1999). Even if states that can provide assistance to the lowest-performing schools, few serve schools in the middle of the performance distribution, which tend to receive less attention from the state accountability efforts (Massell, 1998).

The ability of accountability mechanisms to produce desired effects depends on the level of internal accountability within schools (Abelmann and Elmore, 1999). That is, teachers' own judgements about their ability to affect the learning of their students governs the teachers' willingness to take responsibility for improving student learning and to change their practice to make such improvements come about. Misalignment between internal and external accountability may make it less likely that external systems, no matter how strong, will have much effect.

Internal accountability includes the norms by which teachers operate, the expectations they hold about student learning and their role in improving it, and the processes they use to carry out their work. In schools with weak internal accountability, the norms emphasize the individual responsibility of each teacher over student learning, rather than the collective responsibility of the entire school. In those cases, teachers' judgments about whether and how much they could improve learning depend on their understanding of the students' background and lack a perspective of what students could do under different circumstances.

Similarly, the expectations for student learning in such schools are relatively low, since teachers believe that the conditions the students brought to school, rather than their own efforts, exert the greatest influence over their academic performance. Teachers in schools with low internal accountability tend to place a greater emphasis on order, an expectation each teacher shares.

Schools with weak internal accountability therefore tend to respond to external pressures for change by summoning their own individual beliefs, rather than by consulting with colleagues and attempting to work collectively for improvement.


  • Accountability should follow responsibility: teachers and administrators—individually and collectively—should be held accountable for their part in improving student performance. Teachers and administrators should be accountable for the progress of their students. Districts and states should be accountable for the professional development and support they provide teachers and schools to enable students to reach high standards.
  • Accountability decisions should be based on multiple indicators.
  • Accountability mechanisms should be based on a range of measures, including indicators of instructional quality, as well as student outcomes.

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