How Do Charter and Traditional School Board Members Define Accountability?

November 15, 2016

michael r. ford

This week’s post is written by Dr. Michael R. Ford. Dr. Ford is an Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh.  His research interests include public and nonprofit school board governance, accountability, and education reform. 


Back in February I penned a blog post here discussing some recent research I completed on charter school board governance. At the time, little academic work on charter boards existed. I argued then (and continue to argue) that ignoring charter school boards is a serious oversight for both academic and practitioners. Why? There is great variation in charter school laws, charter school organizational structures, and of course charter school quality. There is nothing magical about a charter school in and of itself that should be expected to improve student performance in all circumstances. Rather, the success or failure of a charter school reform is dependent on the organizations involved, i.e. the schools themselves. As such, it is imperative that more is known about the governance of charter schools.

I am happy to report that more work is being done. In September, the pro-charter Thomas B. Fordham Institute released the results of a survey of Washington D.C. charter school board members. They found, among other things, that board members overseeing high-quality charter schools exhibit comparably better governance behaviors. Though this does not prove a causal link exists between charter board governance and school quality, it is more evidence suggesting that board governance is linked with school quality.

Douglas Ihrke and myself also continue our work on charter school boards in the states of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Educational Administration entitled School Board Member Definitions of Accountability: A Comparison of Charter and Traditional Public School Board Members, we explore two research questions relating to accountability:

  • How do charter and traditional school board members define accountability?
  • Do charter and traditional school board members define accountability differently, and if so, do they do so in predictable ways?

We focus on accountability for two reasons. First, charter schools are argued by proponents to offer an authorizer-based accountability model that is superior to the democratic accountability offered by an elected school board. As such, understanding how the individuals actually overseeing both school districts and charter schools view their accountability function is relevant to the K-12 governance debate. Second, our previous research on Wisconsin school boards found a link between a common definition of accountability among board members serving together and student performance; when board members are on the same page regarding accountability, performance improves.

We asked 132 traditional public school and 82 charter school board members in Minnesota a simple open-ended question: How do you define accountability as it relates to academic outcomes? We then coded the answers into the following four categories:

  • High Stakes: Definitions mentioning “test scores, standards, or growth.”
  • Staff/Systems: Definitions mentioning “staff, staff evaluation, and bureaucratic systems.”
  • In-Process: Definitions stating that the board’s accountability definition is being developed.
  • None: Board members stated they have no definition.

The figure below shows the responses. As can be seen, charter school board members are much more likely to give a high stakes definition than traditional school board members, and traditional public school board members are more likely to give a staff/systems definition. Though relatively few respondents overall indicated they had no definition of accountability, those who did were more likely to be traditional charter school board members.


The differences between traditional and charter school boards aligned with our expectations. It is logical that board members overseeing schools operating via an authorizer-based accountability model are more likely to favor a high stakes accountability approach. After controlling for board member variables (age, ideology, and gender) and school/district variables (size, race, socioeconomics, and revenue) we concluded that being a charter school board member more than doubles the odds of having a high stakes accountability definition.

Surprisingly, ideology had no relationship with one’s accountability definition. This is consistent with previous research Doug and I have conducted, and reflects “a growing recognition that education policy preferences do not break down easily along partisan lines.” It is also substantively significant that almost one-third of charter board respondents take a staff/systems approach to accountability, while over 40 percent of traditional board members takes a high stakes approach. The overlap suggests the individuals overseeing both charter and traditional school systems have common ground for professional collaboration and learning.

Overall, I am hopeful this research brings greater attention to the importance of studying charter school boards. If you accept that the success or failure of charter school policy is dependent on the quality of the schools participating, it is necessary to understand how the schools themselves are governed. Further, the lack of direct electoral legitimacy under the charter model places great importance on understanding how those overseeing charter schools view key concepts such as accountability for performance. For now, the presented findings show that despite much overlap, there are significant differences between charter and traditional school board members in their approaches to accountability.