policy-changing tactic. The twin-win tactic requires the careful crafting of a new policy—a replacement for the kid-harming one in place—that is unarguably in the best interest of students and patently in the personal best interest of the individuals adopting the policy.
      To illustrate, suppose a recently board-appointed state superintendent of schools, dismayed with many students' negative sentiments toward schooling, pushes through a policy requiring all districts to install twice-a-year assessments of students' attitudes toward learning. The superintendent's staff also supplies districts with guidance regarding how to anonymously measure students' affect and how to deal with affect instructionally. As a consequence of this initiative, not only do students' sentiments toward education improve—because classroom teachers begin paying more attention to affect—but the new superintendent is lauded as the architect of a low-cost but clearly beneficial intervention.
      Almost everyone wants to be successful. Be assured that policymakers also feel this very human need. So think for a moment. Wouldn't a district superintendent, a member of a local school board, or even a state superintendent of schools prefer to be associated with successful rather than sour education endeavors, with policies that help kids rather than harm them?
      In selling the double virtues of the replacement policy you are advocating, you must employ a reasonable degree of finesse when “helping” a decision maker recognize the personal dividends inherent in the new policy. In this instance, blatancy is not a recommended persuasion ploy. But don't be so darned subtle that the decision maker you are targeting completely misses the self-interest point linked to your recommended policy. In other words, stress the legitimate kid-beneficial aspects of your proffered policy, but sprinkle in occasional allusions to meaningful dividends for the decision makers involved. These dividends may be personal, as in enhanced self-esteem for having done something “right,” or they may be political, as in receiving public kudos for having initiated a beneficial school intervention.
      You can tackle the formulation and promotion of more defensible accountability policies either on your own or, more potently, in conjunction with a professional association. I recently spent considerable time with the Wisconsin chapter of ASCD and was encouraged to see how their members are systematically planning to influence their state's education policymakers regarding such accountability-related issues as the need for more state-supported instructionally diagnostic assessments.
      If you believe that your district or your school has kid-harmful accountability policies in place, try the twin-win tactic. Be sure the replacement policy you tout will, indeed, be better for students than the current policy. And because state and federal legislators aspire to be reelected, show them how, by supporting your new policy, they can become the architects of a policy destined to benefit students. You won't need to remind them that parents vote.
      And if, in the end, you don't get a venomous accountability policy changed, at least you'll have done your best to do so. That's a failure to be proud of.

      James Popham is Emeritus Professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. At UCLA he won several distinguished teaching awards, and in January 2000, he was recognized by UCLA Today as one of UCLA's top 20 professors of the 20th century.

      Popham is a former president of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the founding editor of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, an AERA quarterly journal.

      He has spent most of his career as a teacher and is the author of more than 30 books, 200 journal articles, 50 research reports, and nearly 200 papers presented before research societies. His areas of focus include student assessment and educational evaluation. One of his recent books is Assessment Literacy for Educators in a Hurry.

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