Panel Paper: Accountability Games: Organizational Cheating In State Elementary and Secondary Education Policy

Thursday, November 8, 2012 : 10:55 AM
Salon D (Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore Hotel)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Paul Manna1, Susan L. Moffitt2 and Claire Delcourt1, (1)College of William and Mary, (2)Brown University

Who cheats? What factors are likely to predict when cheating will occur?  What implications does cheating have for substantive policy outcomes?  We address these questions by assessing state implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Although NCLB has been analyzed extensively, we are aware of no quantitative empirical study that has examined state-level organizational cheating.  That is surprising since many state leaders are vocal critics of the law and anecdotal accounts suggest states have attempted to avoid NCLB’s most significant consequences by obeying its letter but violating its spirit.  Such implementation behavior that nevertheless remains legal yet cuts against the intent of accountability systems is a subtle and important variant of organizational cheating (Meier and O’Toole 2006).  Arguably, this gaming of the system, as others have called it, is more likely to occur than blatant lawbreaking, which makes it an important behavior for policy scholars to study.  Our  paper provides a novel and rigorous empirical analysis of organizational cheating in three areas: (1) the generosity with which state testing systems grant exemptions or accommodations for students with disabilities; (2) the degree to which states, when devising NCLB implementation plans in the early 2000s, set achievement trajectories that expected only relatively low gains before NCLB’s scheduled reauthorization in 2007; and (3) state decisions that require relatively large student subgroups to be present in schools before such groups would factor into school accountability decisions.  We assess the impact of (1) resources (financial, administrative, and professional); (2) task complexity (coordination, performance gaps, student needs); and (3) political pressure (electoral competitiveness, group mobilization, political support for accountability) on state decisions to cheat.  Our analysis builds on Bardach’s (1977) dilemmas of administration and on the notion that a key factor contributing to strong implementation and useful oversight is that implementers and overseers view accountability systems as legitimate and valuable tools that can improve outcomes (Gormley and Weimer 1999; Moynihan 2008).  These situations occur when overseers and implementers act to uphold the letter and spirit of the accountability law.  That ideal can be difficult to realize in practice given that accountability systems often breed cynicism when they seem to serve political goals rather than substantive ones (Radin 2006).  In those instances, implementers may adopt the sorts of strategies that we call organizational cheating: technically following the law’s letter but violating its spirit.  Using a unique dataset, we extend and depart from Meier and O’Toole’s (2006) local analysis to offer a novel model of state level organizational cheating that both demonstrates the determinants of cheating and suggests how resources, tasks and political arrangements may be modified to yield more faithful implementation of both the letter and spirit of the law.

Eugene Bardach.  1977.  The Implementation Game. MIT Press.

William Gormley and David Weimer. 1999. Organizational Report Cards. Harvard UP.

Kenneth Meier and Laurence O’Toole, Jr. 2006. Bureaucracy in a Democratic State. Johns Hopkins UP.

Donald Moynihan 2008. The Dynamics of Performance Management. Georgetown UP.

Beryl Radin. 2006. Challenging the Performance Movement. Georgetown UP.