There are different perspectives on accountability held by different stakeholders. Instructors—whether teachers, adult educators, or academics—may not want to be involved with accountability mechanisms that are not directly tied to learning. They often feel that they take attention away from the real business of education, and may not do a very good job of representing what is important. Educators often argue that the effects of programs can only be understood by looking at individuals’ stories, and that numbers are not helpful. At the same time, policymakers and program managers need to know about how an entire program is getting on, and often the most effective way to pull that information together is through numbers. Reconciling these perspectives is a key challenge.
Different stakeholders in any form of educational program have different information needs. Instructors need to know how learners are responding to the program. Policymakers need to know if the program is meeting broad goals. Program managers need to know if the program is working well. Learners need to know that they are progressing and learning what they are motivated to learn. The irreconcilability of different informational needs is an issue that will be returned to several times throughout this paper.
It is helpful to look a little more closely at accountability in order to understand what we are talking about and what effects it has on programs. Accountability is a specialized form of program evaluation that sets out to demonstrate that a program is meeting its aims effectively and efficiently. Programs can be seen as accountable to a wide range of constituencies, not least learners, but this discussion focuses on accountability to funders and similar groups with power over the program.
There are many different forms of accountability, but generally there are common characteristics: