Defining School Accountability: Test-and-Punish or Support-and-Improve?

Suddenly for the first time in years, there is considerable talk about reforming federal policy in education.  Today this blog will review the way federal education policy has become stuck and an academic paper that seems to have stimulated new thinking by a number of education advocacy and civil rights organizations.  Tomorrow, the blog will share two new policy statements from prominent civil rights and education policy organizations as well as reviewing  growing protests against the standardized testing that has—due to growing federal and state accountability requirements—come to dominate our public schools.

A quick review of the history of the No Child Left Behind Act:  For a long time there has been a hopeless feeling among people who care about the children and teachers in public schools, because it has been clear that not much was going to happen to change the failed policies of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)—the federal law designed to hold schools accountable for the academic achievement of their students.  NCLB was supposed to address accountability with annual standardized testing (in grades 3-8 and once in high school) and then create negative incentives (various punishments) for the schools and teachers unable to raise the test scores of all groups of children.  The punishments were for the so-called “failing” schools, but because the law set utopian and impossible benchmarks, the “failing school” label came to be applied to virtually all of our nation’s public schools—except that Arne Duncan and his Department of Education have created waivers from the “failure” label and a couple of other parts of NCLB that were unworkable. But the waivers came with more tests and very harsh punishments for schools scoring in the lowest 5 percent—close the school, privatize the school, fire the principal, fire the teachers. And even though the federal education law is supposed to be reauthorized every five years, there hasn’t been a reauthorization since 2002, when NCLB was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

Today, while it is widely agreed that  NCLB was a failure—and that the waivers aren’t working well either, and while it is a truth universally acknowledged that a school with low test scores must be in want of improvement, there has been agreement neither about who ought to be accountable to whom when it comes to school improvement nor about how accountability ought to be defined.  In fact there hasn’t really been much agreement about what such school improvement ought to look like.  Bills to reauthorize NCLB have been proposed here and there in the Senate and the House, but there has been no progress toward consensus.

Suddenly in recent weeks, however, there has been increasing talk about how public school accountability ought to work.  Because this week’s election will change at least a few of the players at the federal and state levels, advocates are positioning themselves to push hard for reform in case a political opportunity might open.

In late August, Linda Darling-Hammond of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and Gene Wilhoit and Linda Pittenger of the National Center for Innovation in Education at the University of Kentucky published a paper, Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm.  Darling-Hammond—who was seriously considered by President Obama for the job of Secretary of Education, and Wilhoit—formerly executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers—are well respected among academic researchers and among policy makers.

Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit’s paper covers many issues, but it is most significant because it reframes the concept of accountability.  Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit propose a system of reciprocal accountability—that includes holding society responsible for providing for all schools inputs—school funding and other necessary resources—as well as holding schools and teachers responsible for educational outcomes. “Genuine accountability must both raise the bar of expectations for learning—for children, adults and the system as a whole—and trigger the intelligent investments and change strategies that make it possible to achieve these expectations.  It must involve communities, along with professional educators and governments, in establishing goals and contributing to their attainment… Thus, a new paradigm for accountability should rest on three pillars: a focus on meaningful learning, enabled by professionally skilled and committed educators, supported by adequate and appropriate resources… Such a system should be: reciprocal and comprehensive, focused on capacity-building, performance-based, and embedded in a multiple-measures system… A comprehensive system must attend to the inputs, processes, and outcomes that produce student learning: In other words, it must build capacity to offer high quality education, while holding educators accountable for providing such education.” (emphasis in the original)

There is quite a bit of rhetoric and theory here.  What does it mean in practice?  Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit are proposing that federal law stop merely blaming teachers and punishing the public schools in the poorest communities when, as we all surely know, there is massive inequity of investment by states and wide variance across school districts in their capacity to raise revenue locally.   A just society, Darling-Hamond and Wilhoit suggest, should be expected to invest significantly in the public schools that serve our society’s most vulnerable children—the public schools in our cites where poverty is concentrated, the public schools that remain grossly under-funded while the demands on them from federal and state policy have continued to increase.  Reciprocal accountability would address gaps in opportunity as a primary way to address gaps in school achievement.

The idea of reciprocal accountability isn’t new.  Congressman Chaka Fattah (PA 2) introduced—into every session of Congress during the tenure of President George W. Bush—a Student Bill of Rights Act that incorporated the principle of reciprocal accountability.  And the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign has been pushing to close opportunity gaps—not just achievement gaps—-for several years.  What is new is that a a growing number of academics and national organizations seem to be coordinating their efforts to advocate for reciprocal accountability.

I urge you to read Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit’s paper, for it explores many additional serious issues around accountability for teaching and learning as well as discussion of better assessments using multiple measures.  Tomorrow this blog will explore how the idea of reciprocal accountability has been seeping into recent policy statements by civil rights and national education policy organizations at the same time there is a growing backlash against the standardized testing that has increasingly dominated students’ lives.

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3 thoughts on “Defining School Accountability: Test-and-Punish or Support-and-Improve?

  1. Pingback: Advocates and National Organizations Are Questioning Test-and-Punish School Accountability | janresseger

  2. Pingback: Defining School Accountability: Test-and-Punish or Support-and-Improve? | PAChurchesAdvocacy.org

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