What do we mean by internal accountability?

The notion of Internal Accountability was developed shortly before the authorization of the No Child Left Behind policy in 2001, when external accountability environments were on the rise. The theory driving the research was that external accountability systems operate on the margins of powerful factors operating inside schools, and that understanding these internal factors would be a precondition to understanding how and why schools responded the way they did to external pressures for accountability. In other words, Richard Elmore and his research team were interested in understanding the internal variables responsible for the school-site variation in response to state and local accountability structures.

Internal Accountability theory posits a set of relationships among three factors operating within schools: individual conceptions of responsibility; shared expectations among school participants and stakeholders; and internal and external accountability mechanisms. An individual school’s internal conception of accountability grows from the relationship among these three factors. Their distinguishing characteristics are as follows:

  • Responsibility is personal and individual in nature and it stems from the values and beliefs of individuals. Individual conceptions of responsibility may come from a number of sources— from the life experience and moral background of the individuals, from their education and training, from their beliefs about the social determinants of student learning, and from their interaction with others.
  • Expectations, by contrast, are collective in nature and they characterize the shared norms and values of school participants developed to get the work of the school done. They are formed out of relationships among individuals, and they operate in often powerful ways to shape individuals’ behavior and values.
  • Accountability mechanisms are, literally, the variety of formal and informal ways by which people in schools give an account of their actions to someone in a position of formal authority, inside or outside the school.


What might weak Internal Accountability in a school look like?

A school with low Internal Accountability might have relatively weak common expectations for teachers and students and internal accountability structures exerting little influence. In such a school, teachers’ conceptions of their work would be largely driven by their individual sense of responsibility. This school would be atomized, or, fragmented into individual or very small units. Teachers would form their expectations for students and their ideas about what and how to teach, largely out of their individual conceptions of responsibility.

Another type of school might have relatively strong common expectations about certain shared norms, and these expectations might be aligned closely with teachers’ conceptions of personal responsibility. A school might arrive at this state by recruiting teachers who already share a common view of teaching and learning and by creating internal structures and processes through which teachers share their personal beliefs and develop common expectations of each other.

Such a school might have either weak or strong internal accountability mechanisms. The school might simply operate on a daily basis, and teachers might define their work, based on shared expectations that are aligned with their sense of personal responsibility, with relatively few explicit rules or procedures designed to hold individuals accountable for their work. Or, as in the case of a school with high Internal Accountability, the school might extend its agreement at the level of responsibility and expectations into a relatively explicit internal accountability system of rules and procedures that provide a basis for teachers and students to account for their actions.


Why is this important when considering internal coherence?

One conclusion of the IA research was that due to the persistent isolation of teaching as an occupation, a school’s conception of accountability would collapse, by default, into individual teachers’ conceptions of responsibility. In such circumstances, a school’s response to external accountability pressure would be simply a collection of individual, often idiosyncratic, judgments by teachers, growing out of their backgrounds, capacities, and individual theories about what students can do or need.

Usually, the development of more explicit collective expectations was associated with the presence of a principal whose model of leadership embodied a concerted attempt to overcome the isolation of teaching, by shaping the normative culture of the school through recruitment of teachers and through direct involvement in the instructional life of the school. And sometimes the development of a stronger set of collective expectations— through the active agency of a leader and the engagement of teachers— led to the creation of observable internal accountability structures, informal and formal, that carried real stakes and consequences for members of the organization.

Richard Elmore and the IA research team concluded with the opinion that schools operating in the default mode would by highly unlikely to be able to respond to external accountability systems in ways that would lead to systematic, deliberate improvement of instruction and student learning. Because it is highly unlikely that individual decisions would somehow aggregate into overall improvement for the school, the idea that a school has the capacity to improve its instructional practice and the overall performance of its students implies a capacity for collective deliberation and action.



The Internal Accountability research concluded with the following questions:

Can the pressure of external accountability systems serve to galvanize schools to develop the prerequisite internal expectations and systems of accountability?

How will schools with low Internal Accountability gain the capacity to develop the internal norms and processes required for these internal expectations and accountability systems?



Text adapted from Abelman, C., Elmore, R., Even, J., Kenyon, S., Marshall, J. (1999). When accountability knocks, will anyone answer? (CPRE Research Rep. RR-42).

For Further Reading: Accountability from the Inside Out

The Internal Coherence Assessment and Protocol was developed by a team consisting of Richard Elmore, Michelle Forman, Elizabeth Leisy Stosich, and Candice Bocala.


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