Now that "accountability" has become a buzzword in school reform, it falls easily from the lips of presidential candidates.

But George W. Bush and Al Gore are a long way from agreeing on how to achieve it.

What they do agree on - in fact, what's fast becoming a common-sense assumption of reform - is that public schools must be held responsible for the quality of students they graduate. A high school degree must mean more than time spent in a classroom.

Nearly all the states have some form of standards-based reform that includes at least a statement about holding schools accountable for the performance of students. At least half the states have, or are well on their way to having, programs that specify a system of accountability for schools.

Typically, such programs require a regimen of standardized tests to assess how schools are doing, then apply either rewards or penalties.

People argue, reasonably, about the fairness of applying the same standards to all schools despite their economic and social makeup, and about how to reward or punish schools. This much, however, should be clear: Accountability is more likely to force needed change than is the old practice of loose oversight.

Also clear: The accountability movement is still young. On average, many states have had about two years of experience with full-fledged accountability programs. Some places, such as Mr. Bush's Texas, are beginning to show some results. A number of Texan school districts, among them Houston's, have made moderate though significant gains in student performance - especially with minority children.

California has launched a similar program, which sets test-score goals for schools throughout the state and promises funding increases - including substantial pay bonuses for teachers - to schools that surpass the goals. Schools that consistently do poorly could face an eventual state takeover.

That kind of impending penalty - less money, or state intervention - is what distinguishes Governor Bush's approach to accountability from Vice President Gore's. Bush's ultimate sanction (or perhaps solution) is to give federally supported vouchers to parents of students at failing public schools to pay for a private school. This, like the threat of state intervention, would act as a prod for change.

Mr. Gore, with strong political ties to public-school teachers' unions, treads softly on penalties. He's adamantly against vouchers.

Vouchers have many potential problems, not the least of them the issue of indirect government funding of church-run schools. But the idea of forcing consequences for schools that don't meet standards is sound.

Accountability that puts rigorous and unassailable meaning into diplomas and grades remains more a theory than a practical reality. If intelligently applied, it should enhance, not supersede, local control of schools.

States are setting standards, true, but schools should be given the flexibility to come up with various strategies for meeting those standards. Differences among schools, such as those with many disadvantaged children, have to be considered.

The goal isn't to punish poorly performing schools, or teachers. It's to keep a fundamental public promise: that all children will receive an education that meets a standard.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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