Opinion > Commentary

Opportune time to rethink accountability and factor in improvement



California is apparently passing up the opportunity to request a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law, setting up another round of schools and districts to be labeled as failing. Interestingly, state leaders say they are opting to keep in place a set of requirements that no one seems to support as a protest against the imposition of a new set of requirements, even though states are being invited to help craft the new requirements.

Let’s be clear: The central issue with regard to the NCLB waiver is not cost, it is accountability. The primary cost of a waiver is the cost of implementation of the Common Core standards. The primary cost of Common Core is associated with new instructional materials and associated training and support for teachers. But we are facing these costs, waiver or no waiver, since our current books are wearing out. There are also costs – though much smaller ones – associated with a longitudinal data system. But despite disagreements about the design and management of such a system, California certainly has a data system in its future.

The real issue with regard to the waiver is accountability.For more than a decade, public education has been focused on accountability. The architects of this approach held that by increasing levels of accountability, outcomes for students would improve. Today, after more than a decade of work, outcomes have improved somewhat; but despite a lot of work, the system has not been transformed. Meanwhile, unintended consequences have included a narrowing of the curriculum, the elimination of enrichment opportunities, and gaming of the system or even cheating.

Opinions differ on what to do now. Some argue that the testing-and-accountability strategy has not been disproven; we just need better standards, new tests, and a different set of targets. Others argue that the real problem is that NCLB got the unit of change wrong and that we need to hold teachers, not schools or districts, accountable. The Obama administration has opted for a “both/and” strategy.

But what does California want to be accountable for? Is our answer really “nothing” or “as little as possible”? Surely we can do better than that. Surely we can agree that accountability is part – but only a part – of this nation’s approach to school improvement. Of course, schools should be accountable. But to whom and for what?

What can we learn by looking at other fields? Decades of experience in arenas like health care tell us that accountability data is rarely or never useful to drive an improvement process, and that trying to create a blended data system that serves both purposes usually leads to a system that is not very useful for either one. This makes good sense in health care; hospitals need to keep track of who died and why, but to improve mortality rates they may need to start counting how many times doctors wash their hands. Yet nobody thinks hand washing belongs in the accountability system; hospitals need to keep two different kinds of data and use them for different purposes.

Schools do, too. For example, “wait time” – the length of the pause between a teacher asking a question and her next sentence – might be worth measuring since it, like hand washing, is part of improvement. But no one thinks it should be part of an accountability system. Our problem is partly that limited resources means required data trumps optional data. But the other half of the problem is that we’re not trying; in education, when someone says “data,” listeners usually hear “test scores.” Period.

If we try to rethink accountability in ways that leave room for data on improvement, we run up against another complicating factor: The fundamental accountability relationships in public education are between teacher and student, school and family, and district and community. Our current approach to accountability, which holds schools accountable to goals that communities haven’t created and largely don’t understand, has eroded, rather than strengthened, these fundamental accountability relationships, and that is a major cause of the woeful state of school funding and of the appetite among parents for charter schools – even for ones that are no better than the regular schools they left.

If this is true, then state leaders have a dual challenge as we rethink accountability, a challenge that stretches far beyond the technical task of creating better tests and targets. We need an accountability system that creates the conditions for districts to collect improvement data – the education version of hand washing– and that repairs the broken bond between schools and communities. Could the current policy vacuum, in which NCLB is rapidly fading away without a replacement on the horizon, present an important opportunity to work on a system that meets these dual goals? Maybe. But only if we replace the “just say no” approach with some new thinking.

Merrill Vargo is an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings and served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education, where she was responsible for major initiatives including School Restructuring, Charter Schools, Goals 2000, and the ground-breaking high school reform report Second to None. Pivot Learning Partners is an entrepreneurial nonprofit organization providing support to more than 60 school districts.

Filed under: Commentary, Common Core, Federal Education Policy, State Education Policy

Comments

EdSource encourages a robust debate on education issues and welcomes comments from our readers. The level of thoughtfulness of our community of readers is rare among online news sites. To preserve a civil dialogue, writers should avoid personal, gratuitous attacks and invective. Comments should be relevant to the subject of the article responded to. EdSource retains the right not to publish inappropriate and non-germaine comments. EdSource encourages commenters to use their real names. Commenters who do decide to use a pseudonym should use it consistently.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

One Response to “Opportune time to rethink accountability and factor in improvement”

EdSource does not track who "likes or dislikes" a comment. We only track the number of likes and dislikes.

  1. navigio on February 26, 2012 at 9:00 pm02/26/2012 9:00 pm

    • 000

    Great post, Merrill!
    Part of the blame for the lack of understanding of accountability falls to the communities themselves (and maybe to a lesser extent, the inability or refusal of school districts to educate them properly about what accountability really is and/or should be). But your point about the broken bond between those two players is very astute. I agree with you that the primary cause of this has been this outside force called ‘accountability’ (as well as the associated need to direct ‘blame’ somewhere, anywhere). But the fact that its an outsider is only part of the problem. The much greater impact has come from how our communities have reacted to it (in spite of that lack of understanding!). This is the real tragedy, imho, because that is the very dynamic that is going to result in the greatest harm to the kids who need a responsible community the most.
    I am not convinced that any kind of accountability system can succeed at this point for a number of reasons. Among them are the inequality in our society and the lack of willingness to offset that, let alone the way we measure it. But I think its in our cultural DNA now, so you’re right, we need (have no choice but) to look at the now as an opportunity to transform it into something meaningful, productive and positive. I truly hope we can do that.
    Thank you for bringing up the need for this very important discussion.

Template last modified: