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5 questions to ask when rethinking accountability systems

Superintendent of a large school district discusses the questions leadership and school boards should be asking when considering accountability.

I have a very interesting job. As an education correspondent, I conduct interviews with many of the leading voices in education. Rarely are the interviewees at a loss for words. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. David Vroonland, superintendent at Mesquite Independent School District in Texas. Mesquite ISD is a larger district, with 47 schools and over 40,000 students.

By all accounts, Mesquite is a successful and well-run district. It’s student population is diverse, with 56 percent Hispanic, 25 percent African American and 15 percent Caucasian. More than half their teachers hold a Master’s degree or higher, and their teacher turnover rate is an ultra-low 9.7 percent.

It’s telling that on their district website’s About Us page, Accountability holds the top position, and not just because it happens to fall in alphabetical order. Dave is a member of TPAC, the Texas Performance Assessment Consortium. He speaks out about assessment, and actively looks for better ways to understand community-based accountability systems.

I asked Dave when looking at accountability systems, what questions district leaders should be asking themselves, their leadership teams and their school boards. He paused. Collected his thoughts and shared, from my perspective, a very transparent and raw account of how complex issues are tackled by district-level thought leaders.

According to Dave, here are five questions you should be asking (and why):

1. What do you value? If you didn’t have your current system of testing, what would you value in terms of the experience of your children? Is the current system doing that for them?

2. How is the current system working? Here is a quick example: Look at your graduates, and say, I want my graduates better able to communicate, collaborate and express their understanding of a problem and how to solve it, which in the business world is very valuable.

We had a young lady that graduated from my previous district and went to interview for an accounting position at an oil company. They didn’t ask her a single question about accounting.

They wanted to know how she could solve a problem, what processes she would use and they presented her with a variety of different problems. That’s what businesses are looking for today. Does the current system do anything to support improvement in those areas?

A lot of districts are doing graduate profiles. If you’re looking at a graduate profile, how is the accountability system helping or hindering your effort to move kids along that profile? I would argue that it [accountability system] is creating a lot of harm.

You have to evaluate that. You need to be courageous, because you went into this business to serve young people. If you are asking yourself these questions and you’re not getting the answers you are looking for, you should get frustrated, and then you should pursue other avenues to make sure your children are getting educated in the way they should be educated.

(Next page: 3 more accountability questions to consider)

3. What is happening today? (Relevant to our expectation of what is happening in the classroom) The only way you are going to be able to answer that is to actually have “eyes on.” You need to build the capacities of people to be effective leaders on campuses.

You need to reverse the role of your central office. Its role should be a support system rather than a driver of behavior.

That has been a problem in large districts. We have basically had central offices driving everything. The bottom line is, if you build the capacity of leadership on campuses, operating within your line of site, you know every day what is happening, versus gathering data at six-week intervals. Data at six-week intervals is almost worthless data. It’s too late. You need to know that child today. You need to know what you need to do to pivot, today.

These kids can’t afford to have six weeks go by before you make a judgement on what they’re doing or [to make] a judgement on the curriculum.

That’s why formative assessments are so important. That’s why distributive leadership and ownership cultures are so important. If you are focused on data, you’re going to center around your predetermined ideas about what you think the data should show you. And if it’s not showing you, then you follow predetermined responses.

That has been our process for twenty years now. And I’m so frustrated, and everyone should be. At the end of all this testing we gather all this data, and then we go have data meetings. And out of those meetings we have action plans. And guess what? Year in and year out, we have the same action plan. It doesn’t change.

4. Has your action plan changed at all? I want my teachers to say, “How am I going to do this?” I want them to own the problem. I want them to be empowered to drive the solutions. That is a flip of the system. We need to trust our teachers; we need to build their capacity to do it very well.

But, we need to have “eyes on” with people who know what they are looking at on a regular basis–people who are there to support the teachers in their growth. That’s going to make the difference. We need to look at data but not in the way we typically do it.

We need to say data is important, but who is it important for? It’s not important for me. It’s important for that teacher so she can quickly pivot to the needs of that child.

Compliance systems don’t drive change, they drive mediocrity.

5. Is the current system designed to engage the community and parents in the day-to-day learning? All community stakeholders should be involved. It really becomes an economic development question. Are we providing the kind of education the community wants for our children to go forward and then be in control of their freedom?

The current accountability system neuters your board in terms of holding their schools accountable. Not intentionally, but by default. The board looks at the state and says, “What do you say we are?” The community then looks at the state and says, “What do you say we are?”

I want our community to look inside our buildings and hear from them, “What do you say we are, what do you say we need to be?” If we get to that level, we will drive change far better and far faster than any compliance-based system in the state.

The Takeaway

Vroonland truly has his heart in his work. As superintendent, he is solely focused on the children, and the community’s high level of involvement has created a system that produces great graduates that return as teachers at a very high rate. Vroonland believes in accountability, and he asks tough questions that demand answers.

More importantly, Vroonland is asking the right questions. He realizes that data for data’s sake is a never-ending circle of futility. Data should be actionable, and with the help of his community and the leadership of his teachers, his eyes are on a district that sees the unique value and infinite promise of every learner.

It is incumbent of the education community, at-large, to have open conversations about what accountability means, how it impacts learning and the role students, teachers and parents play to better articulate meaningful learning interactions and opportunities.

The result of meaningful conversations would, hopefully, establish more comprehensive and usable engagement approaches to education supporting the realities of accountability systems and desires of practitioners and caregivers alike.

Accountability without inclusion of engagement merely supports political definitions of learning. Vroonland provides hope that real conversations are turning into thoughtful action.

About David Vroonland, Ed. D., Superintendent

Dr. David Vroonland officially assumed his position as superintendent of Mesquite ISD on July 1, 2015. An educator for 31 years, Vroonland began his education career in 1986 as a teacher and coach in Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD. In 1991 he accepted a similar position at DuVal High School in Lanham, Md., followed by two and half years as a coach and teacher in Akishima, Japan. In 1995, Vroonland returned to Texas to teach and coach at McNeil Junior High School in Wichita Falls ISD.

His administrative experience began in 1999 in Wichita Falls when he became an assistant principal at Zundy Junior High; he later became principal at Barwise Junior High. Vroonland moved to Allen High School in Allen ISD as house principal in 2003. He opened Ereckson Middle School in Allen as principal in 2004 before assuming the role of assistant superintendent of administrative services in Allen ISD in 2006. Most recently, Vroonland served as superintendent of Frenship ISD, which is located on the southwestern side of Lubbock County. He has served in that role since July of 2009.

Vroonland and his wife, Joy, have two sons, Caleb and Matthew, and one granddaughter, Josalin.

Vroonland earned his bachelor’s degree from Centenary College of Louisiana, his master’s from Midwestern State University and his doctorate from the University of North Texas.

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