A tale of two systems: School districts and state accountability policies

Elliot H Weinbaum, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation documents the ways in which school districts in two states respond to their respective state accountability systems with regard to their efforts to help high schools to improve instruction. Using states with accountability systems that contrast on a number of variables, this paper analyzes the ways in which state accountability systems influence district role in high school improvement and, where influence exists, how it is exerted. Included is a discussion of whether there is any evidence that such policies are leading school districts towards practices that are likely to result in instructional improvement at the high school level. Performance-based educational accountability systems are a feature of state education policy across the nation. The unit that most states have created to disseminate and implement state accountability policies is the local educational agency, commonly known as the district office. The focus on standards and outputs that such accountability systems entail, commonly referred to as “new accountability,” presents an opportunity to develop a greater understanding of how state policy influences school districts. Most state accountability policies have only a passing reference to the role of the district and instead create stakes to impact schools, teachers and students. Within this policy context, districts have significant latitude in their responses. Due to the unique position of the district and the limited research about the ways in which districts respond to accountability pressure or the strategies that they might use for improvement, I have focused my research on the district role. My research draws on extensive document analysis at the state level and interviews with local district and high school staff. Through case study analyses, this dissertation documents levels and areas of district response. The research provides evidence of variation both within and between states, while patterns were inconsistent between states. This research concludes that the district response to state accountability policy is a combination of particular features of the policy (comprehensibility, comprehensiveness, consistency, credibility, chronology) as well as contextual factors unique to the districts (size, leadership, previous performance). These factors influence both the level and focus of activities occurring in districts. This dissertation discusses the policy implications of these findings and provides recommendations for making the most effective use of district offices in the effort to improve high school instruction.

Subject Area

School administration|Secondary education

Recommended Citation

Weinbaum, Elliot H, "A tale of two systems: School districts and state accountability policies" (2004). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3125915.