A Roadmap for State Accountability Systems

There’s been plenty of debate about the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) since it was signed into law last year, but bottom line: thanks to the new law, states are in the driver’s seat when it comes to education policy, and that’s likely to be the balance for years to come. But can states—many of which have a checkered history when it comes to addressing educational inequity—really live up to the opportunity and responsibility ESSA gives them?

We won’t have to wait long to find out. Over the next year, every state will be revising its school accountability system to bring it in line with ESSA. Accountability systems are among the most powerful tools at a state chief’s disposal to advance ESSA’s goals of “school quality and student success.” When developed and used well, they embody the community’s vision for great schools—the educational outcomes that all schools should be working toward. They monitor whether the vision is actually becoming a reality for all students. And they give families a clear and accurate picture of every school that can help them make informed choices on behalf of their children.

ESSA lets states customize their accountability systems to fully reflect their local context and the educational experiences they want for their own students. But it’s an enormously complex task that’s easier said than done. It’s also about more than choosing the right measures. That certainly matters, since there’s plenty of truth in the adage that “what gets measured gets done.” Still, how states make those choices is just as important in determining the system’s success—whether it helps make a real difference for students or turns into a lightning rod for controversy (or, worse, just another bureaucratic compliance exercise).

To help states navigate this important process, we’re releasing Accountability Under ESSA, a new whitepaper with some guiding principles for both the process and substance of building accountability systems. We’ll look at a few key pieces of the system-building process, like creating detailed plans for smooth implementation, and assembling strong project teams to get the job done. We’ll also offer a menu of accountability measures states should consider.

You won’t find a prescription for the exact accountability system every state should use, because there’s no such thing. States need to craft systems that are rooted in a clearly defined vision for their schools, which will be different in every community. What kinds of experiences do they want for every student? And what’s the theory of action for getting there? The answers to those questions are the foundation on which any solid accountability system must be built—and it’s where we think state chiefs should start when they’re thinking about how to make the most out of the new flexibilities offered by ESSA.

As we note in the whitepaper, it’s crucial to engage local communities in creating this vision. No matter how far along they are in their design process, state leaders should make it a top priority to open ongoing, two-way lines of communications with families and other stakeholders, working closely with individual districts (who may need to lead the direct engagement in many cases). And they should be prepared to let community voices shape and strengthen their vision in a meaningful way.

We’ve been encouraged by some of the early work some states have done to rethink their accountability systems, often in collaboration with other states through groups like the Chiefs for Change and Council of Chief State School Officers (who also released a comprehensive stakeholder engagement guide for states). We offer some real world examples in the paper—like Hawai’i to name one, where state leaders conducted a robust stakeholder and community engagement effort with more than 100 focus groups to solicit input on the HI DOE’s Strategic Plan.

There are, of course, many other important aspects of ESSA to keep an eye on, like how states define subgroups to ensure kids aren’t shuffled out of sight and how Title I funds are distributed. But while those details are getting worked out, let’s focus on the opportunity states have right now to build innovative accountability systems in partnership with their communities—systems that will help more students graduate from high school with the possibilities all families want for their kids. We hope our whitepaper can provide a roadmap that helps state chiefs seize this moment, and helps communities understand what they should expect from their state leaders along the way.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

Learn More About TNTP