How Chartering Makes Possible An Entirely New Approach to Accountability

The purpose of my last post was to suggest that those frustrated with school “accountability” should consider the structural elements that gave rise to our present accountability systems. My argument was that if we want to fundamentally change the way we assess public schools, we may need to change the way we deliver public education.

ednext-blog-july16-smarick-charter-accountabilityI tried to make the case that our historical reliance on one school provider per geographic area forced policy makers to create accountability systems that had certain inescapable characteristics (e.g., treating schools as interchangeable, using narrow performance measures). My argument here is that a “diverse provider” environment (where an area has an array of operators running an array of schools) allows for a very different kind of accountability system.

Fortunately, this conversation needn’t be hypothetical; chartering has given us real-world examples of geographies that fit the diverse provider bill. I think this experience offers at least five big lessons about what accountability can look like in this different environment.

First, chartering entered public education after a century of the district system. That meant that wherever charter schools emerged, there was already a district. Accordingly, a charter school has always been an “extra”—a choice-based alternative to existing district-run schools.

The immediate upshot for diverse provider accountability was that, because a student could always choose to go to a different public school (i.e., her assigned district-run school), there was never an expectation that a charter school or a charter operator had to exist forever. That meant that diverse provider accountability could be based on the replacement of persistently failing schools and operators. In other words, in an environment of options and choice, the longevity of each school and each operator would be a function of their successes.

Second, this gave rise to “performance contract” accountability. Each charter school entered into a binding agreement with an authorizer that spelled out the school’s mission, student achievement targets, and other indicators of school success. Importantly, these agreements could be differentiated, meaning that each school could have a different focus and different measures.

Third, this approach facilitated choice in a number of ways. Because schools could be different from one another, families had the ability to find and select the schools that best fit their children’s needs and interests. Because of this, the contract-based accountability system could put a premium on providing practical information that would help families assess, differentiate, and choose schools. This, in turn, would compel school operators to be responsive to the demands of families.

Fourth, the diverse provider approach allowed for far greater sophistication and nuance in the assessment of schools. Whereas a statewide accountability system uniformly applied a narrow set of indicators across all schools, authorizers could become more discerning. With different types of schools using different pedagogical approaches and serving different students and communities, an authorizer could make use of a diversity of metrics and tailor them to school-specific performance contracts. This allowed for the preservation of uniformly high expectations across all schools while accurately reflecting the different goals and contexts of different schools. It also allowed a school community to be engaged in determining how the school’s success would be assessed; that is, instead of accountability metrics being dictated by central administrators in the state capital, a school’s families and educators could negotiate with its authorizer.

Finally, diverse provider accountability also allowed charter schools to have true operational autonomy. A charter could be closed because students would have other options available and because a charter’s performance expectations were absolutely transparent. Therefore the government was able to stop relying on a single theory for how best to produce school success, meaning that it no longer had to focus on mandates and inputs. Each school could be held accountable for achieving its specific goals and be freed from a wide array of operational requirements.

In total, then, since chartering came of age in a “diverse provider” context, its accountability system was much different. Performance expectations could be expansive, nuanced, and differentiated at the school level, and they could be developed with an eye toward facilitating parental choice. Schools could be assessed based on student outcomes and freed from many operational rules and regulations. Failing schools could be closed, and failing operators could be ended.

Over time, some have raised concerns that a system of school choice leaves too much to the “market.” But charter accountability, which emanated from a diverse provider environment, has shown for a quarter-century that we can have an accountability system that leans on both parental judgments (via choice) and public evaluations (via authorizers). So we have an exhilarating opportunity in front of us.

It seems to me that the expansion of chartering in many cities has created the diverse provider environment that enables a new approach to accountability. At this same moment, ESSA is inviting states to create new accountability systems.

So here’s an idea. The leadership of an urban district should make the following offer to the state’s policy makers:

We think the state’s uniform accountability system is unsophisticated and clumsy. Any such system created and managed by faraway technocrats will forever fail to accurately account for what we do and will warp our behavior. We want out of that system. We want each of our schools to have operational freedom and to be able to negotiate a school-level performance agreement with measures that fairly assess what that school does. In exchange, each of our schools will have a contract with an authorizer, which can close the school should it persistently fail to meet its performance goals. In other words, we—the district—petition the state to apply charter accountability to all of the city’s public schools, including those that we operate. 

— Andy Smarick

This post originally appeared on Flypaper.

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