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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Exploring the Power of a Paradigm: Going Backstage with Policy Influencers in the Education Accountability Debate

  • Author(s): Coghlan, Erin
  • Advisor(s): Mintrop, Heinrich
  • et al.

For decades, the U.S. has experimented with accountability policy for public schools as a way to improve academic achievement and to draw attention to student inequalities. Accountability as a solution to the problems facing schools has become so widespread that it arguably has become a ‘policy paradigm’. A policy paradigm is a framework of ideas and standards that shape the way policymakers and influencers think about how to define a policy problem, how they think about goals, the instruments they rely on to solve the policy problem, and the expected results. A policy paradigm also includes important moral ideas about human nature, motivation, who is to blame for the policy problem, or ideas about who deserves what resources in society. A paradigm can become so universal that the core policy and moral ideas become common sense and simply taken-for-granted.

Accountability arguably reached paradigmatic status in education with the culmination of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation in 2001, which thrust the regulatory force of the federal government on individual states and their respective school systems. From its inceptions, NCLB had inherent “bugs” in its design that led to unintended consequences for the schools. Most notably, the former law set an overly ambitious goal to close the achievement gap in 13 short years in the absence of capacity building. Some states reduced the cognitive complexity of statewide tests to comply with federal benchmarks while individual schools began to focus on basic skills and ‘teach to the test’ in order to ‘game’ the system and avoid possible sanctions. In addition, NCLB made very little progress on its goal to close the academic achievement gap; academic achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) actually declined in the first years of implementing NCLB. In December 2015, Congress and President Obama responded to the unintended consequences with a more flexible federal policy design—the Every Student Succeeds Act—that shifted many of the goal setting and accountability functions back to the states, giving states flexibility to select their own policy designs and tools to regulate school and student performance.

What happens to a paradigm in that situation? Does it begin to lose legitimacy and fracture, or is it somehow maintained? The goal of this research project was to capture the ideas of influential state-level policy thinkers and opinion leaders following the collapse of NCLB to determine whether the accountability paradigm was still seen as a viable solution to solving education inequalities. I chose to study state-level policy influencers who could shape the public debate with new ideas about how to solve the problem of school inequality following the demise of NCLB. I targeted influencers who could entertain doubts, reflect critically, and think ‘outside the box’. By studying influencers, I could test the strength or weakness of the paradigm.

All told, 65 leading policy influencers and opinion leaders—45 from California and 20 from Tennessee—were sampled to reveal a spectrum of thinking about how to go about solving the problem of student and school inequalities. I interviewed a cross-section of influencers involved in the accountability debate in each state. I identified influential state elected and appointed officials, academics, journalists and bloggers, civil rights activists, community organizers, and members of the business community to understand how they thought about accountability policy and alternative policy ideas in the aftermath of NCLB.

The main thrust of the findings reveals that the accountability paradigm is firmly in tact but has stretched across different institutional venues. Some influencers preferred a Local Control and Professional Model of accountability that put trust in school professionals and local communities to solve the problem of school inequality. The policy influencers within this cluster shared a nurturing and trusting Humanist moral narrative that played out in their policy ideas. Others desired a State Control Model of accountability. These influencers turned to the state as a problem solver for inequality in society. Thinkers within this cluster shared a Structuralist moral narrative and were weary of the ‘dangers of localism’ and distrustful of human nature. They thought that without a collective body of governance (such as the state), narrow-mindedness, bias, and discrimination would take root in local politics and further inequalities in schools.

Lastly, other influencers supported a Market Control Model of accountability. Market control thinkers firmly believed that students would be better served if “failing” schools were pushed to an alternative institutional environment by the state, or if students and families could exit low-performing schools by exercising school choice. Three very distinct moral narratives supported the market model of accountability. Social Justice Entrepreneurs saw reality through the lens of historic inequalities, racial oppression, and institutional exclusion, and they saw the marketplace as an exit from low-performing schools that kept poor and minority students locked into cycles of intergenerational poverty. They believed in the power of individual agency and were drawn to policy ideas like charters and vouchers because they reinforced the individual’s ability to act. Paternalists had a very different moral narrative. To them, standards of appropriate behavior, rule setting, external pressure, and discipline were important dimensions of their moral outlook. To overcome the shortcomings of ‘failing’ schools, they believed in the disciplinary aspects of the state and market to create conditions for school improvement. Lastly, there was a moral narrative of the Empiricists, who tried to rationalize their beliefs and values with technical language from the accountability paradigm. They turned to data and empirical research to make sense of consequences, school choice, and state takeover policies without delving into narratives of systemic inequalities or the complexity of the relationship between poverty and low performance.

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