Rewards and Sanctions. Taking a leaf from the business and organizational literature, designers of accountability mechanisms have sought to create tangible rewards for high performance and significant penalties for poor performance. The goal was to create real incentives for change, rather than relying simply on the good will and best efforts of teachers and administrators.
The practices have varied widely. Nearly all states, and many districts, have simply published performance results, or provided them to newspapers, which published them. By making the information public, officials reasoned, schools would have an incentive to improve to look their best in the media and have an answer for parents and public officials who questioned their performance. These public reporting systems certainly attracted the public's attention; whether they produced any real change is not clear (Elmore et al., 1996).
In other cases, states and districts have tried more stringent methods to spur change. Some 14 states offer rewards to high-performing schools (Education Week, 1998). These include ceremonial honors, such as blue ribbons, as well as cash awards. South Carolina and Mississippi relaxed certain state regulations for schools that performed above a designated level.
The power of these rewards as motivations for change is unclear. In Kentucky, where the state provided cash bonuses to schools amounting to between $1,300 and $2,600 per certified staff member, the bonuses did not appear to have much effect (Elmore et al., 1996). Some teachers doubted whether the bonuses would in fact materialize, citing a previously announced bonus plan that died aborning. Whatever the reason, teachers did not appear to pay much attention to the prospect of cash awards.
More significant in Kentucky, and elsewhere, was the threat of sanctions (Kelley et al., 1998). Some 31 states provide some sort of penalty for failing schools (Education Week, 1998), ranging from requiring a state-approved improvement plan, to reconstitution (replacing the entire faculty and staff), to state takeover. Few states have actually imposed the most dramatic sanctions; the threats themselves appear to have spurred schools into action. The threats have even attracted the notice of schools that are not at risk of intervention (Firestone et al., 1998).
Many states and districts that have not imposed sanctions have offered assistance to troubled schools. Assistance can take the form of technical help in writing school improvement plans, as in Mississippi, or a state-appointed monitoring team that oversees the implementation of a reform plan, as in New York State. These assistance efforts have helped to turn troubled schools around; however, it is not clear whether states or districts have sufficient capacity to assist all schools that need help. A survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that only 9 states report that they can provide support to at least half the schools in need of improvement; 12 states report that they serve less than half of schools in need of improvement; and 24 states say they have more schools in need of improvement than they can serve (U.S. Department of Education,