Transformative, Evidence-Based Ideas

A New Start on Accountability

Today, Paul Hill, Robin Lake, and Michael Petrilli kick off a blog series intended to prompt a productive dialogue around fixing school accountability systems. Join the conversation on Twitter: #TheNewAccountability

Read “An Open Letter On School Accountability”

Every child should be in a school where he or she can learn effectively. That’s not a controversial goal in itself, but the methods meant to accomplish it can become hot buttons. That’s the case with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which made the goal a national policy. It’s also becoming the case with the Common Core, under which states commit to educate children to rigorous standards.

Actions taken in pursuit of the goal are controversial because they are difficult and complicated. There is a lot of work of many kinds to be done: improving teacher training, experimenting with more effective methods, and continuously improving learning opportunities for children. Moreover, none of these tasks are enough by themselves. What ties them together is accountability—the use of standards, measures, judgments, and remedies to ensure that students are making significant progress over time and, if some are not, ensure that they have access to better opportunities.

Accountability is where the rubber meets the road. And, thanks to NCLB, we have unprecedented data about schools, students, and teachers. We have a sharper focus on students who are failing in schools that serve the average student well. States and localities have new tests to provide early warning when children are not learning, and have tied these results to remedial action and school closure or replacement.

But we are still struggling to get accountability right. In particular, the current backlash against testing is understandable: tests are imperfect and if we rely on them too much they can produce misleading results and distort teacher behavior in negative ways. This is particularly true if we try to use test results to determine teacher employment, dismissal, and pay.

But the need remains. States can’t require parents to send their children to school without saying what they are supposed to learn, and making sure they do learn. In America, it is never enough to say, “just trust us,” no matter whether “us” is the government, the schools, or teachers.

Earlier this year, a bipartisan and multi-disciplinary group of analysts and educators met to work on our unsolved accountability problem. Everyone in the group believed accountability was necessary, but all agreed that we had not been going about it right. Under the leadership of the three of us, the group formulated a set of principles to guide our search for the best way to redesign school accountability systems that can help states deliver on the promise of Common Core. These include:

  • All parents need to know immediately when, based on current achievement levels, their children are not likely to graduate high school, or be ready for college or a rewarding, career-ladder job.
  • Student test scores are indispensable as timely indicators of student and school progress. But they should be considered along with other valid indicators, e.g., course completion and normal progress toward graduation.
  • Every family should have the choice among public schools that are demonstrably capable of educating children well.
  • States and school districts must support creation of new options for kids who are not learning.
  • School leaders must have enough freedom to lead their schools and take responsibility for the results they get.
  • States should hold schools, not only individual teachers, accountable for student progress.

A full list of the group’s common principles can be found here. A more complete summary of the discussion that produced the principles can be found here.

These principles are just a start, but they can ground a productive debate. There is still plenty to argue and worry about, for example:

  • How to avoid specifying outcomes so exhaustively that schools are unable to innovate and solve problems.
  • How to drive continuous improvement in all schools, not just the lowest-performing.
  • How to coordinate and limit federal, state, and district demands for data.
  • How to prevent cheating on tests and other outcome measures.
  • How to motivate students to do their best in school and on assessments.
  • How to give children at risk new options without causing a constant churn in their educational experience.
  • How to adjust measurement and accountability to innovations in instruction and technology.

These problems are solvable, but they require serious work, not sniping among rival camps. It is time to start working through the problems of accountability, with discipline, open-mindedness, and flexibility.

We—all the co-signers of the September 24 statement—are eager to work with others, including critics of tests and accountability. Issues of measurement, system design, and implementation must be addressed, carefully and through disciplined trials.

Will you join us?

On tomorrow’s blog: James Merriman of the New York City Charter School Center, “Feeling Our Way to Solid Ground”

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