Areas of Expertise


Achievement Gaps
Literature Library


Can the Achievement Gaps be Overcome?

  1. How to Close the Achievement Gaps: Research and Policy

    1. Public Policy

Scholars Argue that We Can Use Educational Accountability as a Lever for Educational Justice

Researchers Linda Skrla, James Joseph Scheurich, Joseph F. Johnson, Jr., and James W. Koschoreck argue that there is "compelling evidence that the U.S. public educational system largely remains systematically racist."

This reports some of the ideas and findings from the following source:

Skrla, L., Scheurich, J. J., Johnson, Jr., J. F., & Koschoreck, J. W. (2001). Accountability for equity: Can state policy leverage social justice?International Journal of Leadership in Education, 4,237-260.

To see other reports that originated from this same citation, go to the bibliography.

Researchers Linda Skrla, James Joseph Scheurich, Joseph F. Johnson, Jr., and James W. Koschoreck argue that there is compelling evidence that the U.S. public educational system largely remains "systematically racist."

One of the main symptoms of this racism, say the authors, is the persistent and pervasive academic underachievement of non-white children.

The authors point out that racist policies or effects may not be intended by individual educators. Rather, Skrla and her colleagues talk of this racism as "institutional." That is, it is

". . . systematically embedded in the mindsets and assumptions, policies and procedures, and practices and structures of schooling rather than in the conscious or overt acts of individuals." (p. 237)

Whatever the cause, say Skrla and her colleagues, the fact remains that the blatant educational inequities are still enormously painful for the children caught in the system.

What can be done?

Broad Impact Politics Needed for Educational Equity

Skrla and her colleagues note that there are many examples of local improvement in the achievement levels of non-white children. It is not difficult to point to a school or a program that appears to have had some success in raising the achievement scores of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, the authors say, it is much more difficult to point to sustained district and statewide improvements.

It appears possible to change schools on a campus-by-campus basis, say Skrla and her colleagues. However, this tack will not do since it is much too slow. What we need, say the authors, is broad impact politics to serve as a lever for widespread, sustained improvement.

What political tool might be appropriate for this task? The authors suggest that educational accountability policies might provide realistic tools for this effort.

Can Accountability and Equity Be Combined?

Why educational accountability policies?

First, say the authors, it is a practical tool. An educational accountability movement has been in existence for a number of years and has gained in importance over the past few decades. This movement already has spawned a number of state and national policies, including:

  • national and state curricular standards
  • more use of standardized testing
  • development of new certification requirements for educators
  • highly structured personnel evaluation systems
  • fiscal accountability measures

Second, the accountability movement is both prominent and popular. Skrla and her colleagues quote another author as saying:

". . . it's a very American set of ideas: Take responsibility for your actions. Focus on results. And reap—or rue—the consequences. And these days, it can be summed up in one word: accountability. After decades of focusing on such "inputs" as how many books are in the school library and the number of computers in the classroom, American education is shining a spotlight on results. In more and more states, policymakers are moving to reward success and punish failure in an effort to ensure that children are getting a good education." (Olson 1999, 8)

If educational accountability and educational equity can be combined, then the purpose of equity can be served by using the influence and momentum of the already existing accountability movement.

Critiques of Accountability

Skrla and her co-authors are quick to point out, however, that accountability is not the perfect tool. They note several critiques of accountability efforts:

From policy analysts, politicians, and practitioners:

  • It is not clear that state accountability policies really promote more socially just schooling.
  • The entire accountability policy is problematic because it makes the scores of white and affluent school children the norm, while scores of non-whites and less-advantaged students are the problem. Race-comparative policies like this may perpetuate racist or classist stereotypes.
  • High-stakes testing and accountability is systematically disadvantageous to children of color.

From teachers, teacher educators, and researchers:

  • Classroom work is reduced to practice in discrete skills and knowledge transmission.
  • Control of the class moves from teachers to distant experts, so that teachers and students are both alienated from their work.
  • Teachers and students become interested more in external rewards for performance than internal rewards of education.
  • Attention is focused on "lower order" or basic skills rather than more important "higher order" or critical skills.
  • Curriculum is narrowed or watered down because of the emphasis on easily measured basic skills and knowledge.
  • Second-language and special education students are unfairly disadvantaged.

Skrla and her colleagues note that some of these critiques have merit. Nonetheless, they say, this does not mean that the policy tool should be rejected altogether. It is better to use a productive, if somewhat imperfect, tool that is close at hand rather than wait (forever) for the perfect policy tool to come along. In short, accountability may not be perfect for bringing about educational equity, but it does appear to be a useful tool.

Texas as a Model for Accountability and Educational Equity

What evidence is there that accountability policies can be used to improve educational equity? Skrla and her colleagues point to the example of the state of Texas. Building on the beginning of these accountability policies in 1984, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) requirements were implemented in 1991.

Accountability policies do not automatically bring about equitable education. However, under certain conditions accountability policies can foster a more just educational system. The authors say that Texas is unique among states because several of these key conditions were in place so that the system in Texas became not only more accountable but more equitable and just as well.

What are the conditions that make it possible for accountability policies to also foster educational equity? The authors list six conditions.

Conditions for Accountability Policies to Bring About Educational Equity

  1. A successful lawsuit and other legislative actions brought about limits on class size and more equitable funding between poor and wealthy school districts.
  2. All students were held accountable to the same performance criteria rather than to norm-based testing, which bases achievement on comparison to other test takers.
  3. Test scores were disaggregated by social group, and schools and districts were responsible for the equal success of all groups.
  4. The Texas Education Agency posted annual results of all school and district data (disaggregated by race, class, and gender) on the agency's Web site. This disclosure was important for groups seeking to force school improvements for disadvantaged children.
  5. The performance bar was initially set low (with a minimal pass rate for the TAAS of any group of students at 25%), but then raised incrementally to the current 50% level.
  6. Texas combined both rewards for performance and sanctions for failure to meet standards. This combination of pressure and assistance played a significant role.

How Successful Were Texas Efforts?

The bottom line, of course, is whether Texas' accountability standards really did bring about a change in the performance of non-white and impoverished groups of students. An examination of the passing rates of the TAAS between 1994 and 2000 indicate non-white and economically disadvantaged kids have all made significant progress. See Figure 1.

Figure 1. Improvement in Student Subgroup TAAS Scores between 1994 and 2000

As Figure 1 indicates, all groups made progress, but economically disadvantaged and non-white students made the most progress: 34.7% overall for African American students, 30.7% for Hispanic students, and 31% for economically disadvantaged students. While white students also improved by 19.9%, it was a much smaller increase than other racial and ethnic groups.

Education Policy for a Pedagogy of Hope

Skrla and her colleagues admit that policies of accountability are not foolproof, and in some contexts might even produce a less-equitable system. However, in their study of the Texas accountability policies and practice, they identify several crucial conditions where accountability can also work to promote educational justice.

Not using accountability policies to address the racial and class achievement gap risks a fatalistic maintenance of the status quo. This is incompatible with what the authors, following Henry Trueba, call a "pedagogy of hope"—a teaching approach that does not allow despair, negligence, disrespect, and racism. Moving ahead toward educational justice means not accepting the mindset that things have to stay as they are because the real causes of the problem are outside of our control. If the Texas example demonstrates anything, it is that, imperfect as they may be, educational policies can be used to create a more just educational system.

Other Works Referenced in the :

Olson, L.(1999). Shining a spotlight on results.Education Week, 17, 8-10.

Research Design: The authors review the policy debate surrounding the use of accountability policies to accomplish educational equity. They conclude that, under certain conditions, accountability policies can be used to narrow the achievement gap. They draw on studies of the effects of instituting student performance standards tied to the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS).


Copyright © 2007 Learning Point Associates. All rights reserved.