The 2002 No Child Left Behind law may have represented the most dramatic expansion of the federal government's role in education in American history. Its reauthorization late last year as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) may represent an equally dramatic shift as the key mechanisms of school accountability are devolved back to the states. An unprecedented opportunity now exists to take the basic framework of NCLB (measuring and reporting student performance with an emphasis on closing the achievement gaps for traditionally under-performing groups), and innovatively expand how we determine what makes for a succeeding or failing school.
In response to this situation, Kentucky's Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt is conducting a series of town hall meetings across the state to solicit broad public input regarding what the Commonwealth's educational accountability structure should look like. In the immediate WKU region, this meeting will be held on Wednesday, April 27th, from 6:30 - 8:00 p.m. at the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative.
Media reports have indicated that the Commissioner wants to build an accountability system that balances simplicity with a more authentic approach to evaluating schools than a crude test score formula. This is a worthy goal, but one that is not so easy to achieve. Test scores tell us the basic facts about how many students have met proficiency in key areas like reading and math. But there is a wealth of other information that test scores can't reveal, information that tells far more about what is actually happening in a school. Capturing that kind of information isn't easy - and certainly not simple.
I don't have a clear set of ideas to offer the Commissioner for the accountability redesign, partly for reasons I'll note below. Instead, I'd like to suggest some general principles that could guide the overall process.
Test scores do matter. If recent years have seen an over-emphasis on test scores as the sole measure of school effectiveness, it's because our schools are actually underserving a large percentage of our students. Statewide, only about half of Kentucky students are proficient in reading and math. Historically, we have tolerated horrible achievement gaps for students of poverty, students of color, and students with disabilities. Yes, there are many social factors at work in these numbers, but the truth is we can do better, and the emphasis on measuring student achievement and setting meaningful goals for improvement reflects our commitment to greater equity, justice, and opportunity for all students. Let's not use a new accountability model to let ourselves off the hook for improving student learning, including the kind measured by test scores.
Percentiles don't matter. One element of Kentucky's current school accountability model that needs to go is labeling school performance based on how schools compared to one another. Long ago educators learned the serious limitations of using percentile scores to judge how much students have actually learned. The same lesson should be applied to how schools have performed. Let's set clear targets for ongoing school improvement, and label and report schools based on the progress they've made, not how they did compared to other schools.
Consider what 21st century schools should look like. It's not enough to ensure that our schools help more students reach proficiency in reading and math. We need to make sure they have the kinds of deep knowledge and critical thinking skills necessary for functioning in the 21st century's global, digital economy and politically unstable world. This includes having an appreciation for arts, literature and history as much as it does mastery of the popular "STEM" subjects. Schools that excel in meeting the 21st century challenge will have to move beyond the industrial, one-size-fits all model of schooling that has reigned since the late 19th century. We need to seek creative - and meaningful - ways of holding schools accountable for helping kids excel in the full range of subject areas, in critical thinking, citizenship, and in character, and in providing a more personalized learning experience.
Consider peer review. Under Kentucky's existing accountability framework, persistently low-achieving schools have been subject to an intensive diagnostic review process in which a team of peer educators conduct a multi-day visit to the school, observing classrooms, interviewing stakeholders, and reviewing data and documentation. I believe these kinds of peer reviews yield extremely valuable feedback that can assist schools in their on-going improvement efforts, and should be considered as one tool in the accountability process. Of course, peer review is expensive and time consuming, but even high performing schools could benefit from this sort of feedback - if they were held responsible for using it.
Consider choice. I have no expectations that the Kentucky Department of Education will act on this suggestion, but to me a key missing piece in public school accountability is the lack of choice so many families have when it comes to making educational decisions for their families. Affluent parents have school choice already because they can buy homes in the school zones of their choosing or pay tuition for non-government schools. It's the poor and middle class who have far fewer options in this regard. Choice isn't a magic bullet that will automatically fix all the problems in education, of course (which is why it's only one of the principles I'm suggesting here), but if every school knows they must compete for the students they serve, a whole new layer of accountability is added, one that is the norm in virtually every other industry and service in our economy.
I offer all of this with some measure of emotional distance and a healthy grain of salt. I have always advised aspiring and practicing principals not to get too wrapped up in the state's perennial efforts to rethink school accountability. Every school should have a strong, independent vision of what teaching and learning looks like. That vision should be clear and drive the daily life of the school to such an extent that even when policymakers change the curriculum or accountability system (and they will again and again), school stakeholders remain committed and focused on their core work.
Nevertheless, this is a rare opportunity for educators and the general public to actually be asked what they think about school accountability, and I encourage everyone to attend the Commissioner's town hall meetings, learn more, and give your input. I'll see you there.