District School Authorizers and Next-Generation Accountability

I’m excited about a recent shift in the reform conversation. After years of focusing on Common Core, common assessments, and teacher evaluation, many of those interested in large-scale K–12 improvements are turning their attention back to state accountability systems.

The Obama administration’s ESEA waiver policy had the potential to spur imaginative state-level thinking. But thanks to a combination of NCLB’s legal strictures, the administration’s fixation on particular policy conditions, and state leaders who just wanted to get out from under AYP ASAP, the new state systems look a whole lot like the old ones. (In fairness, some states have smartly experimented with A–F systems and “super subgroups.”)

Despite this arrested development, I think two important events provide the outlines for a new approach to state-level accountability.

First, under the auspices of CRPE and TBFI, a group of experienced policymakers and thought leaders have penned an “Open Letter on Accountability To State Superintendents and Governors.” It explains and defends K–12 accountability, concedes problems with current systems, and offers eight smart principles for next-generation systems. The group doesn’t get into specifics; instead, it hopes to get people thinking about what’s possible (though within certain guidelines).

This is important because of the second event: Increasingly, people are arguing that a unitary statewide accountability system stymies innovation and fails to capture important elements of schooling that some communities prioritize.

Mike Petrilli has argued that about 10 percent of a state’s public schools should be allowed to “opt out” of the dominant accountability system. This group might include high-performing suburban schools, magnet schools, and schools focused on the highest-need students. Mike says that those opting out should be “held accountable against an alternative set of measures” that are nonetheless still outcomes-based and geared toward high school graduation and post-secondary readiness.

Similarly, Ted Kolderie just argued in Education Week for a “split-screen” approach to accountability: Allow the current system to continue its efforts to improve while freeing up some schools to do things differently, even dramatically so. Tom Vander Ark recently wrote about several different approaches to accountability, including John Bailey’s idea of state-created “innovation zones” that would free groups of schools from existing accountability systems. The Donnell-Kay Foundation is undertaking a large-scale effort to create a new system of public education delivery that would use different accountability metrics.

So if it’s sensible to measure differently some number of public schools and there’s a growing appetite for new thinking about accountability systems, here’s my idea for squaring the two:

District school authorizers.

This is how it might work: The state creates a new entity empowered to develop performance contracts with a limited number of schools operated by districts. These schools would no longer be subject to the state’s unitary accountability system. Instead, their performance contracts would spell out how they would be assessed and the consequences for inadequate performance.

The key would be individualized performance contracts (contra the evolution of charter authorizing), allowing a community, a school, and the state body to determine how best to measure success.

This would allow some schools to opt out, per Petrilli; it would enable Kolderie’s “split screen;” it would facilitate Bailey’s “innovation zones;” it would solidify Donnell-Kay’s new delivery system.

As importantly, it would make use of one of charter schooling’s most valuable innovations: independent, single-purpose, state-created accountability bodies. We’ve had more than a decade of experience with such entities, so this is a tested approach. CREDO research has demonstrated the value of great authorizers, and NACSA has helped professionalize and improve this field.

Great authorizers are doing outstanding work; see the DCPCSB accountability approach. Smart practitioners continue to advance this field; see Medler and Baxter’s very good piece on early-stage accountability, Roen’s smart piece on continuous improvement, and Siedlecki’s piece on developing authorizer talent. (After reading these, you can’t help but be struck by the banality of former President Clinton’s musings on charter accountability.)

Last week, Politics K–12 had a clever post imagining what the tweet coverage of the 1989 White House-Governors Education Summit would’ve looked like. In the twenty-five years since this major event, media have changed enormously. Remarkably, the core of state-driven standards and assessments-based accountability has not.

I applaud the CRPE-TBFI group for revitalizing accountability thinking and a wide array of practitioners for rethinking education delivery. We need innovative ideas for bringing the two together. Hopefully district school authorizers will be in the mix.

– Andy Smarick

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

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