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.

The Vermont “No Child Left Behind” Letter that Tells the Truth

The federal testing law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), requires that states inform parents when—by the standardized tests required by NCLB—their child’s school has been identified as a “failing” school.  The problem is that, because NCLB required states to raise the “cut score” for student proficiency higher every year at the same time NCLB mandated that all schools make all their students be proficient by 2014, virtually all schools across America are now failing schools—by the ill-conceived mechanism of NCLB.

All but a hand-full of states have applied for and received NCLB waivers that the U.S. Department of Education has made available to states to release them from the ridiculous requirement that all schools be labeled failures and other penalties embedded in NCLB that have proven ill-advised or unworkable. To qualify for a NCLB waiver, however, states must meet the conditions Arne Duncan’s Department has established.  The primary requirement is that states agree to evaluate and rate teachers based on the statewide standardized test the state created to test all students as required by NCLB.  Washington state wanted to let school districts choose what test to use to evaluate and rate teachers, and Washington state was punished in April 2014, when the U.S. Department of Education rescinded its NCLB waiver.

A few states, however, do not have NCLB waivers. Last week Vermont’s Secretary of Education, Rebecca Holcombe explained why her state has never sought a waiver.  Holcombe sent out a letter to all the parents of Vermont, as required by NCLB—to tell them that their children are attending a “failing” school.  Holcombe then explains very clearly why the failure label is meaningless.  She also explains how the whole test-and-punish regime of NCLB has been a fiasco.  John Kuhn, the prophetic  superintendent of the tiny Perrin-Whitt School District in Texas tweeted, “I want to move to Vermont now.”

Of course, in a lot of ways small, homogeneous Vermont is not like Texas or Illinois or New York or Michigan or Pennsylvania or New Jersey. For one thing, all of these states applied for and got waivers, and in many of these cases, state legislators and governors are marching to the tune of the test-and-punish school “reform” being prescribed right now by our federal.

Even if we can’t all move to Vermont now, however, we should read Rebecca Holcombe’s letter because it sorts out the NCLB education policies that baffle too many of us.  Maybe, like Vermont, more states could simply refuse to play this crazy game, explain how the rules are all messed up, and get on with educating children and supporting teachers.  Holcombe makes it sound that easy.

“Under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), as of 2014, if only one child in your school does not score as ‘proficient’ on state tests, then your school must be ‘identified’ as ‘low performing’ under federal law.  This year, every school whose students took the NECAP tests last year is now considered a ‘low performing’ school by the US Department of Education… The Vermont Agency of Education does not agree with this federal policy, nor do we agree that all of our schools are low performing.” (emphasis Holcombe’s)

Holcombe describes positive accomplishments in the public schools across the state of Vermont, but then reminds parents why she is sending this strange letter telling them their school is a failure: “Nevertheless, if we fail to announce that each Vermont school is ‘low performing,” we jeopardize federal funding for elementary and secondary education… This policy does not serve the interest of Vermont schools, nor does it advance our economic or social well-being.  Further, it takes our focus away from other measures that give us more meaningful and useful data on school effectiveness.”

Holcombe explains why Vermont has chosen never to apply for a waiver: “Most other states have received a waiver to get out from under the broken NCLB policy.  They did this by agreeing to evaluate their teachers and principals based on the standardized test scores of their students… We chose not to agree to a waiver for a lot of reasons, including that the research we have read on evaluating teachers based on test scores suggests these methods are unreliable in classes with 15 or fewer students, and this represents about 40-50% of our classes.  It would be unfair to our students to automatically fire their educators based on technically inadequate tools.  Also, there is evidence suggesting that over-relying on test-based evaluation might fail to credit educators for doing things we actually want them to do, such as teach a rich curriculum across all important subject areas, and not just math and English language arts.”

Holcombe ends with a set of nine questions, a guide parents can use to evaluate their child’s school and their child’s progress.  From her point of view, evaluating what’s happening at school is well within the abilities of most parents.  It is important and at the same time very basic—including questions like: “Is your child happy to go to school and engaged in learning?” and “Can your child explain what he is learning and why?”  I urge you to read Holcombe’s letter and to consider her excellent guide for parents.  She concludes: “Be engaged with your school, look at evidence of your own child’s learning, and work with your local educators to ensure that every child is challenged and supported, learning, and thriving.”

What Did Arne Duncan Just Do to Washington State?

Last Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education revoked Washington state’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver. What does this mean and does it matter?

In 2011, just before he created waivers from the most onerous consequences of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan dismissed NCLB in one short piece of Congressional testimony: “We should get out of the business of labeling schools as failures and create a new law that is fair and flexible, and focused on the schools and students most at risk.”  The National Research Council agrees:  “Test-based incentive programs… have not increased student achievement enough to bring the United States close to the levels of the highest achieving countries.” It is now a truth universally acknowledged that NCLB didn’t get our schools to the goals we were holding them accountable for.

The law is still with us, however, because Congress cannot agree even on how to talk about a long-overdue reauthorization, and Arne Duncan’s waivers are merely a flimsy patch on a very bad problem.  More important, the law’s philosophy is very much still with us because mandatory standardized tests, standards-based curriculum, punishments for schools whose students are low-scoring, and incorporation of students’ test scores in the evaluation of teachers are embedded into the requirements set by Duncan’s Department of Education for states to apply for a waiver. The education policies of President Barack Obama’s administration closely resemble the policies of President George W. Bush’s administration.  Applying for Duncan’s waivers (along with other competitive programs like Race to the Top) has forced states to embed federal test-and-punish accountability into state by state legislation, synchronizing federal and state laws to impose test-based accountability for schools.

To think a little more deeply about the meaning of our society’s infatuation with test-and-punish accountability, it is fascinating to go back to some of the reams of criticism in the ten years between the time President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act in January of 2002 and the development of the waivers the Department of Education began offering states who agreed to Arne Duncan’s conditions in 2012.

Gary Orfield, Gail Sunderman, and James Kim of the Civil Rights Project published a book-length critique, NCLB Meets School Realities, in 2005, three years into the operation of NCLB.   Here is a selected summary of conclusions from the book’s introduction:

“Underlying NCLB is the assumption that schools by themselves can achieve dramatic, totally unprecedented levels of educational achievement for all racial and ethnic groups as well as for children with disabilities, low-income children, and children who lack English fluency—all in a short space of time and without changing any of the other inequalities in their lives.  Substantial yearly gains must be made for each of these groups in every individual school to meet the requirements of NCLB…”

“Though it was still providing less than a tenth of the resources, the federal government was no longer a modest partner in educational systems dominated by state and local agencies….  Supporters defined the law’s requirements as accountability, not control of education, but accountability for specific educational outcomes with very high stakes attached….  Local educators have no control over the standards or requirements, which are decided by the state officials.  In a predominantly suburban society where the cities often have rapidly declining influence, the school districts with the highest concentration of minority and low-income students may have virtually no voice in setting these standards….”

“Money has been a problem…. First, the very substantial increases in federal funding, which the Democrats had thought were part of the bargain to enact the law, did not materialize…. Second, the schools received less funding from state and local governments than they had expected.  Third, there were major costs involved in complying with the law’s requirements; and fourth, the law set aside 20% of the funds, not for use by the schools, but for transfer programs and the purchase of private tutoring services by parents…”

“Teachers and their organizations, and people who do research on teachers, were not actively involved in the writing of NCLB and often seem to be the target of the Act… NCLB treats educational improvement as a regulatory rather than an educational and professional problem.  This implies that high-poverty schools have less-qualified teachers because they have not done enough to attract better teachers or the teachers are not working hard enough.  It also implies that the solution to improving teacher quality is to force schools to hire better teachers and get rid of the less-qualified ones.” (pp. xxvii-xxxiii)

Prophetic words.

In 2012, the Obama administration acknowledged the failure of NCLB’s accountability scheme by offering the states waivers from the law’s overly punitive consequences.  NCLB had required that the states develop a timetable of ever rising annual test scores by which all American children would be proficient by 2014.  Public schools unable to make Adequate Yearly Progress by bringing all children to higher benchmark scores every year were to be declared “failing,” and by 2012 it was known that by the 2014 deadline, the vast majority of America’s public schools would be categorized as “failing.” The law had established accountability for schools that could not make children universally above average, but nobody had figured out what to do when  all schools inevitably fell behind.

NCLB waivers stopped the Adequate Yearly Progress benchmarks and time line.  Schools would cease to be declared “failing” if their students’ scores failed to rise every year until all children demonstrated proficiency.  Waivers actually helped in one other important way: NCLB had also required that districts with “failing” schools set aside 20 percent of their Title I money to pay for families to get private tutoring or to transport their children to more successful schools.  Waivers allowed school districts to use that money for school improvement and eliminated the private tutoring and school transfer provision.

Forty-two states applied for and received waivers, according to Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post,  along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and eight school districts in California that fought for the right to apply on their own.  But last Thursday, Arne Duncan revoked Washington state’s waiver.  Why?

The waivers softened the consequences but didn’t get rid of the testing and data collection. One of the requirements set by the Obama administration for qualifying for  a NCLB waiver was that states had to promise to incorporate students’ test scores on the state tests required by NCLB into teacher evaluations.  Alyson Klein, writing for Education Week, reports that the legislature in the state of Washington couldn’t agree to count only the NCLB-required state test for teacher evaluation.  Instead Washington’s legislature said “districts can choose either state or local assessments.”

What will the loss of the waiver mean for Washington state?  John Higgins, writing for the Seattle Times, presents the local point of view:  “This fall, state education chief Randy Dorn will again ask the Legislature for dramatically increased funding to comply with the Supreme Court’s school-funding decision.  At the same time, most of the state’s parents will be receiving letters explaining that their children attend schools in failing districts… Districts will lose control over how they spend part of their share of about $40 million in federal funding…. Under the waiver, state school districts have been able to tap those funds to provide preschool, full-day kindergarten, teacher training and extra help from certified teachers after school and during the summer.  Now… districts with struggling schools will have to set aside 20 percent of their share to pay for individual tutoring from private vendors outside the district or to cover busing costs for children who want to transfer from a failing school to a non-failing school.  For schools in Seattle, that amounts to about $1.6 million that will have to be set aside for next year.”

None of this would appear to be helpful to schools or children in Washington state.  But no matter.  We seem to be a society programmed these days to swallow plans for accountability.  Set some rules, set some benchmarks we can measure, get a lot of data, and voila, we’ve got accountability.  Whether our system actually accomplishes the goals it was set up to support — whether the rules accomplish anything useful at all — are, of course,  very different questions that we rarely discuss these days.   Nobody seems to be accountable for the morass of accountability into which we have sunk.