No Agency Left Behind

Accountability and results-driven management are here to stay.

If you want a good lesson in management, visit your local school principal. He or she can tell you what it's like to manage in a performance-focused, data-driven, results-oriented environment. Because of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, those buzz phrases actually mean something to public school managers.

The law requires schools to administer tests in reading and math to students each spring. The results are tallied and released publicly in summer. If test results don't meet state standards, the school is placed on a probationary list. After two years of not meeting standards, a school has to allow students to transfer to better performing schools. After three years, the school has to provide after-school tutoring. After that, a state may send in consultants to help the school, or eventually replace the principal and teachers, or close it and reopen as a charter school.

Because test results are announced school by school, principals are the most accountable level of management. It's their job to figure out how to get teachers to do a better job, and to keep their schools off the No Child Left Behind lists. Based on the test scores, principals are making significant changes. They're changing curriculums. They're putting teachers into teams that meet regularly to discuss classroom techniques. They're creating after-school programs targeted at the students most likely to improve test scores if given special attention. They're holding schoolwide assemblies to celebrate rising scores.

Many principals will point to management successes they've accomplished under the No Child Left Behind Act. As you might have read in your local newspaper, test scores across the country are going up. But you'll hear the cons as well as the pros when you talk to school managers. Principals are worried about morale among teachers and students who are being driven hard to boost test scores. They're worried about overemphasizing reading and math at the expense of other subjects. They complain that test scores alone don't tell the story of their management efforts. Principals are responsible for the whole school environment, from discipline to character-building to facilities to human resources. Deciding their fate on the basis of a few scores seems unfair to many.

Nonetheless, principals accept that accountability is here to stay. No matter who wins the presidential election this fall, No Child Left Behind will survive in one form or another. The same is true of accountability and results-driven management across the federal government. They have not taken hold in the federal bureaucracy to the extent they have taken hold in public schools, but schools have been on the path toward measuring results for about two decades, while the government's effort is closer to a decade old, marked by the passage of the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act. GPRA was probably just a forebear to some future act that will better tackle the results question in federal agencies, just as No Child Left Behind was preceded by several iterations of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Federal managers can learn from principals struggling to get all the kids in their schools to perform well on the annual tests, because data-driven management is everywhere. The FBI counts arrests, the Forest Service records acres logged, the Veterans Health Administration keeps track of patients served. The tests are coming for federal agencies, and if you want to get a heads-up on what they'll mean for you, ask your kids, their teachers and their principals.