Sorting Out the Debate About Educational Accountability

The watchword for the last quarter century’s school reform has been accountability: holding schools and school teachers accountable for quickly raising students’ scores on standardized tests. Sanctioning schools and teachers who can’t quickly raise scores was supposed to be an effective strategy for overcoming educational injustice. Test-and-punish has enabled us at least to say we’ve been doing something to hold schools accountable.

The politics of this conversation are pretty confusing—all going back to the federal education law, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and the debate about its replacement, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  There was bipartisan agreement in 2001-2002 when NCLB was debated, passed, and signed into law that our society could close racial and economic achievement gaps by testing all students and then demanding that schools quickly raise the scores of underachieving students. In 2015 when Congress debated the law’s reauthorization, accountability-hawk Democrats stood by test-and-punish accountability; many Republicans, led by Senator Lamar Alexander instead pushed to expand states’ rights by lifting the heavy hand of the federal government and allowing states to design their own plans to improve so-called failing schools. Worrying that removal of universal testing would let schools off the hook, the Civil Rights Community has stood by NCLB’s testing plan. Many have continued to assume that universal testing exposes achievement gaps and that the exposure will motivate politicians and educators to address racial and economic disparities.

Test-and-punish school reform has been at the center of a conversation between Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Republican Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.  An article by Caitlin Emma published over the weekend by POLITICO examines the history of No Child Left Behind vs. the Every Student Succeeds Act as a background for looking at how policy around school accountability has been evolving in the Trump administration. Emma describes the new ESSA, passed by a Republican Congress in 2015 and designed to return at least some authority for accountability back to the states. But Democrats prodded by Civil Rights leaders and some Republicans have stood by federally imposed accountability: “Critics… worry whether states will adequately track and provide equal opportunities for at-risk kids…. (Even) former Republican Rep. John Kline… an architect of the measure, has said he’s worried states are now getting away with testing plans that violate a key requirement of the law—that states administer the same test to all students annually.  The provision is critical (Kline believes) so that states are forced to report the performance of all students and the results for poor and minority students are not hidden from view, as they were for decades before federal testing requirements were enacted.”

Emma explains: “The Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed in 2015, was widely viewed by Republicans as a corrective to the federal overreach that followed… No Child Left Behind.”  Emma reports that last summer, when Jason Botel, an official in Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education began reviewing the states’ applications for federal funds under the ESSA, Botel demanded that before he would approve some states’ plans, they must toughen their standards and demand more.  Powerful Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, who had—during the 2015 reauthorization—supported a return of control to the states, formally complained to Betsy DeVos—“furious that a top DeVos aide was circumventing a new law aimed at reducing the federal government’s role in K-12 education. He contended that the agency was out of bounds by challenging state officials, for instance, about whether they were setting sufficiently ambitions goals for their students.”

For many of us who have, for fifteen years, closely followed educational accountability as mandated under No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act, the entire debate seems wrong-headed and bizarre.  I am writing about those of us who care deeply about expanding opportunity for children segregated in schools where poverty is highly concentrated— schools where intense segregation by poverty is overlaid on segregation by ethnicity and race. The schools these children attend have, under federal policy, been derided by accountability hawks as “failing” schools.  Widespread blaming—of schools and school teachers—now dominates discussions of school reform even as sociologists increasingly document that family and neighborhood poverty pose overwhelming challenges for these children and their schools.

Much of the confusion and rancor arises because the public debate about school accountability conflates two very different questions:

  • Should the federal government be involved at all in telling states what to do about education?
  • Is test-and-punish accountability an effective strategy for improving public schools and closing opportunity gaps?

The original federal education law, the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, addressed the first question as a response to the needs of children in primarily southern states, where schools serving black children had been underfunded and inadequate for generations. There are similar problems of inequity across cities today and forgotten rural areas. Poor children and children of color segregated in particular areas remain under served. The debate about this first question involves states’ rights vs. what has come to be accepted (by many of us) as the federal government’s responsibility to protect the rights of all children and ensure they are all well served. It is a heated question that remains underneath much of the debate about school reform.

The second question involves the strategy Congress chose for reforming schools in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Congress blamed teachers and schools and devised a law that was supposed to force schools and teachers to work harder and faster to improve test scores in schools where achievement lagged when all children in each state were tested on a single standardized test.  It is becoming clearer all the time that when Congress jumped behind test-and-punish accountability, it chose the wrong strategy.  A long and growing body of research demonstrates that test scores are far more aligned with a school’s aggregate economic level than with the work of the teachers or the curriculum being offered to students. Economists like Bruce Baker at Rutgers University also document enormous opportunity gaps as these same public schools in our nation’s poorest communities receive far less public investment than the schools in wealthy suburbs, schools serving children whose families also invest heavily in enrichments at home.

Here is just some of the prominent research from the past ten years that tries to answer the second question.

In 2010, Anthony Bryk and educational sociologists from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago described the challenges for a particular subset of schools in Chicago, Illinois that exist in a city where many schools serve low income children. The Consortium focused on 46 schools whose students live in neighborhoods where poverty is extremely concentrated.  These “truly disadvantaged” schools are far poorer than the norm. They serve families and neighborhoods where the median family income is $9,480. They are racially segregated, each serving 99 percent African American children, and they serve on average 96 percent poor children, with virtually no middle class children present. The researchers report that in the truly disadvantaged schools, 25 percent of the children have been substantiated by the Department of Children and Family Services as being abused or neglected, either currently or during some earlier point in their elementary career. “This means that in a typical classroom of 30… a teacher might be expected to engage 7 or 8 such students every year.”  “(T)he job of school improvement appears especially demanding in truly disadvantaged urban communities where collective efficacy and church participation may be relatively low, residents have few social contacts outside their neighborhood, and crime rates are high.  It can be equally demanding in schools with relatively high proportions of students living under exceptional circumstances, where the collective human need can easily overwhelm even the strongest of spirits and the best of intentions. Under these extreme conditions, sustaining the necessary efforts to push a school forward on a positive trajectory of change may prove daunting indeed.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp. 172-187)

Then in 2011, Sean Reardon of Stanford University released a massive data analysis confirming the connection of school achievement gaps to growing economic inequality and residential patterns becoming rapidly more segregated by income. Reardon documented that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

In The Testing Charade, a book published just last month, Daniel Koretz of Harvard University blames test-and-punish accountability for enabling our society to pretend that we have been overcoming educational inequity at the same time we avoid making the public investment necessary even to begin addressing the problem: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)  “If we are going to make real headway, we are going to have to confront the simple fact that many teachers will need substantial supports if they are going to markedly improve the performance of their students… And the range of services needed is broad. One can’t expect students’ performance in schools to be unaffected by inadequate nutrition, insufficient health care, home environments that have prepared them poorly for school, or violence on the way to school.” (p. 201)

The second question involves the overall direction of education policy, and it is important because we desperately need a better strategy. Blaming and punishing the schools with the lowest scores—by closing “failing” schools or privatizing them or firing their teachers and principals—has only further undermined the public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities without addressing the opportunity gaps the tests identify.

Today’s Republican tax slashing agenda will only further reduce public investment in education.  And we are likely to keep on blaming the victims.

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