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.
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