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Operational Definitions

Accountability, Equity, & Social Justice

Operational Definitions

The following are operational definitions for accountability, equity, and social justice devised by administrative intern Michael DeNobile based on his research.



"Accountability: It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do." ~Jean-Baptiste "Molière" Poquelin, French playwright, actor and poet

In general terms, education accountability means an educational provider gives an account of their work, holding them responsible for their performance, oftentimes set to a particular standard constituting adequate performance (Firestone, 2020). A system of reward or punishment may be linked to this system of accountability. Firestone examines six approaches to educational accountability, the legal strategy of state standards and assessments in student, school and district accountability, and the interaction among the different approaches. 


  1. Moral and Professional – The leader has the least control over moral and professional accountability as these depend on the “internal obligation” (Firestone, 2020, of the individual being held accountable, relying heavily on the individual’s knowledge and notions of general principles of decorum personally and professionally. Nonetheless, ethics and professional standards have been developed historically for individuals to demonstrate “competence, values, and knowledge” (Firestone, 2020, within specialized certification areas. Accountability at this level is mostly at the entry level, where individuals demonstrate their professional competence via state certification exams.

    Beyond state and national standards, peer review from colleagues and leadership based on professional standards also provides a layer of professional accountability (Firestone, 2020). This practice has shown two extremes: a weaponization of the standards by leadership to draw lines and protect their own at one end to teachers and leaders banding together to challenge and improve their practice through the formation of professional learning communities (Firestone, 2020).


  2. Bureaucratic – Bureaucratic accountability is based on the organizational structure of formal titles and responsibilities between superiors and subordinates within an organization. Superiors (i.e. superintendents and principals) assign tasks based on rules and procedures to subordinates (i.e. principals to superintendents and teachers to principals, respectively) and criteria is decided to rate performance through observation by the superior(s) (Firestone, 2020). Formal authority can enforce compliance, but it can be reinforced when with performance incentives (i.e. promotions, salary increases, being removed from a position) (Firestone, 2020). Merit pay in education has been experimented with over the last few decades, but teachers have felt that there has yet to be a system that fairly reflects work rather than bias judgments of administrators (Firestone, 2020).

  3. Political – In education, political accountability is between an elected official (i.e. a school board member) and voters. The leader has least control over political accountability as power is firmly in the hand of the voters, whose opinions may turn based on the slightest decision or indecision of the elected official. Political accountability is extended to appointees such as superintendents (Firestone, 2020).

    As noted by Firestone, US schools have used a combination of political, bureaucratic and professional accountability, and while the system has undergone changes, the older system remains in place in the early twenty-first century ( Market and legal accountability have drastically increased over the last few decades.


  4. Market – In market accountability, children or parents are “customers” who choose schools and “shop” for the one that best reflects their preferences (Firestone, 2020). Competition forces educators to respond to the traditionally business-market forces of supply and demand education. This is directly correlated with the rise of the charter school and voucher movements of the last thirty years “as confidence in government has waned and the public questions the costs of public provision of services” (Firestone, 2020, StateUniversity).

  5. Legal – Legal accountability occurs when local, state, and federal legislatures pass regulations that govern how schools function. It often works in conjunction with professional, political, and bureaucratic accountability by providing a framework within which they can operate, structuring the funding, education licensure, governance by school boards, and even day-to-day operations, such as attendance policies and building codes (Firestone, 2020).

    • Standards & Assessment - In the 1970s and 1980s, state standards linked to assessment defining high school graduation has defined education for the last forty to fifty years, consisting of content-based standards that outline knowledge and skill acquisition, standards-aligned assessments, student performance standards that outline assessment proficiency, and a system of rewards (for students or schools who meet or exceed those standards) and punishments (for those who do not) (Firestone, 2020). The standards-assessment theory of action is that the system of rewards and punishments motivate educators and students to learn what is tested; however, the rapid changes taken by states has fallen into a state-by-state quagmire of what exactly should be taught and how they should be assessed, the reliability of performance standards in correlation with family background, whether they should be norm- or criterion-referenced, and the usefulness of rewards and punishments (Firestone, 2020).

The state of education in the early twenty-first century is one of disarray: the moral, professional, bureaucratic, political, market, and legal systems are often at odds with each other in today’s educational climate. Educators must report to multiple constituencies, solidarity may not exist at different levels on who qualifies to teach, and what and how something is taught and assessed, and politics may undermine the goals of the local school (Firestone, 2020). The purpose of accountability is to ensure the highest level of standards in practice; however, these multiple layers of accountability for educators has created a minefield of red tape, demanding districts “to design accountability mechanisms that encourage schools to provide a more effective education for all children and to orchestrate these mechanisms so that they send as consistent a message to educators as possible” (Firestone, 2020, StateUniversity). Any kind of work, especially educating the youth of the nation, should be purposeful; jumping through hoops for the sake of jumping through them only serves to creating a hostile environment in achieving the common goal: the achievement of all students.



"Equality is leaving the door open for anyone who has a means to approach it; equity is ensuring there is a pathway to that door for those who need it." ~Caroline Belden, The Equity vs. Equality Series, The Inclusion Solution

In July 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Executive Order 11365, establishing the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission, to investigate the causes of the 1967 race riots. Among its findings, the commission reported the following:

Education in a democratic society must equip the children of the nation to realize their potential and to participate fully in American life. For the community at large, the schools have discharged this responsibility well. But for many minorities, and particularly for the children of the racial ghetto, the schools have failed to provide the educational experience which could help overcome the effects of discrimination and deprivation. (Frye, n.d.,

Over fifty years later, equity has come to include marginalized groups of individuals beyond race and ethnicity but also gender, creed, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, and physical and mental ability. At the end of the day, providing education equity is bridging the achievement gap for all students, regardless of whatever group they may belong to. Therefore, a school who claims to be operating within equity are making moves in their organization to provide equitable access to opportunity for all students. 

This tends to be confused with equality—that equitable education and equal education are the same. However, you can have a student with disabilities and a student without being provided equal education—taught the same curriculum, in the same conditions, for the same amount of time, with the same materials, and even by the same instructor. While their education is equal, the question is whether or not their education is equitable? Does having equal conditions mean both the student with disabilities and the one without have the same access to the curriculum? Maybe, maybe not—the answer depends on the needs of each student. Thus, providing an equitable education means assessing the needs of each student and then providing the necessary means of accessing curriculum so that all students have equitable opportunity to achieve success.

Notice also that success isn’t defined here; we can say the standards but I would venture to say that success like equity is uniquely defined by the needs of each student—college and career readiness is going to look different for each individual student depending on the college or career they aspire to pursue. For example, what SAT score must a student achieve to be considered successful on their college admissions? Many might think a 1600 would define that—a perfect score. The SAT process for success traditionally is do your best, shoot for the 1600, and then see what school you qualify for. A better approach would be to ask the student what colleges and universities they would like to attend and then provide them with those scores, which will have a varied range depending on the school with some schools not even requiring an SAT score. Even then, if a student falls short of an admission’s SAT score, other factors can help them get accepted, like their college essay, academic grades, extra curricular activities, and volunteerism—other criteria for success. This is what happened to me when I applied to my reach school New York University in 2003; my SAT scores did not quite make NYU’s admission requirements, but other factors on my application earned me acceptance. Their financial aid package ultimate decided for me that I would not attend (which is another story entirely about education equity), but the point here is this: education equity is defined by the needs and goals of each individual student to provide them with equitable means of opportunity in order to achieve success defined by them, not some arbitrary mark set by outside groups.

Social Justice

"It is not enough to be compassionate--you must act." ~His Holiness the Dalai Lama

In order to fully understand an operational definition of social justice in education, one must first learn of its origins and then find a universal application of it. Social justice is first accredited to Jesuit philosopher and priest Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio in 1843 during the time of the Risorgimento unification of the Italian states (Behr, 2003, Taparelli’s notions of social justice are in contrast to the maltreatment of governments demonstrated in the French Revolution of 1789 and the Revolution of 1830. Social justice was therefore originally a religious term which developed through the nineteenth, twentieth, and early twenty-first centuries, with seven operational themes bore out of a series of papal encyclicals in the post-Vatican II era of the Catholic Church (USCCB, 2003, While the US Conference of Catholic Bishops had highly religious, namely Catholic, applications for these themes, I use them here as a guide for a universal, secular application to guide the concept of social justice education:

  1. Life & Dignity of the Human Person – Education for social justice must affirm the life and dignity of each individual person, regardless of their gender, race, creed, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical and mental ability, and legal and immigrant status. In this element of social justice education, socio-emotional learning (SEL) and restorative practices are very important. 

  2. Call to Family, Community, and Participation – Students must understand the organization and interaction of civil society, from economics and politics, law and policy, and how they affect the dignity of the individual and families, and the capacity of those individuals and families to grow in society. This element dictates the importance of schools to engage and get to know families, to understand them and their relationship with our students, and offer help and assistance within our power as school districts to assist families in achieving their goals for success. This is also linked to character education and volunteerism in schools, as the treatment of others through civic duty and social responsibility becomes another focal point of social justice education, where all students need to understand and act in terms of social, political, legal, and economic disparities of the marginalized and powerless in society, to seek the common good of all, especially the poor and marginalized. It is important for students to learn that individually they can do great good, but collaboratively they can do even greater things. Moreover, the community gave students the school district in which they attend, and it is only right for them to give back to that community through acts of gratitude and service.

  3. Rights & Responsibilities – Part of the responsibilities outlined in social justice education is civics education, where students learn their rights and responsibilities so that they may protect and advocate for themselves and others in order for a civil and humane society to exist. In turn, we as schools and organizations have rights and responsibilities to advocate for our students, families, and communities to provide more than simply an institution for education, but for equity and social justice. In this way, social justice is both a definition and a framework. 

  4. Option for the Poor & Vulnerable – Social justice education provides equitable education, especially for the poor and vulnerable in our schools in pursuit of closing the achievement gap.

  5. The Dignity of Work & the Rights of Workers – One of the ways Viktor Frankl argues man finds meaning in life is “purposeful work” (Popova, 2017, Therefore another responsibility of schools is to provide purposeful work for both staff and students. In addition, it is important for school leadership to understand, advocate, and defend the rights of staff and students, through contracts, laws, and policies.

  6. Solidarity – Building climate and culture is another aspect of social justice education, especially one where our default mode is being each other’s keepers regardless of national, racial, ethnic, socio-economic, and ideological differences. It’s not enough to pursue peace and justice as individuals but united as a community. In addition, this also applies to defending causes for social justice in solidarity as a community.

  7. Stewardship of the Environment – Social justice education dictates that we as humans are not only called to protect people but the planet as well, and that we have a moral and ethical imperative as school leaders to pass on this social responsibility to our students. The keyword here, however, is stewardship. Educating about the environment is not enough, we must also demonstrate stewardship through our actions, by having a recycling program on campus, be mindful of our use and disposal of technology and resources that has an effect on the environment, and doing community projects that promote sustainability and conservation.



Behr, Thomas C. “Luigi Taparelli D'Azeglio, S.J. (1793-1862) and the development of Scholastic natural-law thought as
     a science of society and politics.” Journal of Markets & Morality, vol. 6, no. 1, 2003, p. 99+.


Firestone, W. (2020). “Educational accountability - moral and professional accountability, bureaucratic accountability,
     political accountability, market accountability, legal accountability, standards and assessment.” State University.


Frye, H. (n.d.). “The Kerner Commission report and educational failure: Twenty years later - Hardy T. Frye,” 1989. Sage


Hytten, K., & Bettez, S. C. (2011). “Understanding Education for Social Justice.” Education Foundations.


Popova, M. (2017, February 05). “Viktor Frankl on the Human Search for Meaning.” Brain Pickings.


“Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching.” (n.d.). United Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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