Greg Forster, Ph.D. | June 29, 2015

Choice Is the Real Accountability

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

For “accountability” in education, the 2015 legislative season is turning out to be the best of times and the worst of times.

In Washington, D.C., accountability measures in the federal education law are facing stronger opposition than they have before. In the states, however, accountability measures are gaining impressive new ground. That’s not because the political landscape is more favorable to school accountability at the state level. It’s because the federal government has a failed model of accountability based on centralized command and control, while the states are empowering parents to hold schools accountable for performance.

When Congress created the Department of Education, it specified by law that the department was not to interfere in curriculum and pedagogy. But the flow of federal money to local school districts has nonetheless created an ever-growing federal influence over schools. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

That influence was increased with the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2001, which explicitly made accountability for performance a federal concern. It was increased again when the Obama administration began making more aggressive use of the tools NCLB had given it, such as through the Race to the Top initiative, which offered states extra money to adopt policies the administration favored.

I was initially a supporter of NCLB. Test-based accountability programs adopted by a number of states in the 1990s had produced encouraging results. And I figured if the federal government is going to throw tons of money at schools anyway, it might as well get something in exchange. I still think some of the new requirements of NCLB were good ones; most valuable has been the mandate that states participate in the Nation’s Report Card—a low-stakes and unobtrusive measurement of student outcomes that provides invaluable research data—as a condition of federal funding.

On the whole, however, people now realize that NCLB was a failure.

Ambitious performance targets were set, but not met. Most embarrassing was the preposterous goal—which sensible NCLB supporters always knew was impossible—to have all students achieve proficiency by 2014. You may have noticed how well that idea has turned out.

There are two schools of thought about the failure of NCLB. One holds that NCLB didn’t go far enough. It didn’t create a strong enough regulator, didn’t punish failing schools effectively. A bigger, stronger, more all-knowing and all-powerful central authority is needed. This is the idea behind the Obama administration’s more aggressive use of NCLB tools, including Race to the Top and other overbearing initiatives.

We see now where that path leads. Suburban mothers—a politically powerful demographic, and one that is highly motivated when the well-being of its children is at stake—never really bought into test-based accountability. They are now driving a major national backlash against Washington’s aspirations to greater power over schools. As the federal education law comes up for renewal, even the most modest accountability provisions are in political jeopardy.

The other school of thought, to which I subscribe, is that accountability generally should not come from a central authority that grades schools based on test scores. Such systems can produce benefits where they are implemented locally, in places where the environment to support such a system is highly favorable—as the state programs from the 1990s showed. In general, however, a single standardized test wielded by a single central planner is too blunt an instrument.

Not only do parents reject test-based, command-and-control accountability; educators reject it. They don’t accept the system as legitimate, and don’t expect that it will actually reward better performance. So, at best, they ignore it. At worst, they “fight fire with fire” by cheating on the tests.

We need a better way to hold schools accountable. Rather than a one-size-fits-all measurement of performance, we need accountability that is customized to every child. Rather than a distant central regulator, we need decentralized authorities that are close to the schools and (even more important) to the children. Rather than technocracy, we need accountability to rest in the hands of people who have natural and organic connections to the educational activities they regulate.

In short, we need parents. They know how their schools are doing better than distant regulators in Washington or even in state capitals. They can consider not only test scores but how schools are performing on crucial qualitative dimensions like character formation and soft skills. And if they know their schools better, they definitely know their children better. They know their own children’s unique needs. And they are far better motivated to hold schools accountable than central regulators, whose motives are always political and often selfish.

That’s why school choice is having (yet another) successful year in the state legislatures. Nevada just became the 25th state to enact a private school choice program. As of this writing, four other programs have been enacted or expanded this year, and more victories are expected before the legislative season closes.

We’re familiar enough with this principle of accountability in other contexts. If a doctor or grocery store or restaurant gives you bad service, you hold it accountable by taking your business elsewhere. We do this because it respects the freedom and dignity of the customer—and also because it works. Schools are almost the only type of organization we don’t hold accountable in this way.

The fact that school choice involves public dollars is no reason to shun this morally right and highly effective approach to accountability. We give people food stamps and then let them choose where to buy their food instead of running state-owned grocery stores and creating a federal grocery regulator. One of the best policy improvements in recent history was the change in housing subsidies from government-owned “housing projects,” which were consistently horrific, to what are called “Section 8 vouchers,” which subsidize housing but let people choose where to rent.

Does school choice work as an accountability tool? You bet. A large body of high-quality research finds that these programs improve educational outcomes not only for participating students, but at nearby public schools. Out of 23 studies, 22 found that school choice improved academic outcomes in public schools. The remaining study found no visible difference. No empirical study has ever found that school choice harmed public schools.

There’s no reason we can’t hold schools accountable at least as effectively as we hold grocery stores accountable. We just have to treat parents not as troublesome political obstacles who get in the way of the experts, but as human beings who know and love their children, and are capable of making choices about their children’s well-being at least as wisely and well as they make choices about groceries. That’s accountability that works.

Greg Forster, Ph.D.


Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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