High-Stakes Reform

The Politics of Educational Accountability

Kathryn A. McDermott

"An outstanding examination of the consequences of standards-based reform. . . . Thorough, balances, and provocative — a worthy addition to the field."
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Performance accountability has been the dominant trend in education policy reform since the 1970s. State and federal policies set standards for what students should learn; require students to take “high-stakes” tests to measure what they have learned; and then hold students, schools, and school districts accountable for their performance. The goal of these policies is to push public school districts to ensure that all students reach a common threshold of knowledge and skills.

High-Stakes Reform analyzes the political processes and historical context that led to the enactment of state-level education accountability policies across the country. It also situates the education accountability movement in the broader context of public administration research, emphasizing the relationships among equity, accountability, and intergovernmental relations. The book then focuses on three in-depth case studies of policy development in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Kathryn McDermott zeroes in on the most controversial and politically charged forms of state performance accountability sanctions, including graduation tests, direct state intervention in or closing of schools, and state takeovers of school districts.

Public debate casts performance accountability as either a cure for the problems of US public education or a destructive mistake. Kathryn McDermott expertly navigates both sides of the debate detailing why particular policies became popular, how the assumptions behind the policies influenced the forms they took, and what practitioners and scholars can learn from the successes and failures of education accountability policies.

Table of Contents

1. Scrutinizing Educational Performance

2. Performance-Based Accountability

3. The Evolution of Educational Accountability

4. Education Standards and Performance Accountability, 1970-2001

5. Educational Performance Accountability in Three States

6. Education Finance and Accountability in Massachusetts: "The Grand Bargain"

7. Accountability and Equity in New Jersey: “Where Home Rule Hasn’t Worked, the Legislature Must Do What Home Rule Has Not Done”

8. Incrementalism and Local Control in Connecticut: “I’m Not Out Looking for Your Keys”

9. Assessing Performance Accountability in Education

10. Lessons for Performance Measurement Research and Practice




"A noble effort to advance the common understanding of the variables at play in this complicated and important conversation about the future of public education. It is also not a shot at any of the players. Through a reasoned discussion of the issues, it is an attempt to help us all move forward in a positive direction, rather than one that is detrimental to all—most notably, the children."—New York Journal of Books

"An outstanding examination of the consequences of standards-based reform. . . . Thorough, balances, and provocative — a worthy addition to the field."—Choice

"Accountability and standards are the new language of education reform, and states are the lynchpins in the accountability movement. High-Stakes Reform shows how these threads are interwoven. Kathryn McDermott is an excellent guide, attentive to theories of governance and management but grounded also in cases of practice where simple-sounding ideas confront historical and organizational complexities."—Jeffrey R. Henig, professor of political science and education, Teachers College, Columbia University; and coeditor of Between Public and Private: Politics, Governance, and the New Portfolio Models for Urban School Reform

"McDermott combines intensive historical analysis with state case studies to produce specific policy implications. A major message is that more humility among policymakers and increased governmental and school capacity are needed to make accountability effective for better teaching in classrooms."—Michael Kirst, professor emeritus, Stanford University

"McDermott examines how 'results-oriented' accountability policies captured the education reform agenda at both the state and federal level and became the dominant instrument of public school reform in the United States. Drawing on the literature in public administration and education, McDermott sheds light on both the educational and political consequences of this genre of accountability policies by highlighting their impact on schools and demonstrating how 'new performance management' alters the distribution of power (for better or worse) within and across local, state, and federal governments."—Betty Malen, professor of education policy studies, University of Maryland, College Park


Supplemental Materials


About the Author

Kathryn A. McDermott is an associate professor of education and public policy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

236 pp., 6 x 9
4 figures, 6 tables
Jul 2011

236 pp., 6 x 9
4 figures, 6 tables
ISBN: 978-1-58901-767-2
Jul 2011

236 pp.
4 figures, 6 tables
ISBN: 978-1-58901-788-7
Jul 2011

Public Management and Change series
Beryl A. Radin, Series Editor

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