Creativity in the classroom is what’s really at stake with accountability

Merrill Vargo

Merrill Vargo

Many readers of EdSource know that a variety of factors have combined to put rethinking accountability on state leaders’ to-do list. But most people don’t understand what is really at stake. It’s not just about whether we add measures of “college and career readiness” to the API. This is a worthy goal, but the issue of accountability is much bigger than that.  Accountability isn’t just testing; it’s the whole structure of rules and regulations that govern school districts. Here’s why that matters.

Let’s start with some history. School district central offices were invented to manage the aspects of schooling that surrounded teaching and learning: budgeting, hiring, buildings, buses, books, etc. The assumption was that what happened in the classroom was the responsibility of the teachers. Later, district offices were also charged with administering federal funds and ensuring that a growing set of requirements were met. Together, these roles ensured that districts would use a hierarchical structure and standardized rules, processes and procedures and focus on managing the inputs to the education process. At the time, no one worried that such standardized processes are not a very good way to foster creativity because teachers were still pretty much in charge of teaching.

With the coming of the standards movement, this changed. School district central offices became responsible for managing the improvement of teaching and learning, and not surprisingly, they used the tools at hand: hierarchical structures, standardized processes, rules and regulations, and a compliance culture. Teachers complained that the creativity of teaching was being lost, but the argument that instruction needed to be managed won out.

Now all this is up for grabs. We’ve adopted the Common Core State Standards, but districts no longer have the toolkit—aligned instructional materials, professional development and assessments—or the people to manage the improvement of instruction. There is no one left in most districts to enforce the rules, conduct the walkthroughs, deliver the training or coach the teachers. This means that California will either have to recreate all this with dramatically constrained resources or think of a different approach. Pressure to do something different comes not just from teachers, but also from parents and students. So now what? What is possible?

There is another way, but districts can’t do it alone. Policymakers have to be willing to help. California can be on the cutting edge of education reform by committing to build a system based on high levels of several things that have been sadly lacking: trust, transparency, flexibility and innovation.

Let’s start with trust. Parents trust their kids to local educators every day. Accountability measures are a tool to leverage change and an early warning system to identify places where trust may be misplaced. But accountability depends on trust—it does not replace it.

Transparency: Local leaders are going to have to make some difficult decisions and think through some budget tradeoffs as they retool their systems to implement the Common Core without significant new resources.

Without funding flexibility and budget transparency, it will be difficult or even impossible for local leaders to build the political support they will need to make these difficult decisions.

Finally, innovation: Teachers need to be supported to try new things. High-stakes accountability from the state prompts local leaders to ratchet up the pressure on teachers. But this can’t work: It’s like asking an acrobat to try some new moves without a safety net.

School districts can change, and they should. We need a “version 2.0” of the school district that is more streamlined but also more responsive, innovative and school-focused than the districts of the past. Transforming district offices is a high-leverage reform strategy with every bit as much potential to improve teaching and learning as the many sexier-sounding reform strategies that make the news.

But simply telling central offices to “just do it” won’t work. Policymakers must be willing to shrink the rulebook for school districts to make space for a new role. To get a system that fosters, rather than constrains, creativity in the classroom, we need to innovate not just in the way that public education delivers services to students, but also in the way that school districts support the improvement of teaching and learning. To succeed with the Common Core, we need better accountability—but we also need less of it.


Merrill Vargo is both 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, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education. She is also a member of Full Circle Fund.

Filed under: Commentary, Common Core, Hot Topics, Reforms



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5 Responses to “Creativity in the classroom is what’s really at stake with accountability”

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  1. Eric Premack on Jan 7, 2013 at 6:27 pm01/7/2013 6:27 pm

    • 000

    Merrill may be overstating a few key assumptions, especially when she asserts that “districts no longer have the toolkit—aligned instructional materials, professional development and assessments—or the people to manage the improvement of instruction.” California’s state-driven instructional materials selection process is rapidly gearing-up to supplement its approved lists and revise the usual state-driven frameworks and text/materials adoptions. Many districts are already revising their centralized professional development offerings to adjust to the Common Core. And California has joined the so-called “Smarter Balanced” assessment consortium that promises to offer both formative and summitive assessment tools to help centralized command-and-control types to monitor progress.

    While decentralization may indeed make sense, and arguably made sense under the “old/’97” standards, it will take more than funding reform to create the conditions necessary for decentralization. Dozens of other laws and requirements, ranging from state-mandated text/materials adoptions, antiquated personnel and bargaining requirements, instructional time constraints, and myriad other laws and bureaucracies all mitigate against decentralization and trust in teachers.

    The whole notion of a school district with a publicly-elected board and central office also seems to lead to a nearly inexorable drive for centralization.

    If we really want to open the door to decentralization, finance reform could be one helpful component, but by no means sufficient. We would also need to sunset most of the Education Code, allow for serious alternatives to the traditional school district political/legal structure, create opportunities for genuine teacher professionalism where teachers run schools directly and hire the administrators, and where parents/students choose the public schools they want to attend without regard to traditional school or district boundaries.


    • el on Jan 7, 2013 at 10:44 pm01/7/2013 10:44 pm

      • 000

      The reality is that we already have examples of both centralized and decentralized schools in California. There are over 1,000 districts. Some oversee a single campus and some oversee more than 700 (large) schools. The idea that any particular size is ‘inexorable’ seems at odds with the facts on the ground.

  2. Michael Kirst on Jan 7, 2013 at 12:44 pm01/7/2013 12:44 pm

    • 000

    This article makes a good point that local funding flexibility is essential for Common Core implementation. The Governor’s new proposed school finance plan will address this issue on January 10


    • navigio on Jan 7, 2013 at 1:44 pm01/7/2013 1:44 pm

      • 000

      IMHO, ‘local funding flexibility’ is simply another way of telling local boards of education they have to take the heat for state-level budget cuts, and the decisions those force on them. I’ve always considered this flexibility to be nothing more than the ‘freedom’ to decimate programs in a tailored fashion. I guess one could argue thats better than state-level imposed decimation, but neither does anything for providing adequate educational resources.
      The irony of mentioning increased transparency in that context is that local funding flexibility actually works against transparency. One of the primary goals of restricting funding was to make it easier to track. ‘Flexibility’ places an additional layer of obscurity on that revenue.
      Anyway, transparency is a non-starter when it comes to budget issues. Perhaps a handful of people in each community really understand school districts’ budgets, and the majority of those probably work in the district’s finance department. SARCs provide meaningless budget data (and a year behind the times) and school-level budget information is not required to be reported to the state.
      The feeling I got as I read this article was that it did a great job of describing the gory details of the slow motion train wreck we will all be watching, and be powerless to stop as the forces of reform continue to flow over school districts and their communities like molten lava.
      Happy New Year everyone! :-)

      • el on Jan 7, 2013 at 4:25 pm01/7/2013 4:25 pm

        • 000

        Yes, local school districts (and their constituents) will enjoy the “freedom” and “flexibility” to choose between home to school transportation or a reading tutor program or professional development for staff or fixing the leaky roof. Woo. :)

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