Accountability Dilemmas

A useful new report from Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation underscores the painful divide between parents and education reformers on the crucial topic of what to do about bad schools.

In a nutshell, if the neighborhood school is crummy, parents want it fixed. So do community leaders. Ed reformers are far more apt to want to close it and give families alternatives such as charter schools.

As Andy Smarick has perceptively written, schools play multiple roles in communities, and the prospect of closing one undermines most of those. Hence, shuttering a school affects more than the convenience of keeping one’s own kids in a familiar (and generally close-at-hand) facility, maybe even with that nice Ms. Greensleeves who teaches fourth grade there. As Jean Johnson writes on behalf of Public Agenda, based on a recent series of focus groups (as well as much other research), “Most parents see local public schools as important community institutions and viscerally reject the idea that closing schools—even those that are persistently low-performing—is a good way to improve accountability in education.”

On the reform side, however, Johnson writes, “In many communities, school leaders are closing or drastically reorganizing low-performing schools. Many districts are turning to charter schools to replace traditional public schools. Charters are often viewed as more accountable, because if the school does not meet its academic goals, its charter can be revoked. From a leadership perspective, these reforms propel the kind of change that will help more students succeed….”

Yes, she oversimplifies. A lot of school closures (as I’ve noted previously) have more to do with enrollments, capacity, and finances than with performance. And a lot of education leaders have, in fact, done everything they can to avoid drastic interference in low-performing schools—hence the widespread use of the “any other major restructuring” loophole for Title I schools needing “corrective action” due to their persistent failure to achieve “adequate yearly progress.”

The charter part of her reform model isn’t quite right, either. Yes, there are a handful of situations in the charter world—e.g., Ohio’s “sudden death” provision—where test scores alone might cause a charter school to be shut down. But conscientious authorizers do look at other information (e.g., signs of progress, graduation rates, student- and staff-turnover rates, parent and student satisfaction indicators, community circumstances, what sorts of schools would the kids go to instead, and so on). And, of course, heedless or simply greedy authorizers don’t close schools anyway—because they don’t much care, can’t stand the heat, or depend on the school fees for their own revenues.

At the same time, Johnson’s conversations with parents add some important nuance to the school-accountability discussion. They fret that overemphasis on testing fosters dull, drill-centric classrooms and gives rise to incentives to cheat. And it’s clear to parents that there’s more to school quality than test scores, which understandably makes them wary of moves to close or radically restructure schools solely on the basis of such scores. Yes, they favor testing as a useful way of knowing how a school is doing academically, but they lament that too much testing is underway and that test-based data reveal nothing about other important school features and outcomes (examples include character development, creativity, student engagement, and school leadership). Indeed, there’s valuable overlap between the other factors that matter to parents and those that conscientious authorizers (see previous paragraph) apply to their charter schools.

So there is a divide, with merit—and blind spots—on both sides. Yes, it’s ridiculous to judge a school (and take drastic action to intervene in it, even to close it) exclusively on the basis of test scores. Ditto for judgments about teachers. (“Value-added” scores—where feasible and meaningful—are better than absolute test scores, but still are not the full measure of an educational institution or classroom instructor.) On the other hand, student learning is the bottom line, and for too long American public education has paid far too little heed to it when evaluating schools and teachers.

But have we swung too far in the opposite direction? As least as perplexing, do we have—or can we create—additional metrics that tap into these other features of schools and teachers in valid ways, avoiding total subjectivity, favoritism, and caprice?

Such dilemmas deepen as states and schools prepare for new tests being developed to accompany Common Core standards for English language arts and math, as well as new tests that may follow for science. The developers claim that the next generation of assessments will do more than today’s tests to gauge a broader swath of educational attainment. The PARCC consortium, for example, asserts that its “next-generation assessment system will provide students, educators, policymakers and the public with the tools needed to identify whether students—from grade 3 through high school—are on track for postsecondary success and, critically, where gaps may exist and how they can be addressed well before students enter college or the workforce.”

If all of that comes true—and at reasonable cost in dollars and time commitments—we can fairly suppose that test-leery parents may be more satisfied, and that test-weary teachers may find that the assessment results are valuable, not just judgmental.

Today, however, there’s no way to know for sure how it will turn out. We still have two years to wait before the new assessments are administered for the first time. We have no idea where their “cut scores” will be set. And we have no idea how—or when or even whether—Congress will figure out how all of this factors into the next generation of ESEA.

As if that weren’t complexity enough, some educators have asked whether this period of change and uncertainty in standards and assessments should be accompanied by some sort of accountability moratorium, even a testing hiatus. Let the education system—and the teachers—gear up for the new arrangement (and master the new standards and pedagogical “shifts” that are built into them) without having to look over their shoulders at the same time for fear they’ll lose their jobs—or their schools—on the basis of scores on the old tests. Call it the education version of “quantitative easing,” if you will.

It’s not a crazy suggestion. Neither is it a perfect proposal, because “suspending” accountability (and testing) for two years, just as people are getting accustomed to it, would smack of a return to the bad old days and would likely provide cover for some dreadful schools and instructors to continue unchanged, damaging kids for two more years.

I wonder, though, if there isn’t some way to turn down the heat a bit during this transition period and encourage school systems and educators to focus on what’s coming rather than on the academic expectations that are going out of style.

I’m not clever enough to devise that interim arrangement. But it’s worth smart people thinking through, maybe even before the spring 2013 test scores come in.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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