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Accountabilities in Schools and School Systems

Summary and Keywords

This article surveys developments in educational accountabilities over the last three decades. In this time, accountability in schools and schooling systems across Anglo-American nations has undergone considerable change, including a move away from bureaucratic approaches that endorsed teacher professionalism. Educational accountabilities have evolved with the restructuring of the state through new public management and the emergence of network governance. Accountability can be understood in two senses: (1) being held to account; and (2) giving an account. Within the post-bureaucratic state, the former sense has become dominant in the work of schools, principals, and teachers, and has affected curriculum, pedagogy, and student learning. For instance, schooling systems in Anglo-American nations have introduced standardized testing to hold schools and teachers to account. Comparative performance data are now made publicly available through websites and the creation of league tables of school performance. These processes are central to the creation of markets in schooling, where comparative test data are deemed necessary to enable parental choice of schools and, in turn, to raise standards. This top-down, performative mode of accountability also moves the field of judgment away from teachers and the profession. There are now emergent attempts to reconstitute more democratic and educative modes of accountability, which are multilateral and multidirectional in character, and which seek to limit the negative effects of top-down data-driven accountability. These approaches reassert trust in the teaching profession and reconstitute parents and communities as democratic participants in schooling. We argue that accountability is a pharmakon that requires balancing of mechanisms for holding educators to account and opportunities for educators to give accounts of their work. The article reviews relevant literature to provide a brief history of accountability in schooling, with particular emphasis on Anglo-American contexts. Drawing on the work of Ranson, we examine four types of existing educational accountabilities before concluding with a discussion of three alternative approaches.

Keywords: accountability, performativity, new public management, network governance, data


This article examines changing conceptions and practices of accountability in schooling since the 1970s. We examine the shift from earlier modes of accountability that operated within the postwar bureaucratic welfare state to newer modes of accountability that emerged with the “audit society” and the post-bureaucratic state (Power, 1997). We focus specifically on practices of accountability that make use of performance data generated through standardized testing. As many scholars have shown, performative accountability in education can have a range of negative and perverse effects on teachers’ work and student learning. This mode of accountability has become increasingly embedded in school systems with the development of data infrastructures in education (Sellar, 2015), which enable the generation and use of performance data as a means to govern systems, manage teachers through accountability demands, and formulate strategies for education reform. The article documents the impact of performative accountability, and theorizes its relationship to other contemporary modes of consumer, contract, and corporate accountability (Ranson, 2003). We also trace the emergence of a new wave of accountability in schooling that reflects a desire for more educative approaches that widen conversations about what communities expect from schools and provide meaningful and educative vehicles for teachers and schools to give accounts of their work with students.

We frame our discussion in relation to the concept of pharmakon, which refers to an ambivalent substance or practice that may have positive and/or negative effects depending on the situation. Stengers (2010) writes that one can define a pharmakon as a:

… drug that may act as a poison or a remedy … any drug whose effect can mutate into its opposite, depending on the dose, the circumstances, or the context, any drug whose action provides no guarantee, defines no fixed point of reference that would allow us to recognise and understand its effects with some assurance.

(p. 29)

A pharmacological approach thus emphasizes the need to understand accountability from the perspective of its definition and practice in particular circumstances, rather than according to a generic essence that can be subject to a moral evaluation. The etymology of pharmakon, as Derrida (1981) has shown, is also linked to the Greek practice of pharmakos, whereby a scapegoat is expelled from the community. The concept of accountability is, we argue, a pharmakon insofar as it designates ambivalent practices that can be both beneficial and toxic, and in the sense that it has become a mechanism for delineating the boundary between the inside and the outside of the professional community in education:

[W]hen the pharmakon reveals its toxicity, we look for a pharmakos, a scapegoat, rather than change our relation to the pharmakon, which can only be done collectively and which those who exploit the toxic effects of the pharmakon systematically try to prevent.

(Wambacq, Ross, & Buseyne, 2016, p. 15)

Top-down modes of accountability can readily become toxic and are exploited (a) as a mechanism to govern education systems, and (b) as part of a simplistic and populist politics of education that over-allocates blame to teachers for poor educational outcomes. But as Henig (2013) has argued, educational accountability holds the potential to drive quite different collective engagements with schools that are only just beginning to be explored.

The pharmacology of accountability arises from the different senses in which it is conceived and practiced. Accountability can be defined as largely synonymous with responsibility. The notion that the teacher is responsible to the student, and the broader community, is at the basis of conceptions and practices of accountability in education. However, as Ranson (2003) has argued, the term can be used to connote relations of being held “to account” and “giving an account”; the former implies coercion between the person who is accountable and the agencies that hold them to account, whereas the practice of giving an account emphasizes taking responsibility for narrating and justifying one’s actions. Teachers in schools may experience both senses of accountability in their everyday work: for example, being held to account by school principals for their performance, while giving accounts to parents regarding their pedagogy, curriculum, or assessment. The position that we take in this article is that accountability can be beneficial when these different senses of accountability are held in the particular balance demanded by specific contexts. However, it can (and often has) become toxic in situations where the balance is lost, and where coercive relations of holding educators to account, often in relation to narrow sets of performance data, overwhelm professional modes of accountability that involve teachers explaining and justifying their practice.

We will examine four different modes of accountability, but we give particular emphasis to performative accountability, the effects of which Ball (2003) has powerfully shown in relation to teachers’ work. We argue that, with the proliferation of data infrastructures in education, it becomes increasingly easy to implement performative accountabilities that displace emphasis from broad schooling responsibilities and objectives to focus on narrow outcomes that can be readily measured. These measures become proxies for student learning and ability, as well as teacher quality and performance. As Power (2007) writes, schools and other public institutions have been made auditable “by virtue of abstracting from their first order performance objectives and by focusing on the management system for defining and monitoring performance” (p. 334). These performance management systems privilege the value of efficiency over and above other values and purposes. Lyotard (1984) suggests these systems gradually erode the legitimacy of narrative accounts. As a result, performative accountabilities create feedback loops in which the most rational and legitimate objective is to change practice in ways that improve what is measured. This can lead to perverse outcomes that do not further the broader purposes and expectations of communities, schools, or school systems; indeed, the reverse is most often the case. Here, accountability becomes toxic.

Our argument is that the pharmacology of accountability requires balancing (1) mechanisms for holding schools and teachers to account, and (2) opportunities for educators to give accounts of their work to various audiences. In what follows, we first review the relevant literature to provide a brief history of accountability in school systems and schools, giving particular emphasis to developments over the past few decades in Anglo-American contexts such as the United Kingom, United States, and Australia. Then, drawing upon the work of Ranson (2003), we deal with four types of educational accountability situated against the current politics of schooling and policy making. Subsequently, we move to articulate alternative modes of accountability. One of these examples is research based, and will outline a particular experiment in widening and democratizing practices for giving accounts in schools and communities.

A Brief History of Educational Accountability

Given the etymology and multiple uses of the term “accountability,” it is perhaps unsurprising that its conception and enactment in education have changed across place and time. Various new modes of accountability have emerged within education since the late 1970s, and these discursive shifts, from professional notions of accountability to performative notions of regulation and compliance, have coincided with the restructuring of the bureaucratic state. This section of the article charts developments in the conceptualization and practice of accountability within schools over the past few decades, with effects on teacher practices and the learning of educators and students alike.

Educational accountability is a complex and constantly evolving social process. Nonetheless, and while acknowledging the limitations of binary understandings of accountability, it is useful to contrast earlier articulations with top-down, test-based approaches that are now so prevalent in the Anglo-American context (see Lingard & Lewis, 2016). From the end of the Second World War until the mid-1970s, accountability was largely shaped by widespread recognition of professional practice and purpose, in which public trust was invested in the specialist knowledge of professionals (e.g., healthcare workers, social workers, and teachers). In schooling, accountability was bureaucratic in nature and operated according to rules for teacher conduct and used inspections as a mechanism for holding teachers to account. Ranson (2003) argues that such approaches positioned accountability in a “typically informal and ad hoc” manner, with responsibility for social services delegated to the private judgment of professional organizations and the state, which were formally expressed through “partnership, collegiality and trust between and within tiers of the service” (p. 464). Care needs to be taken not to romanticize this approach. These accountability practices were represented as inadequate in the face of declining societal trust in autonomous professional communities, especially when these professionals were responsible for providing public services like education and health.

A watershed moment in the dismantling of professional modes of educational accountability came in England in October 1976, when then-British Prime Minister James Callaghan delivered a speech at Ruskin College, University of Oxford, stating that:

… [t]o the teachers I would say that you must satisfy the parents and industry that what you are doing meets their requirements and the needs of our children. For if the public is not convinced then the profession will be laying up trouble for itself in the future.

(Callaghan, 1976)

By calling for a “great debate” over the underlying academic and vocational purposes of schooling, pedagogical practices, a national core curriculum of “basic knowledge,” and uniform achievement standards, Callaghan’s “Ruskin College Speech” reframed how education, and especially those individuals and institutions responsible for the provision of education, were to be publicly “held to account.” Rather than being primarily the domain of trusted professionals, educational quality was hereafter construed as something that must be ensured through public scrutiny, with the focus on identifying teachers and schools that did not meet acceptable standards of performance.

Here we can see the first substantive pivot in England toward more performative modes of educational accountability, and this broadly coincided with the 1979 return of the Conservative Party to power in the United Kingdom. In particular, the period of Thatcher’s Prime Ministership (1979–1990) bore witness to several key developments in England following the 1988 Education Reform Act, including the first national curriculum in England and the introduction of standardized testing for all students in all schools. These reforms were part of a broader suite of measures that constituted a “neoliberal” mode of public accountability in education, in which market-based rationales for increasing consumer choice, and thus accountability to consumers, dominated other more collective and professionally oriented practices (Lingard & Lewis, 2016). Such modes of accountability were subsequently entrenched under the New Labor governments of Blair and Brown, and further strengthened under subsequent Coalition and Conservative governments.1

Performative, market-based modes of educational accountability have been constituted by and are constitutive of broader moves toward strengthening the central Westminster government in English schooling, while also, and at the same time, weakening the role of local education authorities. This had led to the emergence of systems constructed through mandated test data and related accountability measures (Lawn, 2013; Ozga, 2009). In fact, the demand for such data has been central to the emergence of performative accountabilities, especially when these data serve as proxy measures for teacher, school, or school system effectiveness. Lawn (2013), writing about English schooling today, argues that what we have is a “system-less system” because of the diversity of marketized school provision and the evisceration of local government input in schooling policy. This system-less system is constructed around data and data flows, and only those at the center can view and conceive of the entire system as represented through data. However, we note that England is atypical globally in this respect, insofar as the English system has maintained school inspectors and established test-based, data-driven modes of educational accountability (Grek, Lawn, Ozga, & Segerholm, 2013).

Performative modes of accountability in education became increasingly dominant in the United States from the time of President Reagan’s influential report on schooling, A Nation at Risk (1983). Thereafter, the implementation of performative accountabilities for schools and school systems gathered apace in the United States with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (2002), and this was further entrenched through the Race to the Top (RTTT) initiative of the Obama Presidency (2009), which supported the common core curriculum and demanded related student testing for accountability purposes. These developments have strengthened, in some ways, the hand of the federal government vis-à-vis the states, but the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (2015) could potentially re-strengthen the role of states in educational accountability (Darling-Hammond et al., 2016). Indeed, it remains to be seen how the Act—which provides states with increased flexibility and responsibility for developing accountability systems, deciding how federally required tests should be weighed, selecting additional measures of student and school performance, and implementing teacher evaluation systems—will reposition the federal government in U.S. education accountability and governance.

Other nations have also established pervasive approaches to performative accountability driven by standardized testing and public reporting of data. For example, Australia has developed a national accountability system in schooling based on its National Assessment Program—Literacy and Numeracy and associated public reporting and comparison of performance (Lingard, Thompson, & Sellar, 2016). In Canada, the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program provides national comparative performance data and this is combined with provincial testing, such as the Provincial Achievement Tests, which form part of the Accountability Pillar in Alberta, for example. In Canada, the absence of a federal department of education means that such accountability modes primarily function at the provincial level, while in Australia there is a more complex mix of federal and state accountability measures.

The growing use of performance data for evaluative purposes that can be seen across each of these contexts has been characterized as an “audit explosion” (Power, 1997). This has seen the rise of audit and accountability practices within the state under the guise of “New Public Management” (NPM), in which auditing has evolved from its traditional role of verification to now encompass notions of efficiency and effectiveness. This transition has instigated many adverse, and often unintended, effects, including the auditor becoming a de facto agent of policy change, rather than merely an impartial observer/verifier, and a decline in the level of trust that the public has in audited professions. The increasing emphasis upon performance outcomes (rather than inputs or processes) has induced not only the establishment of external oversight systems, but also the adoption and intensification of internal, “self-monitoring” regulatory practices at the organizational and individual level. This development is part of the apparatus of power that Foucault (1991) describes as “governmentality”: “the movement that brings about the emergence of population as a datum, as a field of intervention, and as an objective of governmental techniques” (p. 219). At the same time, these techniques are taken up beyond the state with a shift from government to governance: “a change in the meaning of government referring to a new process of governing” through “self-organising, interorganisational networks characterised by interdependence, resource exchange, rules of the game and significant autonomy from the state” (Rhodes, 1997). As such, data have become central to these changing relations and practices of governance in schooling.

Current Modes of Test-Based Accountability

The neoliberal mode of accountability that has supplanted and/or augmented earlier professional modes in many school systems has four component parts: (1) “consumer accountability,” which is symbiotic with the introduction of markets into the schooling system; “contract accountability,” which frames new tendering processes within the system; “performative accountability,” which links to the “audit culture”; (2) as part of NPM and steering at distance; and “corporate accountability” evident in a range of public-private partnerships and the rebuilding of schools and infrastructure through such partnerships. Here, we discuss each of these four dimensions of neoliberal accountability in respect to schooling, building on Ranson’s (2003) work and connecting it with more recent literature, political and policy developments, and empirical examples.

Consumer Accountability

The first substantive moves to implement neoliberal modes of public accountability in education involved the introduction of market-based rationales in schooling, including an unprecedented focus on consumer choice. As Ranson (2003) argues, these market-based developments sought to empower the public/parents as consumers rather than as citizens with a stake in public education. Providers of public services such as education have thus been made accountable through being forced to respond directly to the demands of the consumer en masse, with the publication of school performance data helping to constitute an education market and enable consumer choice. In this way, students and families have been repositioned, moving from being receivers of a notionally public service provided by the state to become consumers within a quasi-market of service providers (i.e., schools and schooling systems) working in competition with each other. We see the emergence of increasingly differentiated, privatized, and autonomous schooling services, in countries like England (e.g., Academies, Free Schools), the United States (e.g., Charter Schools), and Australia (e.g., Independent Public Schools), as being enabled and managed through such consumer modes of accountability (see Ball, 2009; Kretchmar, Sondel, & Ferrare, 2014; Lawn, 2013; Lubienski, 2003).

The notion of “school choice,” which is strengthened by the public provision of comparative data on school performance, is central to consumer modes of accountability. Parents are ostensibly empowered to “hold schools to account, choose schools, appeal and register complaints” (Ranson, 2003), and schools are free to respond to customer needs within the parameters of market competition. Schools now spend money on glossy brochures, websites, and the like to attract students. Correspondingly, schools are expected to react to the direct needs and demands of the consumer, who in turn is expected to choose providers and services that best meet their needs and, by extension, avoid those that do not. However, this rendering of parents/students as consumers and schools/systems as service providers presumes that all agents are equally free to exercise their choice, and that the contents of schooling are commodities that can and should be modified in response to consumer demand and choice. This arguably elides the constraining effects of socioeconomic (dis)advantage, and misleadingly conflates social justice and equality of outcomes with equity of choice and opportunity (Lingard, Sellar, & Savage, 2014).

Schools and systems are also increasingly forced to engage private contractors to provide a variety of education services, such as testing, data management, and teacher professional development. Principals and teachers are thus positioned not only as providers of services, but also as consumers of education services, producing a simultaneous two-fold “consumerization” of educational accountability. For example, the recent development of the OECD’s PISA for Schools test, which is directly marketed to individual schools, as well as the plethora of other educational services offered by for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, speaks directly to these developments (Lewis, Sellar, & Lingard, 2016). We can see here the numerous privatizations occurring through consumer-driven modes of educational accountability, where public education is viewed as an opportunity for private profit, and where external providers can exercise considerable influence over schooling (Burch, 2009; Hogan, 2016; Hogan, Sellar, & Lingard, 2016a, 2016b; Verger, Lubienski, & Steiner-Khamsi, 2016). This reflects the growing commodification and commercialization of education services (Ball, 2012a, 2012b) and teachers’ learning (Hardy, 2015b) more broadly. Indeed, Luke (2004) suggests that these developments position schools and teachers as “commodity fetishists” who adopt the disposition of “lacking, wanting and desiring consumers” (p. 1435). Worryingly, this is a situation that has the potential to be of greater benefit to private providers of such services than to the recipient schools, teachers, and students.

Contract Accountability

Ranson (2003) argues that the emergence of “contract accountability” constituted a key stage in the development of neoliberal accountability from the early 1990s. This focus on contractualism arose from the notion that public service provision could be more “effectively” delivered—at least in the economic sense of maximizing outputs while minimizing inputs—if the state adopted managerial tenets from the private sector and outsourced public services to private providers through competitive tender (Ranson, 2003, pp. 465–466). As such, contract accountability is largely rationalized as enabling “value-for-money” and “efficiency” within a broader prioritization of (a) the market over the state and (b) the individual over the common good.

This restructuring of the state under the principles of NPM has significantly influenced public sector reform and governance (Hood, 1990) in England and the United States from the late 1970s, and more recently in countries including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (Jessop, 2002). NPM has replaced bureaucratic modes of governance with private sector values, in which the control of outputs, performance, and efficiency is afforded much greater significance than either inputs or processes (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010). NPM has also resulted in a hollowing out of the state and the rise of governance by contract (Lascoumes & Le Gales, 2007) a “mode of intervention [that] has become generalised in a context strongly critical of bureaucracy—of its cumbersome yet abstract nature, and of the way it reduces accountability” (p. 13). While NPM is not the same thing as neoliberalism—it had different factors in its gestation and etiology—it has certainly helped to facilitate neoliberal, market-driven policy frameworks and neoliberal accountabilities.

The governance of schooling has been at the forefront of this move to contract accountability. Contractual relations between state and non-state actors are readily evident in emergent modes of network governance that combine new horizontal and older vertical modes of organization into “heterarchies” (Ball & Junemann, 2012). Such modes of governance involve the outsourcing, for example, of test development, management, and analysis to global edu-businesses, and/or to international and intergovernmental organizations, displacing governments and national actors as the sole agents of public policy production, enactment, and evaluation. As Ball and Junemann (2012) argue, education policy is now effectively “being ‘thought’, influenced and done, locally and nationally, in many different sites by an increasing number and diverse set of actors and organisations” (p. 9). Even though government necessarily relinquishes its “privileged” position through such arrangements (Rhodes, 1997), the state is still very much present through its ability to “indirectly and imperfectly steer networks” (p. 53), and to create markets. We can observe such steering through government legislation that enables schooling accountability regimes (e.g., No Child Left Behind in the United States), the provision of government funding around school performance targets (e.g., Race To The Top in the United States), and the centrally mandated collection and management of performance data.

Other non-governmental organizations, and particularly edu-businesses, are playing an increasing role in networked and contractual modes of educational governance and policy making (Au & Ferrare, 2015; Verger et al., 2016) especially as policy has become increasingly steered through data. Not only do edu-businesses enact government policy but they now also actively help to construct these very policies, and thus they contribute to the partial privatization of the education policy community, and of policy and policy processes, across the policy cycle (Mahony, Hextall, & Mentor, 2004). This effectively opens up new spaces and opportunities for corporate involvement in the networked governance of education. Ball (2012a) notes that this involves:

… the production by education and consultancy companies of policy ‘texts’ and policy ideas for and within the state, that is, the export of ‘statework’ to private providers and ‘agencies’, and the formation and dissemination of new policy discourses arising out of the participation of these companies in report writing, evaluations, advice, consultancy and recommendations.

(p. 99; emphasis original)

For instance, we can see these heterarchies and contractual accountabilities evident in relation to the OECD’s PISA for Schools, which compares school performance against that of other national schooling systems. The policy actors involved in the production and delivery of the test include international intergovernmental organizations (i.e., the OECD) and various non-governmental bodies, including transnational edu-businesses, philanthropic foundations, and not-for-profit agencies, not to mention the individual schools that engage with and pay the accredited providers of the test (Lewis et al., 2016). This diverse array of networked actors, organizations and spaces—inside and outside of government—have been instrumental in how PISA for Schools has been, and continues to be, constituted and enacted, and how it helps to influence local understandings and practices of education.

Collectively, these contractual modes of accountability complement the global ascendance of a “neoliberal imaginary” (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010), whereby social domains and practices are increasingly viewed through an economistic framework, leading to the “economization” (Ball, 2012a) of social life. We would argue that educational accountability is now increasingly framed in this manner, with schooling itself being restructured to produce “self-responsibilizing” and “self-capitalizing” individuals functioning in a competitive market economy (Rose, 1999).

Performative Accountability

Performative accountability is implemented using information-based policy instruments that have emerged since the 1970s (Lascoumes & Le Gales, 2007), and we would argue that the dominant mode of accountability in schooling is now performative. This concept of performativity is derived from Lyotard (1984). Performativity is a criterion that, as Lyotard (1984) argued, has come to govern knowledge systems in the age of computerization: “The true goal of the system, the reason it programs itself like a computer, is the optimisation of the global relationship between input and output—in other words, performativity” (p. 11). Any framing consensus of values has collapsed in what Lyotard calls the “postmodern condition” and the performativity criterion (i.e., efficiency defined as maximizing the input/output relation) has become dominant in structuring education systems and institutions. It is this situation that has witnessed many perverse outcomes in schools and systems, with Ball (2003) tellingly showing the negative impacts of this mode of accountability on the “soul of the teacher”; that is, the teacher’s need to be continually seen to perform and, in turn, the challenging of their “authentic” professional selves. Performativity thus replaces other systems for legitimizing knowledge claims with a new criterion of truth (Ball, 2003): “since performativity increases the ability to produce proof, it also increases the ability to be right: the technical criterion, introduced on a massive scale into scientific knowledge, cannot fail to influence the truth criterion” (p. 46). Performative accountability affects what is believed to count, and what gets counted, in schools, as well as how teachers and school leaders are held to account.

The emphasis on outcome measures has reductively redefined both the curriculum and the purposes of schooling. While it can be argued that accountability was initially only a part of school systems, the neoliberal framing of accountability and the move to an audit culture has seen performative accountability transformed to become, arguably, the system itself, as Ranson (2003) persuasively argues. Just as there has been substantial documentation of the perverse effects of test-based accountability on the practices of teachers and schools (Lewis & Hardy, 2015; Lipman, 2004; Nichols & Berliner, 2007; Stobart, 2008), so too can this mode of accountability have perverse effects on policy makers and the work of schooling systems (Lingard & Sellar, 2013).

Demonstrating these developments, consecutive Labor governments in Australia (2007–2013) established national literacy and numeracy testing for all students in all schools in Years 3, 5, 7, and 9. NAPLAN has been implemented annually since 2008, and individual school results are made publicly available on the government supported MySchool website (ACARA, 2013). School results are recorded against national averages and minimum standards, as well as against the performance of up to 60 statistically similar schools, as determined by an Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA; ACARA, 2013), in an attempt to account for socioeconomic differences between schools. Making information public in this way is a classic example of an information-based policy instrument, and reflects what Lascoumes and Le Gales (2007) call “audience democracy.” Such information has been used by federal governments as a mode of accountability in relation to the work of schooling systems in Australia (Lingard & Seller, 2013), with systems held to account by the federal government in respect of their NAPLAN performance. For instance, systems have been required to set targets for statewide improvement in order to receive particular allocations of federal funding, and these performative pressures have since fed into state schooling systems with impacts on principals and teachers and, consequently, teaching and learning. NAPLAN has also been used in many of these systems as a mode of accountability for school principals and teachers.

The state of Queensland, for example, performed comparatively poorly on the first NAPLAN in 2008, leading the state premier to set up an inquiry into why this was the case. Subsequently, the system set targets for all schools on the NAPLAN tests to achieve better outcomes, and encouraged increasing the so-called test-literacy of students as a part of this goal. The result from this political and related media pressure has been a performative focus on improving tests scores in themselves, and school principals and teachers have adopted explicit strategies to do so (Gable & Lingard, 2016). This has seen a narrowing of the curriculum, particularly in the period leading up to NAPLAN in May, with much time spent on practicing for the test and targeting certain groups of students for improvement, to the extent that practice tests and data talks have since become commonplace activities within schools (Hardy, 2015; Hardy & Lewis, 2016; Lewis & Hardy, 2016).

In Queensland, there were also significant structural reforms that resulted from the poor performance on the first NAPLAN, in order to bring the provision of schooling in Queensland into line with that in New South Wales and Victoria, which performed better on NAPLAN. To this end, Year 7 was moved from primary school into secondary school in Queensland from 2014. There has also been the creation of senior positions in the central office and within all regions in the state to oversee school performance on NAPLAN, and to hold principals and teachers to account for test results. This has witnessed a new stress on performance measures as a surrogate for quality: Being seen to perform becomes a priority (Ball, 2003), as system leaders, principals, and teachers are made calculable and accountable. This has in effect produced a “system-less system” (Lawn, 2013), in which relations of performative accountability (input-output equations) drive the system. The other important element here is that professionals in schools have lost control of the field of judgment in regard to their practice (Ball, 2003), which has passed instead to the test constructors and system leaders, and the not-for-profits and edu-businesses that are often involved in test construction, information management, and data analysis.

Corporate Accountability

The restructuring of the state associated with NPM and audit culture has seen a shift toward the “post-bureaucratic” state. A subsequent transition in the restructuring of the state has been toward networked modes of governance (Ball & Junemann, 2012). These do not replace NPM but, rather, work with and build on earlier developments, manifesting via the move from “government” (hierarchical and bureaucratic) to “governance” (networked and post-bureaucratic) (Rhodes, 1997). Koppenjan and Klijn (2004) argue that “[i]n the world of network governance, government is understood to be located alongside business and civil society actors in a complex game of public policy formation, decision-making and implementation” (p. 25). Network governance is producing a new “polycentric state” that now functions more as a facilitator of policy development and enactment, rather than being fully responsible for both (Ball, 2007), insofar as new non-state actors, including edu-businesses and philanthropies, help to construct and enact policy. Corporate modes of accountability emerge with these new public-private partnerships (Ranson, 2003).

To illustrate corporate modes of accountability, we draw here on the case of the world’s largest edu-business, Pearson plc, and its development of The Learning Curve in 2012 and the Efficacy Framework in 2013, both of which are linked to a corporate reconstruction of accountability (Hogan et al., 2016a, 2016b). Pearson’s meta-strategic business objective is to create a “global policy consensus” in education. In late 2014, they abolished the Pearson Foundation, their philanthropic arm, and “mainstreamed” corporate social responsibility. Both of these developments are arguably manifestations of corporate accountability, and illustrate the mix of policy and profit in education today (Hogan et al., 2016a). The Learning Curve in its initial iteration was a 50-page report and associated database, to be subsequently updated and published every two years. The Learning Curve synthesizes numerous sources of publicly available international comparative performance data on schooling systems (e.g., PISA, TIMSS, PIRLS), as well as drawing on interviews with 16 international education experts. This synthesis condenses a huge amount of data into an easy-to-read format—data for policy makers—and seeks to enhance Pearson’s legitimacy in the policy field, with The Learning Curve creating from these data a Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment. What we see here is, in effect, a “meta-metric” produced by an edu-business from publicly available and funded data, which seeks to provide an output measure for systemic accountability purposes and to generate policy legitimacy for Pearson across the globe.

Similarly, Pearson’s Efficacy Framework utilizes a pharmaceutical industry model to proffer research and data-based demonstrations of the efficacy of all of Pearson’s products and services. Pearson has committed to ensuring such efficacy measures of impact of all their products and services by 2018, and these will be reported alongside audited financial accounts. In their 2013 Annual Report, Pearson (2013) describes their Efficacy Framework as the following:

… new and transparent approach to efficacy [that] is central to our purpose and also makes good business sense. We hope that by demonstrating the evidence base that supports our products, we will encourage a deeper engagement with learning outcomes across the education sector and at the same time clearly demonstrate the benefits of using those products.

(p. 14)

As Shamir (2008) argues, the moral imperatives of social responsibility and accountability have been incorporated into economic logic, and this is manifest in demands for corporate accountability in relation to both company value and social outcomes; Shamir describes this as the moralization of the market. We see here the idea of “doing good” becoming financially profitable, which is a central element of corporate accountability in education when it is framed in terms of corporate social responsibility.

Alternative Modes of Accountability in Schools and Schooling Systems

We acknowledge that apropos of neoliberal and professional modes of accountability, Ranson (2003) is critical of both. He argues that professional accountability within classic bureaucratic organizations denied public accountability, while the neoliberal mode in the post-bureaucratic state denies professional accountability. The shortcomings of each approach reflect the status of accountability as a pharmakon requiring careful administration that is sensitive to context. Ranson argues persuasively that a new mode of accountability is required, which needs to acknowledge and express the multiple relations of answerability that ought to frame school accountability in a democratic polity. This is particularly so with respect to schooling, which necessarily sits within multiple modes of answerability and has multiple purposes that are central to a democratic polity. While schools need to be accountable to their system, to students and to communities, at the same time parents, citizens, and communities ought to be accountable to their schools; additionally, politicians and education policymakers ought to be accountable to schools and their communities. Here we take up this argument about the necessity of multiple kinds of answerability in a discussion of alternative modes of accountability in education.

Current “top-down” accountability systems (1) place strong focus on economic and consumer values and relationships; (2) rework relations between state and non-state actors; (3) prioritize efficiency as a meta-value; and (4) direct attention to second-order schooling objectives (e.g., improving test scores) with potentially perverse effects. Here we turn our attention to emerging alternatives that seek to redress the shortcomings of top-down approaches, and/or to broaden the conception and practice of accountability in schooling. We focus on three examples: Sahlberg’s (2007, 2011) notion of intelligent accountability, which draws on insights from Finnish schooling; Darling-Hammond, Wilhoit and Pittenger’s (2014) outline of a new paradigm of genuine accountability in U.S. schooling; and a model of rich accountability developed by a group of Australian researchers.2

Our emphasis here is on prominent examples of alternative accountabilities that might be enacted in schools and systems. However, we also note that there is an important body of literature that critiques dominant modes of educational accountability and provides a fertile theoretical basis for conceptualizing alternatives (e.g., Biesta, 2004; Sellar, 2015b; Suspitsyna, 2010; Webb, 2011). For example, Biesta (2004) points to the possibilities for redefining educational relationships on the basis of intersubjective responsibility, and using such a definition as the means to resist the encroachment of external, technical-managerial modes of accountability. This literature points to the potential functioning of accountability in new modes of governance and draws on various theoretical resources to consider how alternatives might be conceived.

Each of the approaches we discuss here goes beyond a narrow focus on what is measured in order to provide more meaningful and educative modes of accountability, which bring together a range of stakeholders and, importantly, a mix of qualitative and quantitative data. These approaches emphasize the need for “multilateral” and “multidirectional” accountability, in which school systems, governments, and communities are also held to account for their various responsibilities to schools, teachers, and students. We argue that these approaches are emblematic of a new wave of educational accountability that is being propagated by educators, researchers, and teacher associations around the world.

Intelligent Accountability

Intelligent accountability is a notion developed by Sahlberg (2007), based on his understanding of educational success in the Finnish schooling system. Sahlberg argues that “Finland has not followed the global accountability movement in education that assumes that making schools and teachers more accountable for their performance is the key to raising student achievement” (p. 155). Finland thus provides a case in which to study alternative approaches to accountability. Central to this approach are (a) sustaining and building senses of professional responsibility and trust in principals and teachers; and (b) resisting the development of an external standardized testing culture that is primarily focused on competition and comparison.

Intelligent accountability, as described by Sahlberg (2010), has a number of features. First, it brings together internal accountability processes at the level of the school with external accountability processes managed by school systems, governments, or other bodies. Internal modes of accountability operate at the level of personal responsibility that teachers have for students in their class; the relations of expectation, trust, and responsibility cultivated in school communities that extend beyond the spatial bounds of the school; and formal institutional accountabilities at the school level (Carnoy, Elmore, & Siskin, 2003). These mechanisms not only enable teachers and schools to be held to account, but also enable systems and governments to be made accountable for providing necessary resources and conditions for learning. Drawing from Nichols and Berliner (2007), Sahlberg (2010) argues that this approach “should shift the focus from assessment of learning to assessment for learning and employ different methods of assessment, in addition to performance tests, for example, portfolios and projects” (p. 54). While standardized testing can still play a role in this balanced approach, the need for broader measures beyond narrow numeracy and literacy tests, and the efficiencies of sample versus census testing, are emphasized.

This model of intelligent accountability places a premium on sustaining and (re)building trust in teaching as a profession, establishing a set of local and internal accountabilities focused on learning, and using minimal external accountability measures to check that trust is warranted and learning is occurring. As Sahlberg (2010) writes, an intelligent “accountability system must put worthwhile learning first, and then minimize the negative effect that externally mandated test-based accountability systems may have on teachers’ work” (p. 57).

Genuine Accountability

The second alternative we discuss here is the approach to “genuine” accountability that Linda Darling-Hammond and colleagues have promoted in the context of changing U.S. federal legislation, and specifically the introduction of the Every Student Succeeds Act(2015). Darling-Hammond and colleagues (2014) describe an approach to genuine accountability that has three main features, namely, (1) meaningful learning, (2) professional capacity, and (3) resource accountability.

The focus on meaningful learning implies the need to “use a range of measures that encourage and reflect such learning, and … [to] use those measures in ways that improve, rather than limit, educational opportunities for students” (Darling-Hammond et al., p. 6). This is just one example of a movement toward broadening educational indicators and modes of evidence in order to capture information about a wider set of outcomes. The focus on resource accountability points to the need for “resource standards” that “address the barriers to good education that exist not only within schools and classrooms, but at the district, state and national levels as well” (p. 8). This approach is a development of Darling-Hammond’s (2010) earlier discussions of the need for “opportunity to learn” (OLT) standards, which reverse the direction of accountability to put pressure on systems and governments to ensure that necessary resources be provided to all schools to support achievement of the outcomes demanded by the system. Finally, the focus on professional capacity emphasizes that “[i]ndividuals and organisations should be responsible for building their own capacity for professional practice; they should be accountable for evaluating practice and student progress, and engaging in continual improvement based on the results” (p. 9). Here we see an emphasis on systematic individual professional responsibility along similar lines to those proposed by Biesta (2004).

Darling-Hammond and colleagues (2014) have also provided a detailed discussion of how the new legislative environment in the United States might be engaged to develop more educative approaches to accountability, arguing that

… a helpful accountability system will consider inputs, processes, and outcomes simultaneously, and enable its users to begin to understand the relationships among them, so that they can pursue useful changes. Furthermore, a productive accountability system should acknowledge that schools, districts, states, and the federal government bear different responsibilities for inputs, processes, and outcomes. Accountability strategies should be structured so that each level of the system is expected to wield the levers it controls to create equity and quality.

(p. 2)

Similarly to Henig (2013), and echoing the pharmacological approach taken in this article, Darling-Hammond and colleagues (2014) see accountability as a contestable space in which to develop better alternatives to neoliberal accountability, rather than resting at simplistic critique and rejection of present accountability systems.

Rich Accountabilities

Rich accountability is a concept developed by a group of Australian researchers that draws on, and seeks to extend, the two previous cases. This concept was proposed as an alternative to a culture of standardized literacy and numeracy testing linked to a range of rewards and sanctions for schools and school systems. Indeed, the Australian NAPLAN testing is precisely the kind of externally mandated test-based accountability system that Sahlberg (2010) warns against (see Brennan, Zipin, & Sellar, 2016). Rich accountabilities may include top-down external accountability systems (while stressing the need for broad measures and sensible approaches such as sample-based testing), but seeks to augment these with three further dimensions: (1) mechanisms that enable bottom-up accountability that focus on the responsibilities of systems and governments (similar to OLT standards); (2) horizontal accountabilities that build relations between schools and their various communities; and (3) an emphasis on narrative as a mode of truth-telling (giving an account) that is eroded by performative accountability (being held to account), but which appears essential to sustaining professional trust and responsibility (Lingard, Baroutsis, & Sellar, 2015).

In particular, rich accountabilities emphasize the multilateral nature of alternative approaches to accountability and involve formal mechanisms for drawing:

… on the perspectives of multiple stakeholders and data in various forms (quantitative and qualitative) to provide complex, contextualised and balanced assessments of teaching and learning and accounts of the multiple achievements of schools. Rich accountabilities serve equity goals by (a) providing alternatives to accountability practices that can unfairly narrow the focus of curriculum and pedagogy for some students in an effort to improve testing performance; and (b) making visible a broader spectrum of what schools achieve for students in order that this can count in evaluations of school performance and the allocation of resources.

(Lingard et al., 2015, pp. 5–6)

Drawing from experiments in the field of science studies, rich accountabilities involve the creation of “competency groups” (Whatmore, 2009; Whatmore & Landström, 2011) that bring together experts in the field of education, as well as stakeholders with local and professional knowledge about education. These groups provide a forum in which situated and expert knowledge can be combined to address specific educational problems, and in which narratives about expectations and desired outcomes from schools can be shared to help construct two-way, school-community horizontal relations of accountability. Rich accountabilities thus reflect many of the dimensions of intelligent and genuine accountabilities, while experimenting with specific mechanisms for gathering and sharing narratives about learning at the local level.

The rich accountability approach focuses on reinvigorating discussion about the values that shape both informal and formal responsibilities in schooling. Performative modes of accountability emphasize efficiency, but without making this value the subject of explicit debate. As a result, accountability mechanisms often result in a feedback loop between information and practice, leading to a substantive focus on improving what gets counted. Instead, rich accountabilities aim to rebalance relations between the values and purposes that inform schooling in different places, the information that is gathered to assess whether these expectations are being met, and the mechanisms in place to ensure changes to practice where necessary. This approach gestures toward the possibility of a form of legitimation by paralogy rather than performativity (Lyotard, 1984), that is, reforming the system according to the “principle that any consensus on the rules defining a game and the ‘moves’ playable within it must be local, in other words, agreed on by its present players and subject to eventual cancellation” (p. 66). This represents an attempt to open up participation in and control over the field of judgment of teaching (Sellar, 2014).


In this article, we have surveyed developments in educational accountability since the 1970s and have provided an account of contemporary approaches. In the context of changing relations between state actors and non-state actors in education, a combination of contracts, consumer choice, corporate responsibility, and performance data is being used to govern education, and to hold different parties to account for teaching, learning, and the provision of education services more generally. While each of the four modes of accountability discussed here operates interdependently, we argue that data-driven modes of performative accountability are particularly pervasive and provide infrastructural support for the other approaches. Performative accountability reworks the values and knowledge that are considered legitimate in determining the outcomes for which schools and school systems should be held to account. Accountability can become toxic when it diverts attention away from the broader work of schools that is expected and endorsed by various communities and stakeholders, and redirects it instead toward a narrow set of proxies (e.g., rankings of schools and systems based on standardized test results). This process can have reductive and perverse effects on the broader purposes of schools, and constrains teacher professional judgment and practice.

The article has also surveyed some emergent alternatives to the prevailing modes of neoliberal accountability in schooling today. We emphasized that our pharmacological approach stresses the ambivalence of accountability, and the possibilities for rebalancing accountability systems in ways that open up new options for schools and school systems to give accounts of teaching and learning to the communities they serve. This involves strategies for rebuilding trust in the teaching profession, extending accountability demands to systems and governments that are responsible for adequately resourcing education, and experimenting with new ways of producing and sharing knowledge about the expectations that communities have in relation to schools, including how schools may (or may not) be meeting these expectations. We have suggested that new multilateral and multidirectional modes of accountability are required, which include multiple relations of answerability—that is, communities to schools and schools to their communities, and also systems and governments to schools. We have also argued that current performative modes of school accountability need to be rethought. Of course, any alternative mode of accountability will potentially have perverse effects if it diverts attention from a focus on students and their learning in the broadest sense endorsed by schools and their communities.

Henig (2013) has asked, given the current focus on top-down “administratively designed incentives systems” whether “we are missing opportunities to inject data more forcefully into the public sphere, encouraging democratic accountability by parents and citizens who become … more confident and knowledgeable about how to use data to collectively define priorities and select educational strategies” (p. xii). While the growth of data infrastructures in education has enabled the spread of data-driven performative accountability, and also the use of data in consumer, contract and corporate modes, its status as a pharmakon also entails possibilities for working collectively with data in ways that will be central to the development of a new wave of alternatives.

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      Lingard, B., Martino, W., Rezai-Rashti, G., & Sellar, S. (2016). Globalizing educational accountabilities: Testing regimes and rescaling governance. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                                            (1.) We should note, however, that we specifically refer here to England, rather than the United Kingdom, in toto, given the separate, and often contradictory, developments around educational accountabilities in the jurisdictions of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

                                                                                                                                                            (2.) The section here on rich accountabilities draws on an Australian Research Council funded Linkage Project, LP100200841, Pursuing Equity through Rich Accountabilities (PETRA), on which Bob Lingard and Sam Sellar were two of the chief investigators.