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Seth Litt

Last fall I went with a group of parent leaders to a State Board of Education meeting in Sacramento, where much of the discussion centered on plans to do away with the current system for ranking California schools, the API score. The parents and I were troubled by what we heard. The California Department of Education appears eager to move as far as possible from any sort of results-driven accountability system for schools. Their current plan is to replace the API with a large “dashboard” that will provide lots of data, mostly about what schools are doing rather than how much students are learning. Under this plan, there will be no overall ratings given to schools, and student achievement will be simply one of many factors without any special weight or consideration.

I wish that the leaders from our statewide bureaucracy who were proposing to eliminate the API score could have joined me a few nights earlier as I sat in on another meeting about accountability. This meeting took place in the auditorium of a chronically low-performing school in South Los Angeles. The principal of the school, along with five or six district staff members, was speaking to a group of parents who had recently led a campaign to bring major improvements to student academic outcomes.

I found my ears growing hot and my feet tapping furiously as the principal spoke at length about Halloween parades and spelling bees. There was almost no attention paid to implementing the overall school transformation plan that parents and the district had agreed to during the previous school year, nor were there any concrete plans presented for how classroom instruction was going to improve for their students. I found myself feeling a sense of angry disbelief as he ran out the clock by focusing on everything other than student achievement while district staff nodded their heads in approval.

In the same way that a crisis of student safety deserves to be front-page news, the state has a responsibility to demonstrate leadership through a clear school rating system that focuses on student achievement. There are many different ways a good school rating system can be built, but the current plan to hand parents and teachers a lot of raw data, without any summative school ratings that show whether or not students are learning, is not one of them. Parents we work with at Parent Revolution are standing with leaders like former Congressman George Miller, former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and others on this crucial issue.

I am reminded of my experience as a district principal in New York City in 2008-2012 when a new era of accountability brought immense positive changes to our district. My superintendent made one thing clear: the academic growth of each and every student was our number one priority. In service of that she expected me to do whatever it took to change our staff and student culture and improve outcomes for students. This meant difficult conversations with teachers and families, spending our money wisely, and an intense focus on improving classroom instruction. Yes, the pressure of a very public accountability and rating system was intense, but that pressure was a vital motivating force for my colleagues and it became an important tool in focusing our schools’ time and resources.

The job of principals and teachers in high-needs communities is incredibly hard, even without the pressure of clear, public accountability for student achievement. There is a never-ending stream of urgent items thrown at you. Issues of student safety, the student who comes to school in emotional crisis, the bus that breaks down, the fight in the schoolyard, and the general well-being of students and staff are always there to demand the attention of leadership. This kind of urgent action is rarely afforded to, let’s say, the reading fluency or math achievement of one of California’s 6 million students.

Well-meaning and hard-working educators can easily spend their entire day doing things that are important but fail to improve instruction and student achievement, something that happens incrementally, day to day. It takes immense leadership and focus from the state, districts, superintendents, principals and teachers to move beyond the already hard work of simply running schools to the much harder work of ensuring that all students are learning.

To be clear, our schools need much more than just “accountability” and ratings systems. They need more support and capacity building, they need more funding, and they need more local autonomy. California’s Local Control Funding Formula and Common Core State Standards must be implemented effectively across thousands of schools. Accountability alone can never be a strong enough driver for transformational change, and the eight priority areas outlined in the funding formula are important factors that should be used as part of measuring the performance of districts in our state.

Governor Jerry Brown recently tried to stake out a middle ground in the debate over the API, calling for a school rating system that doesn’t have one number but does boil school performance down to a “concise” number of metrics. As the debate over preserving school accountability shifts to the Legislature, our leaders should seize the opportunity to make student learning the priority and to ensure that this is reported to parents and the public in the clearest, most concise and actionable way possible.

•••

Seth Litt is the Executive Director of Parent Revolution.

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  1. Duke Romo 3 months ago3 months ago

    Thank you for your work as a pricipal in New York, it is the type of accountability we need here in CA. With the Common Core leading the charge, I believe home schooling is the best bet for our newborn in the near future.

    Thank you,
    Duke Romo

  2. Paul Muench 7 months ago7 months ago

    Did you see the Common Core test results? Those will continue to be available.

  3. Paul Richman 7 months ago7 months ago

    California's leaders and State Board of Ed should be applauded for moving away from the oversimplified system that measured schools by boiling everything down to one number based on scores from standardized tests taken by students on one day. Parents and the public deserve a dashboard approach that provides more relevant info -- just like student report cards don't consolidate everything down to a single score, a dashboard approach would offer rankings and info across … Read More

    California’s leaders and State Board of Ed should be applauded for moving away from the oversimplified system that measured schools by boiling everything down to one number based on scores from standardized tests taken by students on one day. Parents and the public deserve a dashboard approach that provides more relevant info — just like student report cards don’t consolidate everything down to a single score, a dashboard approach would offer rankings and info across several important areas that all impact achievement.

  4. Gary Ravani 7 months ago7 months ago

    Welcome to CA, Mr. Litt. Now for the bad news. Your bio doesn't include a reference to any school experience outside of the charter sector so there are things about regular K-12 that you may well not be aware of. Your experience also seemed to come within the unfortunate administration in NYC of Bloomberg and Klein so that too will need to be overcome. That being said, there was perhaps no school model more dedicated to the … Read More

    Welcome to CA, Mr. Litt.

    Now for the bad news.

    Your bio doesn’t include a reference to any school experience outside of the charter sector so there are things about regular K-12 that you may well not be aware of. Your experience also seemed to come within the unfortunate administration in NYC of Bloomberg and Klein so that too will need to be overcome.

    That being said, there was perhaps no school model more dedicated to the test based accountability than that of NYC in the last decade or so, so there should be lessons there for you, For example, manipulating test scores to make it appear schools were doing better than they were is not a model to be followed, but it does point to one of the dangers of test based accountability and how that can distort the efforts of even the well intentioned.

    Then there was the National Research Council Report asserting test based accountability didn’t actually raise test scores in significant ways, but it did undermine real learning as curriculum was narrowed across the nation. Then there were the slightly lower scores on the latest NAEP that further demonstrated the accountability model had not worked in the almost decade and a half it was in place. Live and learn, I guess. Too bad the kids had to be dragged down too. But, at least NY state has realized the error of its ways and is holding off on any new accountability efforts and, perhaps, will see the sense in abandoning the failed accountability model altogether.

    A couple of other things you have to learn about your new home is CA has about the largest number of second language students in the nation as well as the largest number of children living in poverty. As you familiarize yourself with regular K-12 you will find convincing research evidence that those factors need to be included in any reasonable accountability system.

    Then we can move on to resources. Your old state, NY, has (according to Ed Week) the highest educational spending per child for K-12 in the nation while CA is only four from the bottom of the 50 states. NY basically spends almost twice as much per student as does CA. In a more comprehensive review of state supports for K-12 education Ed Week gives NY State a B- while it give CA a C- which puts it nine from the bottom of the 50 states.

    The low funding results in CA having the largest class sizes and the fewest nurses, librarians, counselors, administrators, and just plain school personnel per student in the nation. The working conditions created by those factors, with only mediocre compensation, along with a tendency for CA to lay off large numbers of teachers every few years, and coupled with a general tone of disrespect for teachers characterized by efforts to hold them accountable for all of the above factors that are totally out of schools or teachers control has now created a significant teacher shortage in the state.

    Now, you’re probably saying to yourself, but all those funding, resource. and personnel issues are actually political problems not education based problems. That assertion would be true, and here’s where your and teachers’ concerns about accountability converge. Those of us in the schools and classrooms of CA have been waiting for decades for a politician to step forward and say: I am accountable for those dismal levels of support for the schools!. Needless to say we have not been holding our breath while waiting for that miracle.

  5. Herbert Boykin 7 months ago7 months ago

    The insidious notion that a three legged stool can stand on one leg must be abandoned if we are to move public education into the 21st century. The wisdom of Bloom's Taxonomy indicates that there are three learning domains: Cognitive, Affective and Psychomotor. As long all learning is based on only the Cognitive domain it will be virtually impossible to realize true "Accountability." When we take a fresh look and expand the curriculum to include … Read More

    The insidious notion that a three legged stool can stand on one leg must be abandoned if we are to move public education into the 21st century. The wisdom of Bloom’s Taxonomy indicates that there are three learning domains: Cognitive, Affective and Psychomotor. As long all learning is based on only the Cognitive domain it will be virtually impossible to realize true “Accountability.” When we take a fresh look and expand the curriculum to include the Affective and the Psychomotor Domains in the learning process, student achievement will soar!

  6. Carl Cohn 7 months ago7 months ago

    Yes, we Californians plead guilty to rejecting your approach to accountability. Your calling it “no accountability” will change nothing…

  7. Phillip Marlowe 7 months ago7 months ago

    This meeting took place in the auditorium of a chronically low-performing school in South Los Angeles. The principal of the school, along with five or six district staff members, was speaking to a group of parents who had recently led a campaign to bring major improvements to student academic outcomes.

    Name names, please so we can check your anecdote.

  8. woodstocksez 7 months ago7 months ago

    Here's the problem. The causal relationship between student achievement and quality of teaching (however exactly we define quality of teaching - and I don't think it's something that lends itself to easy definition) is likely tenuous. There are undoubtedly other factors in play and, I'd contend, some of those are more important than teaching quality. I don't think it's possible to tease out from one or a few numbers, with any reasonable degree … Read More

    Here’s the problem. The causal relationship between student achievement and quality of teaching (however exactly we define quality of teaching – and I don’t think it’s something that lends itself to easy definition) is likely tenuous. There are undoubtedly other factors in play and, I’d contend, some of those are more important than teaching quality. I don’t think it’s possible to tease out from one or a few numbers, with any reasonable degree of confidence, the effect of teaching on student achievement. It’s understandable to desire easily digestible metrics of student achievement that are then used as a proxy for quality of education. But that approach is of uncertain validity, at best, and may be misleading, at worst.

    So, what to do? Keep trying our best to gauge it all, of course, but with a strong sense of our limitations in doing so and with a rejection of the inclination to take the easy way out by calculating a few numbers and declaring the job done.

  9. Mark 7 months ago7 months ago

    @TheMorrigan, I can't agree with your comments enough. This belief that the "majority" of parents in California want one score that assesses students during two weeks of the year to be the only way that school is seen in the eyes of the public is nonsense. A dashboard of data about a school paints a much more involved picture of the school, and as a currently sitting principal, I would much rather our school be … Read More

    @TheMorrigan, I can’t agree with your comments enough. This belief that the “majority” of parents in California want one score that assesses students during two weeks of the year to be the only way that school is seen in the eyes of the public is nonsense.

    A dashboard of data about a school paints a much more involved picture of the school, and as a currently sitting principal, I would much rather our school be looked at through a number of lenses rather than just one.

    As an administrator at a number of schools, I’ve yet to have been at a school where student learning is not the top priority. Boiling down this “student learning” to one number, based on one test is just not the answer.

    Replies

    • Bruce William Smith 7 months ago7 months ago

      Well written, Mark. The NCLB approach of the last decade is being routed across the country, in a process that the leadership in Sacramento rightly led. No Child Left Behind didn’t work; millions of American youth in a most unfortunate generation have been left behind, stuck with inheriting massive debt, with very limited competences with which to try to pay it off, to avoid non-dischargeable bankruptcy as the welcome to adulthood they inherited from George W. Bush and his enablers.

  10. TheMorrigan 7 months ago7 months ago

    If I believed that student test score gains completely captured learning and should be our number one priority, I actually might jump on the Parent Revolution wagon and wagon train back in time to the good ole days of NCLB. . . . But I simply do not recall having good ole days at all during that time period. Education is messy and it is a quixotic journey indeed to boil the complexities of learning … Read More

    If I believed that student test score gains completely captured learning and should be our number one priority, I actually might jump on the Parent Revolution wagon and wagon train back in time to the good ole days of NCLB. . . .

    But I simply do not recall having good ole days at all during that time period. Education is messy and it is a quixotic journey indeed to boil the complexities of learning down to one concise number so that the folks at Parent Revolution can find some type of comfort.

    Replies

    • Todd Maddison 7 months ago7 months ago

      I see your opposition, what I don't see is what you intend to use in place of that "one concise number." Certainly there may be "more than one," but in business we learn that you simply cannot effectively manage improvement if you have too many metrics to watch. If not one, then perhaps at most three or four - but they all need to be objectively measuring academic performance, not "how warm and fuzzy we … Read More

      I see your opposition, what I don’t see is what you intend to use in place of that “one concise number.”

      Certainly there may be “more than one,” but in business we learn that you simply cannot effectively manage improvement if you have too many metrics to watch. If not one, then perhaps at most three or four – but they all need to be objectively measuring academic performance, not “how warm and fuzzy we feel” about our schools…

      We hear a lot about “college and career readiness” being an objective today, but we don’t seem to see that there is most certainly “one concise number” that colleges tend to weigh heavily – the SAT score. And SAT scores have been consistently going downward over time.

      Not every student takes the SAT, but I would submit that enough do to make it statistically significant, and what it’s telling us is that our schools need to focus a bit more on academic achievement.

      • TheMorrigan 7 months ago7 months ago

        Didn't SAT scores begin dropping under the watchful eye of NCLB where the focus was solely on academics? And I seem to recall I suppose if we keeping at it, beating that dead horse, we might be as successful as those states that hitched their wagon to RTTT grants. How did those states fare with their SAT scores? If you wanna use SAT or ACT scores to paint the success of a program or a … Read More

        Didn’t SAT scores begin dropping under the watchful eye of NCLB where the focus was solely on academics? And I seem to recall

        I suppose if we keeping at it, beating that dead horse, we might be as successful as those states that hitched their wagon to RTTT grants. How did those states fare with their SAT scores?

        If you wanna use SAT or ACT scores to paint the success of a program or a mindset, then you just need to be consistent about and follow the logic wherever that leads us.

  11. Ann 7 months ago7 months ago

    Thank you, Seth. I hope your sentiment will prevail.

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