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Based on their research with community-organizing groups, Eva Gold and Elaine Simon from Research for Action and Chris Brown from the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform describe four strategies for building public accountability for education.

Two predominant responses to calls for accountability in public education are bureaucratic and professional accountability. Bureaucratic accountability refers to the accountability of schools to various levels of administration for student performance; professional accountability refers to the accountability of school staff in fulfilling their educational roles. These two forms of accountability are often seen as complementary (Elmore, 2002; Fuhrman, 1999; O’Day, 2002), but even when combined, their influence on schools is limited. They are built on the assumption that schools exist in isolation from the complex social and political contexts in which they function. In studying the contribution of community-organizing groups to urban school reform, we found a form of accountability that includes this context and so adds value to the predominant models (Gold, Simon & Brown, 2002). We call this form “public accountability.”

The Predominant Forms of Accountability
Bureaucratic accountability is the basis for the vast majority of formal accountability systems. It is top-down and holds schools accountable to the district, state, or federal government for student performance on standardized tests. Rewards and sanctions serve as external motivators for improving student achievement. Because failure to improve test scores can have significant consequences, these tests are often referred to as “high stakes.”

In professional accountability the principal and teachers are mutually accountable for meeting a standard of teaching, which is reinforced by their collaboration and a sense of collective responsibility for student achievement. This form relies on intrinsic motivation to improve teaching practice and student performance.

To improve schools, both of these forms of accountability rely on the professionals within the system. Public accountability, on the other hand, connects schools and their communities, broadens the range of actors who take responsibility for school improvement, and uses a public, deliberative process to engage stakeholders and maintain the pressure for school improvement.

Related Resource

Gold, E., Simon, E., & Brown, C. (2002). Strong neighborhoods, strong schools: The Indicators Project on Education Organizing. Chicago: Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform. Available at This report provides a methodology for understanding the contribution of community organizing to education reform by presenting an indicators framework, a theory of change, and the accomplishments of five organizing groups in effecting institutional changes in schools and districts.

Public Accountability
Community organizing is a set of practices for building community leadership and a powerful base of community members who can take collective action in the interests of low-income neighborhoods. In our case study research with five community-organizing groups,¹ four common strategies emerged for creating public accountability for education.

Public Conversations
Public conversations are open and deliberative processes in which a range of stakeholders examines information, engages in problem solving, and makes commitments to work for solutions. All of the five community-organizing groups we observed created accountability“events” where public conversations that included school staff and parents, as well as mayors, city council representatives, superintendents, and others in positions of authority made commitments to school improvement efforts.

Monitoring Programs and Policies
Parents and community members monitor programs and policies when they collect and look at data to make judgments about the adequacy of their schools, the authenticity of school improvement efforts, and the credibility of results. Community organizing in all of the sites used test scores and other data as tools for drawing attention to where problems were not being addressed and for engaging a broader range of stakeholders in problem solving.

Participating in the Political Arena
By participating in the political arena, community-organizing groups take action to counterbalance the influences on elected and public officials that have allowed poor conditions in schools to exist. To create the political will to take action, all of the groups we observed participated in the political arena through get-out-the-vote campaigns, individual and public meetings with elected representatives, and by turning out large numbers of constituents for accountability events.

Joint Ownership and Relational Culture
Community organizing has a methodology for developing relationships of trust and collective responsibility, as well as a willingness to take action. Community-organizing groups share a set of practices, such as “one-on-ones” and “house meetings,” that build a culture in which relationships are not personal, but “public” in the sense that they lead to collective action.

The Added Value of Public Accountability
You can judge an accountability system by its ability to produce relevant information, motivate individuals, build knowledge to improve practice, and allocate resources appropriately (O’Day, 2002, p. 294). Standing alone, none of the three forms of accountability will work to accomplish these ends. Neither bureaucratic nor professional accountability can be fully realized without public accountability.

The added value of public accountability is to enhance the use of information generated by bureaucratic accountability by mobilizing the school community to take action in light of the data. In addition, the practices related to building joint ownership can stimulate, strengthen, and sustain the kind of collaborative school culture in which professional accountability flourishes. Finally, public accountability addresses resource allocation by generating the political will to stimulate action in the interest of low-income students. Although public accountability is not widely acknowledged, we feel that it is essential for improving urban public schools.

Elmore, R. (2002, November 26). Scaling up educational reform. Paper presented at the Distinguished Voices in Education series of the Philadelphia Education Fund, Philadelphia, PA.

Fuhrman, S. H. (1999, January). The new accountability (CPRE Policy Briefs No. RB-27). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

Gold, E., Simon, E., & Brown, C. (2002). Strong neighborhoods, strong schools. Chicago: Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform. [Available at]

O’Day, J. A. (2002). Complexity, accountability, and school improvement. Harvard Education Review, 72(3), 293–327.

¹ The groups were the Alliance Organizing Project (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), Austin Interfaith (Austin, Texas), Logan Square Neighborhood Association (Chicago, Illinois), New York ACORN (New York, New York), and Oakland Community Organizations (Oakland, California.)

Eva Gold

Elaine Simon
Senior Research Associate

Research for Action
3701 Chestnut St.
Philadelphia, PA 19104
Tel: 215-823-2500

Chris Brown
Director of the Schools and Community Program
The Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform
407 South Dearborn St., Ste. 1500
Chicago, IL 60605
Tel: 312-322-4880

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