Considerations for Kentucky's English/Language Arts standards revisions
What education accountability can (and cannot) do, Part II

What education accountability can (and cannot) do, Part I

Though the work goes largely unnoticed by the vast majority of parents and taxpayers, Kentucky's education leaders have been hard at work redesigning the accountability system that dictates what data points will be collected about the performance of the state's P-12 schools and what must happen as a result of those data. This work, carried out by the Kentucky Department of Education and involving several thousand education stakeholders, is the result of changes in federal education law (which gives states more leeway in how they design such systems), changes in state education law under 2o17's Senate Bill 1, and a widespread agreement that Kentucky's previous accountability system could be improved.

The new system will ultimately be approved by the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member; note that what I write here represents my views only), and eventually ratified by the General Assembly. The KBE is striving to give approval to the system by August so it can go out for a period of public review as required by law. As we get closer to a final version, some of the discussion among state board members and in the education community at large has become more heated; we know the stakes are high and everyone wants to get it right.

I've previously written describing details of the proposed accountability system, how it might improve the transparency of what is really happening in schools, and where my key concerns lie. In this two-part series of posts, however, I want to reflect on what the education accountability system actually does - and why it can't do everything we might want it to do [see the second part here].

The accountability system can convey information

Why do we have a state/federal education accountability system in the first place? Because results matter. Our education system plays a key role in the success of our democracy, the efficiency of our economy, and above all the happiness, virtue, and well-being of future generations. We'd like to know if students are learning, how much they are learning, whether inequities among racial, economic, and other groups are being remedied through the education system or made worse, and if schools are generally getting better at these goals.

In this sense, the accountability system is all about gathering and conveying information needed by parents, policy-makers, and especially educators who want to know how they are doing and where they should focus their improvement efforts. Here are some of the specific kinds of information the proposed accountability system is designed to provide:

  • What percent of students at various grade levels are proficient in reading, math, science, social studies, and writing.
  • The extent to which schools are moving children toward proficiency (or beyond it), regardless of whether they have reached proficiency already or not.
  • The extent to which students of color, students of poverty, students with disabilities, and English language learners are performing at similar levels to students overall, and whether schools are making progress at closing those gaps.
  • Whether students are finishing their P-12 education experience prepared to attend post-secondary education, or prepared to enter a technical field or the military.
  • Whether schools are offering students rich learning experiences in areas that are harder to test, like the arts, and in all subjects during years during which state tests are not required, and whether schools are trying to address the needs of the whole child (not just their academic achievement).

Additionally, we want to be able to summarize all this information in some way that gives educators and the public a general sense of how a school is doing overall, without glossing over areas where the school is doing especially well or struggling a lot.

It is not an easy task to design a coherent system that conveys all these kinds of data in a transparent way. Tentatively, the Kentucky Department of Education hopes to launch a kind of performance dashboard to replace the old School Report Card system that will let the public know at a glance how the school is doing in key areas, as well as overall. The trick is to have enough "gauges" on the dashboard to communicate everything important, but to also make things easy to find. What's even harder is to design a system that encourages educators and the public to use this information to improve.

Accountability can encourage certain kinds of improvement

For whatever progress Kentucky has made in the quality of its educational system, no one is satisfied with the results. As the Secretary of Education and Workforce Development pointed out in his recent report to KBE, nearly half of all Kentucky students are below proficiency in key academic areas. Achievement for at-risk student populations is embarrassingly low. We have a moral and economic imperative to do better.

The accountability system encourages schools to improve in two ways. First, it can tie the school's overall performance rating to its progress (or lack thereof) in key areas. So, for example, in the proposed system, no school will be able to achieve the two highest performance ratings if it has persistent achievement gaps (by a measure we still have to define as of this writing). Schools with a combination of problems will find themselves consistently in the lowest performance categories even if achievement gap isn't a big issue. 

Along with the dashboard that further highlights these specific areas of low performance, we hope this signals to the parents, taxpayers, and educators that action needs to be taken. How we set improvement targets and their relative weights in overall accountability have important effects on how much schools pay attention to these goals.

The second way  the accountability system encourages improvement is by dictating consequences for persistently low results like forcing the school to receive supports and oversight from state education officials, usually teams of educators from the Kentucky Department of Education, though under Senate Bill 1 schools will have a bit more flexibility in selecting who provides this kind of support. A new report from researchers at Stanford University highlights the success Kentucky has experienced with this turnaround model, but it's important to emphasize that when this mechanism of the accountability system works, it is because there are dramatic changes at the local level also.

In pondering these purposes of the accountability system, there are two hard truths we have to face. First, while accountability can convey information and incentivize certain kinds of improvement, it cannot make schools improve. That task must fall to other areas of the education system, including through state policy, but above all through local efforts.

The second hard truth is that no one knows exactly how to fix what's wrong with the education system - or even what is precisely wrong with it. It's not like we know what to do and are just too lazy or recalcitrant to do it. Rather, the challenges are extremely complex and while we may have many different ideas and theories about what might work, no one has yet found a single policy solution - or combination of solutions - that will rapidly skyrocket student learning and keep it up over long periods of time. This should leave all of us in education with a hair-on-fire sense of urgency, but also a deep humility about our own pet policy prescriptions.

And that will be the focus of my next post.

Related posts:

Usual disclaimer: All views expressed on this website are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member) or Western Kentucky University (where I serve as associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration, Leadership, and Research).

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