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

January 6, 2013
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.

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