How should we hold schools accountable?

Accountability in education requires choice and competition

Educational accountability seems like a straightforward concept, but in the bureaucratic maze of modern public schooling, even the simplest things can take on Alice-in-Wonderland proportions.

In fact, the "Caucus-race" scene from Lewis Carroll's classic work perfectly illustrates the typical bureaucrat's idea of accountability. When asked by Alice what a Caucus-race is, the Dodo responds by marking out a crude, semi-circular ("the exact shape doesn't matter") racetrack. The other assembled characters, including Alice, run about the track at random until the Dodo declares the race over. Asked who won, the Dodo cries, "Everybody has won, and all must have prizes!"

Carroll apparently prefigured what today is known as "outcome-based" education, where the individuals ostensibly in charge are afraid to measure actual academic results for fear of "playing favorites." Therefore, there are never any wrong answers and everyone is always happy.

But is everyone always happy-or are students being cheated out of a real education?

That's where accountability comes into the mix. Too many public school administrators seem to have only a dim grasp of what is meant by the word. Some administrators I've spoken to insist that they are totally accountable because their financial books are subject to almost daily review.

But true educational accountability raises the question, "To whom are schools accountable?" Joe Cobb, elementary principal at Faith Baptist Schools in Davison, responds, "Whenever I'm asked, my answer is that ultimately we are accountable to our students' parents."

Cobb, who also understands his school's obligations to pastors, church members, and the community at large, knows that if parents are not satisfied with their children's education, they can and will send the children to a different school. And that means less "business" for Faith Baptist Schools.

Parental choice is the ultimate in accountability. Faith Baptist parents voluntarily choose to vote with their dollars-even after being taxed to support government schools-for Christian schools. The ongoing threat that parents might withdraw those dollars at any time in favor of another private school, home education, or a government school ensures Faith Baptist Schools remain accountable for the education provided.

For Faith Baptist and other nongovernment schools, accountability is similar to a restaurateur's accountability to his customers. No laws require "good tasting food," but a restaurateur understands that he must provide a product that diners want. It must be of a quality that is higher than any government inspector's standard and at a price that his patrons are willing to pay. The restaurant owner fully understands his customers voluntarily choose his restaurant and that they could choose one of his competing restaurants at any time. It is not accountability to government health and safety standards that keep this restaurateur in business, but accountability to his customer who he must satisfy on a continual basis.

Accountability is measurable. Like the competitors in the Dodo's Caucus-race, each runner wanted to know who won. It is unsatisfying to exert energy and effort and have the results be judged capriciously, or worse, to be told that everybody wins because everyone competed.

In the marketplace, where choice and competition are the rule rather than the exception, accountability is based ultimately on results. Recently, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige told the nation's largest school employee labor union, the National Education Association, that competition in education is inevitable. "It's tempting to pretend public schools are exempt from the law of supply and demand," he said. "They are not. This pretension will destroy our system."

Secretary Paige also noted that record high spending has had little effect: "For 35 years, we've tried to address our failing schools the same way. We've just given them more money, without focusing on results."

Other school officials are slowly recognizing that the private sector can do things better than government, and often at a lower cost. Government schoolteachers, for example, put their own children in private schools at a much higher rate than do parents in the general population. Superintendents and boards of education are increasingly turning to private enterprises to provide non-instructional services such as food service, building maintenance, and technical support. If privatization improves quality and reduces costs of education support services, why not subject the entire school, the classroom and all, to the real accountability that comes from choice and competition?

Accountability is central to providing children with a quality education. But accountability to the right people is most important. Today, our public schools are "accountable" to the real-life version of Lewis Carroll's Dodo, the government. While the government sets up its own Caucus-racetrack, true accountability will remain elusive. Without making schools fully accountable to parents and children, everyone may "win" the farcical Caucus-race, but in the long run we will all lose.

Tim Schmig, a former classroom teacher, is executive director of the Michigan Association of Christian Schools. He and his wife Sue have three daughters.