By Eric W. Crane, Senior Research Associate and Project Director at WestEd. Crane works with WestEd national, state, and local clients to gauge school and student performance and make the best use of the results.

Beginner’s Mind refers to a mindset characterized by openness, curiosity, and a willingness to learn, even when approaching familiar subjects. In this blog post, I discuss why reviewing state accountability systems with a beginner’s mindset could help education agencies to develop or strengthen their systems.

The Benefits of Approaching Accountability With a Beginner’s Perspective

The American Samoa Department of Education (ASDOE), the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands Public School System (CNMI PSS), and the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) are education agencies in the early stages of establishing a formal accountability system. These agencies have come to school accountability later than their counterparts in the states and the District of Columbia, and they have different obligations under the law. These differences have created more flexibility for these education agencies in the design of their accountability systems.

As the 2023–24 school year gets underway, officials in many states with more mature systems are reviewing their accountability systems. In some states, flexibility regarding specific accountability provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will expire. Furthermore, states will continue to learn about the educational effects of the Covid-19 pandemic through data on chronic absenteeism, academic performance, and other indicators.

As education agencies reflect on building accountability systems or reevaluating existing systems, a beginner’s mindset brings the following:

  • Fresh Perspective: When approaching an issue, we set aside preconceived notions, assumptions, and biases. This allows us to see things with fresh eyes and gain new insights. By letting go of our fixed ideas, we open ourselves to alternative possibilities and different ways of thinking.
  • Openness to Learning: We possess a sense of humility and a desire to learn and grow continually. It encourages us to be receptive to new information, ideas, and experiences, regardless of our expertise or past knowledge. This mindset promotes ongoing learning and prevents intellectual stagnation.
  • Heightened Awareness: We are more attentive to details and nuances that we might have previously overlooked. This mindset and accompanying heightened awareness support deeper understanding and appreciation.
  • Innovation and Creativity: By questioning established assumptions and exploring unfamiliar territory, we can generate fresh ideas and novel solutions to problems.
  • Reduced Anxiety: When we release the pressure to be an expert or to have all the answers, we approach problems with a more relaxed and open attitude. This can lead to greater resilience, adaptability, and a willingness to take risks.
  • Improved Relationships: When we listen with genuine curiosity, we create space for others to express themselves fully. This fosters empathy, understanding, and stronger connections with those around us.

Publicizing school accountability in the South Pacific…can take the form of printing key information on hand fans distributed to schools and communities throughout the district. This is a beginner’s mindset coupled with cultural awareness.

Asking the Questions About Accountability That Only Beginners Would Ask

For education agencies considering refinements to their accountability systems, the primary way to bring a beginner’s perspective into the work is to interrogate the system with questions that a newcomer would ask.

In many cases, these may be the same questions asked when the system was first developed. Policymakers and leaders at ASDOE, CNMI PSS, and BIE routinely ask some form of these questions:

  • What outcomes do we really care about? This question goes to the heart of school accountability, but it may disappear from the conversation once a state has developed its system. In some states, recommitting to strong academic performance may be the path; other states may want to recognize nonacademic indicators with additional weight or prominence. Asking or re-asking the question is an essential step in ensuring that state systems are aligned with current, updated state priorities.
  • What is the relative importance of different valued outcomes? ESSA allows states to decide how much weight to give different indicators, as long as academic factors, in the aggregate, receive more “substantial weight” than nonacademic indicators. In one of the education agencies I work with, the accountability committee had proposed a set of weights early in the pandemic, only to land on a different balance after the pandemic had played out for a year. The committee arrived at the new, arguably improved, weights because they brought humility and a growth orientation to discussions.
  • About what do we have standardized data? This practical question honors the limits of data sources that are appropriate to use in school accountability systems. There are outcomes that matter, for which data collection is not standardized; in such cases, it may not be fair to use such data for high-stakes purposes such as school accountability. Or it may take time to develop a standardized measure of an important outcome.
  • What data could we collect, even if it means a multiyear effort? If something is viewed as a valued outcome, but it is not being well collected or collected in a standardized manner, is it truly valued? One example that has come up in my work with states relates to social–emotional learning. I frequently hear support for folding social and emotional competencies into school accountability. However, technical concerns and the cost of adopting social and emotional competency assessments have been barriers to states’ recognizing this indicator in their state systems. Even promoting measures of students’ social and emotional competence for local information, as suggested by Melnick et al. (2017), has seen slow progress. A fresh perspective can help ensure that states are charting the path to what matters, even if it takes time.
  • Are we hearing from everyone? The pandemic generated heated discussion about school closures, the timing for reopening, and appropriate safety measures once students returned to school. It also engaged educational interest holders who were not active in discussions about schooling. These individuals may have been absent during prior discussions of indicators or other elements of state accountability systems. Other voices, whose engagement may have nothing to do with the pandemic, can be brought into the accountability conversation. A beginner’s mindset about school accountability promotes listening with curiosity and builds connections with those who have an interest in our schools, which is to say, everyone.
  • How can we communicate about the system? After a few years of accountability reporting, it would be natural for a state agency to focus on tried-and-true methods of publicizing the system, with announcements and press releases about data publication and reporting. Publicizing school accountability in the South Pacific, however, can take the form of printing key information on hand fans distributed to schools and communities throughout the district. This is a beginner’s mindset coupled with cultural awareness.

All State Systems Benefit From Lessons Learned

In making the case for using this perspective in school accountability systems, I have conveniently downplayed the times an agency with an emerging system asked about lessons learned from the states that had already gone through the work. Indeed, one piece of expertise I bring to my clients is lessons from the states.

However, an interest in learning from others’ experiences does not negate the value of a beginner’s mindset; on the contrary, it only underscores that all state systems can benefit from the lessons of their own experience, from state agencies that are like themselves, and from agencies that are not at all like themselves.

At this point, it is fair to ask what re-asking beginners’ questions looks like. What form does it take, or in what forum does it happen? I’ll address these questions in a forthcoming blog post.

In closing, policy discussions about state accountability systems often focus on the best path to completing mandated accountability reporting. Without question, completing required reporting is a starting point. However, accountability reporting that focuses on complying with mandates leads to uninteresting reports that don’t drive action. The cure to such a compliance mentality is straightforward: complete required reporting and ask the kinds of basic questions described above.

A state that adopts this mindset and confirms key elements of its system will have greater credibility with interest holders about its system. Even more likely, the state will discover that its path forward is a mix of elements of the current system and changes that align the state accountability system more closely to its vision.


Melnick, H., Cook-Harvey, C. M., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2017). Encouraging social and emotional learning in the context of new accountability. Learning Policy Institute.