A Fundamentally New Approach to Accountability: Putting State Policy Issues First

by | Oct 2003

October 2003

The Public Policy Problem: Lack of Successful Approaches to Statewide Accountability

Despite years of effort to implement structures for accountability in higher education, there is a large “gap between promises and performance in these systems” (Wellman, 2001). Most state efforts continue to be plagued by value conflicts between policymakers and educators, problems of measuring student learning, unrealistic performance budgeting schemes, confusion about the audiences for accountability, a focus on institutional performance that shortchanges critical state issues, and general data overload that impedes, rather than enhances, decision making.

The lack of workable approaches to accountability is a major national concern. Over the last few decades, education beyond high school has become ever more important to individual well-being and to the economic health of the states. A combination of factors now poses challenges for higher education and for state policymakers who ultimately are responsible for the education of their people. Enrollment is growing in most states, the student body is changing dramatically, costs are rising, state support for higher education is generally declining, student fees are increasing, and there is growing public demand to ensure that states are making proper investments in public higher education.

Policymakers across the nation are in dire need of reliable, useful information about higher education outcomes. Whole segments of the population nationwide are in danger of being excluded from the opportunities afforded by postsecondary education. State policy issues of access, capacity, affordability, achievement gaps, and state economic development are simply not being addressed adequately in the kinds of accountability systems that are in place in most states.

Purpose and Design of the Research 

In 2002 the California Senate commissioned the California State University, Sacramento Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy to study higher education accountability trends around the country and provide guidance in developing a statewide accountability structure for California. As a relative latecomer to statewide accountability efforts for postsecondary education, California was poised to benefit from experiences in other states. Specifically, the Senate asked us to “begin development of an over-arching accountability system for higher education that measures progress made in addressing clear and definable state policy goals.” With this charge, the Senate set forth the challenge to address accountability from a statewide policy perspective. We hope that California’s work can help re-frame national discussions of accountability to put state policy issues at the center of the agenda.

Our report to the Senate, entitled An Accountability Framework for California Higher Education: Informing Public Policy and Improving Outcomes, produced a set of recommendations which in turn led the Legislature to convene an advisory group to develop a specific framework and structure for statewide accountability. The advisory group includes representatives of the three public higher education segments, the independent college sector, legislative staff, and outside accountability experts. Our Institute was asked to coordinate the effort. Starting from a rough set of policy goals endorsed by legislative leaders, the advisory group developed a framework of goals, indicators, processes, and principles. This work is nearing completion and will be presented to the Legislature in November, 2003 with the expectation that implementing legislation will be introduced in 2004.

In conducting the research for the original report, we reviewed the literature on accountability in the public sector, generally, and in higher education, specifically. We reviewed experiences of other states and several national accountability initiatives. Most importantly we interviewed legislators, legislative staff, executive staff, representatives of higher education institutions, faculty, and national experts. Talking to those who work in the higher education policy arena and whose efforts are key to the success of accountability proved an indispensable source of learning for this project. We attribute the positive response that this report received from all stakeholders to the fact that the recommendations reflected the complexity of the educational enterprise and the care with which state-level accountability must be developed in this arena.

This follow-up policy paper has the benefit of nearly a year of hands-on work with the original framework proposed in the earlier report. We have presented the ideas to a number of state and national audiences and we have put flesh on the bones, so to speak, through the development of the performance indicators that would be used to guide state level policymaking. We have struggled with how a complex undertaking such as this can best be described and presented concisely to policymakers and educators, both of whom have predispositions about, and legitimate interests in, accountability. In short, this “field research” has helped to hone the original ideas and to clarify the ways in which the California approach may be able to improve upon existing state accountability systems. In this paper we analyze the status of current state accountability efforts—focusing on the chief obstacles they have encountered, describe the elements of the proposed California framework that aim to overcome these obstacles, and discuss the prospects for success.

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