In Politics of School Reform, Transparency Doesn't Equal Accountability

Originally published in U.S. News & World Report

Commentary | May 15, 2009

Transparency is powerful and President Obama has rightly made it a pillar of his administration's approach to policymaking. But transparency also offers the seductive promise of an easy way out for policymakers. It can trap proponents of various policy proposals in an intellectual cul de sac because it becomes easy to see information as sufficient to drive reform rather than just as a predicate for change. The risk is especially potent when proponents are convinced of the obviousness of the changes they seek.

We've seen this repeatedly with federal education policy. The Bush administration assumed the federal No Child Left Behind law would produce a tidal wave of student and school performance data that would swamp opposition to school improvement efforts. Seven years later the political resistance to education reform is as potent as ever and former Bush aides now acknowledge placing too much faith in the power of information.

In 1997, Congress tried unsuccessfully to increase accountability for colleges of education and teacher training programs by requiring them to report more data about outcomes. "Congress asked colleges of education to take stock of quality issues, but instead the colleges mostly whitewashed the problem," says Ross Weiner, a senior adviser at The Education Trust. No Child Left Behind also required states and school districts to issue better report cards about educational performance. There, too, evasion rather than aggressive efforts are the norm.

Problematic examples abound. In fact, over more than a half century, federal education policy has succeeded only when coupled with civil rights laws or linked to clear conditions and enforcement.

This is why some of what the Obama administration is proposing on education is disconcerting to school reformers. The recent economic stimulus bill contains more than $100 billon in education spending, a historic investment equal to about 16 percent of the nation's annual expenditures on public elementary and secondary schools. In exchange, states are required to report more information about student performance and make "assurances" that they will work to improve schools. However, the law requires little in the way of actual changes. "States have made these assurances over and over again, the question is whether they're going to have to meet the promises they keep making," argues Charlie Barone, formerly a top aide on the House of Representatives education committee and now policy director for Democrats for Education Reform, an advocacy group.

Describing the information states are required to report, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote recently that, "When parents recognize which schools are failing to educate their children, they will demand more effective options for their kids." Perhaps. But there are good reasons for skepticism.

Although schools are notoriously opaque institutions, parents are not completely in the dark now. Urban parents and minority parents, for instance, generally rate their schools lower than other parents. Data on school performance support their judgment. Still, parents and students lose in the policy battles more often than they win because that information alone does not force change on powerful stakeholders or the formidable array of special-interest groups resisting reforms with costs for the groups they represent. In that way, education reform is an old story in a representative democracy like ours: The unorganized general interest is often trumped by organized special interests.

Consider our cluttered tax code, inefficient or harmful agriculture subsides, gun control, environmental policy, or unsustainable energy and healthcare policies. Does the lack of progress on any of these issues really stem from insufficient awareness of the problems? Or is the status quo a function of interests and politics, basically the exact forces that the nation's founders sought to both cultivate and mitigate?

Yet because there is a pervasive sense that education is unique (everyone just wants what's best for the kids!), basic political tendencies are too frequently wished away. Actually, in education these trends are often more acute because of the highly politically controlled nature of public schools and the decentralization of education decision-making.

Data, transparency, and public availability of educational information are all highly desirable elements of education reform. It's ridiculous that today a parent can find more information about choosing a new washing machine or automobile than about choosing a school, and it's a travesty how frequently ideology trumps evidence in education policymaking. But given how the politics of education work, transparency will drive change only in concert with policies actually requiring change. Information alone is not enough.

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