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Yes, accountability matters, and it matters for students, teachers and principals

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Twelve years later, where are we?

By Bill McKenzie

That's the question surrounding the school accountability movement, which came to the public's attention in a big way on January 8, 2002. President George W. Bush traveled that day to Ohio to sign the No Child Left Behind Act. Shortly after that, he went to Senator Ted Kennedy's hometown of Boston to discuss the law he and his bipartisan partner created.

The premise of No Child is as it sounds: Schools should not leave any child behind. Sounds simple, even Mom and apple pie-ish. But the principle is anything but flag-waving, sentimental stuff. It is fundamental to the economic and social mobility of every American child, not just the wealthy and the privileged. And it is central to whether our economy can develop new products, markets and higher rates of growth.

At the time of No Child's signing, there was a bipartisan consensus that schools should raise the expectations of their students, measure their growth annually and be held accountable for their students' progress -- or lack thereof. You had Democrats like Ted Kennedy and, yes, Republicans like George W. Bush signing onto this concept. And you had them at the state level, too. For example, going back to the 1980s, Democrats as well as Republicans in Texas backed higher standards for the state's campuses.

Now, a revolt has started to occur against school accountability. You see that in the pushback in states like Kansas and Connecticut against the Common Core benchmarks. (Common Core is the set of education standards many states have embraced over the last few years.) You saw it here in Texas last year, when both parties in the Legislature went after the system of tests that was set up to determine whether high school students actually understood the material in their core courses. And you see it on Capitol Hill, where very few members embrace the accountability push of the past.

In the future, we will have more time on this blog to discuss the ins-and-outs of that revolt. But here's what I hope we don't forget about why school accountability matters.

First, and this is the most critical point, evaluating schools helps students. That reality often gets lost in the discussion about testing. But, the fact is, assessing students annually allows principals and teachers to see whether a child is learning at the appropriate level.

Of course, schools have long tested students throughout the year. But the state exams that are a central requirement of No Child determine whether a child is grasping the material that the state itself wants them to understand.

If they are mastering the material, then that is great for the students and schools. If they are not, the tests help campuses see where a child needs help. They also provide states information about which schools need attention, even intervention. More than that, they give schools data about which groups of students are progressing and which are not.

Here is where accountability especially can help low-income students. By breaking data down into smaller "subgroups," educators can see which students are performing up to par and which are not. Equally important, parents can see how their children are stacking up against other students.

The second important point about an accountability system is that it can help teachers get the professional development they need to move their students ahead. This point also often gets overshadowed, but the spotlight on performance can allow them to improve. Accountability is not some way to punish teachers or a big game of gotcha. It is a way to help them improve their craft.

The same is true for principals, which is the third important point about accountability. Once a school's data is known, principals can argue for the resources to improve. Or they can point to the data to show why previous investments were worth the bucks.

To be sure, No Child and the accountability system it spawned have not worked perfectly. And they have not always been implemented as intended.

So, there are ways to refine No Child. Several runs have been made on Capitol Hill to do that, although sadly the bipartisan environment of 2002 is not there.

We will be talking more about the next leg of school accountability in this space in the weeks ahead. But, twelve years later, there is an essential point to remember: A good accountability system can help students, educators and principals.