Challenging the Assumption of Rationality in Performance-Based Accountability Systems: A Comparative Case Study of School and District Decision-Making Approaches

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Education policy
School improvement
Education Policy
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CHALLENGING THE ASSUMPTION OF RATIONALITY IN PERFORMANCE-BASED ACCOUNTABILITY SYSTEMS: A COMPARATIVE CASE STUDY OF SCHOOL AND DISTRICT DECISION-MAKING APPROACHES Jessica K. Beaver Richard M. Ingersoll Performance-based accountability systems provide schools and districts with detailed student performance data on the front end and demand that schools meet rigorous minimum proficiency thresholds on the back end or face a set of sanctions that ratchet up year after year. The process by which schools and districts make decisions for improvement in order to meet these requirements, however, is opaque at best. Each district is like an island unto itself, with its own political context, financial constraints, demographic and economic makeup, human capital, and social dynamics. Especially given the immense amount of money spent every year in improvement grants to districts, as well as the plethora of vendors touting new products, there is a clear imperative to understand how schools and districts select particular programs or strategies for improvement above other options. In this dissertation study, I apply the literature on search and decision-making in other disciplines to the field of public elementary and secondary education, paying particular attention to schools and districts under pressure to improve from performance-based accountability systems. I employ a comparative case study approach, using three consecutive years of data from a stratified random sample of eight schools (nested within their districts) in Pennsylvania. I find that schools and districts are under immense pressure to demonstrate student achievement gains, and that this pressure extends to all phases of the decision-making process, including problem identification, search, and the decision point. Despite this pressure, I find that schools do not descend into chaos when making decisions for improvement - they generally approach the decision-making process in a linear manner and let building-level administrators employ a "middle-out" approach to decision-making. But on the other hand, schools are far from purely rational organizations, as there are forces internal and external to the school or district that constrain decision-making processes. Although these constraints affect all stages of the decision-making process, they have the most severe influence on the search phase. Finally, I create a framework that advances the literature on decision-making in education by establishing four distinct typologies of decision-making approaches.

Richard M. Ingersoll
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