The Myth of Accountability: How Data (Mis)Use is Reinforcing the Problems of Public Education

In this primer, D&S researcher Claire Fontaine examines the construct of accountability as it functions in discussions around education reform in the American public education system. The paper considers the historic precursors to accountability, as well as the set of political, economic, cultural, and social conditions that led to test scores becoming the main measure of a school’s success.

In addition to the historical context around accountability, the paper considers important questions about who accountability serves, what the incentive structures are, and how accountability is gamed and resisted. In short, accountability of what, to whom, for what ends, at what cost?


There is an ongoing tension in the American public education system between the values of excellence, equity, and a sustained commitment to efficiency. Accountability has emerged as a framework in education reform that promises to promote and balance all three values. Yet, this frame is often contested due to disagreements over the role of incentives and penalties in achieving desirable change, and concerns that the proposed mechanisms will have significant unintended consequences that outweigh potential benefits. More fundamentally, there is widespread disagreement over how to quantify excellence and equity, if it is even possible to do so. Accountability rhetoric echoes a broader turn toward data-driven decision-making and resource allocation across sectors. As a tool of power, accountability processes shift authority and control away from professional educators and toward policymakers, bureaucrats, and test makers.

The construct of accountability is predicated on several assumptions. First, it privileges quantification and statistical analysis as ways of knowing and is built on a long history of standardized testing and data collection. Second, it takes learning to be both measurable and the product of instruction, an empiricist perspective descended from John Locke and the doctrine that knowledge is derived primarily from experience. Third, it holds that schools, rather than families, neighborhoods, communities, or society at large, are fundamentally responsible for student performance. This premise lacks a solid evidentiary basis and is closely related to the ideology of meritocracy. Finally, efforts to achieve accountability presume that market-based solutions can effectively protect the interests of society’s most vulnerable, another controversial assumption.

The accountability movement reflects the application of free market economics to public education, a legacy of the Chicago School of Economics in the post-World War II era. As a set of policies it was instantiated in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, reauthorized as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002, and reinforced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015. Teaching and learning are increasingly measured and quantified to enable analysis of the relationship between inputs (e.g., funding) and outputs (e.g., student performance).

As has been true in other sectors when data-driven surveillance and assessment practices are introduced, outcomes are not always as expected. It is unclear whether this data push will promote equality of opportunity, merely document inequality, or perhaps even increase racial and socioeconomic segregation. Furthermore, little is understood about the costs of increased assessment on the health and success of students and teachers, externalities that are rarely measured or considered in the march to accountability. States will need to generate stakeholder buy-in and think carefully about the metrics they include in their accountability formulas in order to balance mandates for accountability, the benefits that accrue to students from preserving teacher autonomy and professionalism, the social good of equal opportunity, and public calls for transparency and innovation.