Advocates and National Organizations Are Questioning Test-and-Punish School Accountability

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

As this blog described yesterday, in an academic paper published in August, Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm, Linda Darling-Hammond and Gene Wilhoit propose 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-Hammond and Wilhoit suggest, should be reciprocally accountable for investing significantly in the public schools that serve our society’s most vulnerable children– addressing gaps in opportunity as a primary way to address gaps in school achievement.

Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit’s paper seems to have united commitment across national advocacy organizations around the concept of reciprocal accountability.  First eleven of the nation’s most prominent civil rights organizations sent a joint letter to President Obama, Secretary Duncan and Congressional leaders, a letter that echoes the proposals in the paper published by Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit.  Last week this blog covered the new civil rights letter here. The civil rights organizations are Advancement Project, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, League of United Latin American Citizens, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, National Urban League, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Council on Educating Black Children, National Indian Education Association, and Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.  Their statement disdains “overly punitive accountability systems that do not take into account the resources, geography, student population, and needs of specific schools.  In particular, the No Child Left Behind law has not accomplished its intended goals of substantially expanding educational equity or significantly improving educational outcomes.  Racial achievement and opportunity gaps remain large.”  These organizations advocate that accountability should measure resource inputs and support the academic, social, emotional, physical health, and cultural well-being of students.

Then seventeen national organizations—including some of the same civil rights groups along with a number of national educational organizations released New Accountability: A New Social Compact for American Education, a document that supports the idea of reciprocal accountability.  Sponsors are American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, American Youth Policy Forum, Albert Shanker Institute, Alliance for Quality Education, Committee for Economic Development, Center for Teaching Quality, Education Law Center, Institute for Educational Leadership/Coalition for Community Schools, League of United Latin American Citizens, National Association for Bilingual Education, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Education Association, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, National School Boards Association, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.  The new “social compact” declares: “Accountability in American education must focus both on gathering complete information on the performance of students, educators, schools and districts, and on providing the feedback, resources and supports necessary for their improvement.  A fundamental paradigm shift in our accountability regime will be required, as the failed approach of ‘test and punish‘ is replaced with a strategy of ‘support and improve.'” “Genuine accountability rests on shared responsibility for educational outcomes.  All of the institutions participating in American education—from the federal government, state governments and higher education to school boards, school districts and schools—must be accountable for the contributions each must make to ensure high-quality learning opportunities for every child. Government must be accountable for equitably allocating adequate resources—dollars, curriculum and learning tools, well-qualified educators, and safe healthy environments for learning—to meet student needs and support meaningful learning.”  You are invited to join the authors of the Social Compact for American Education by signing on.

Finally, there is growing conversation about the tests themselves.  Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit’s academic paper also addresses this issue at length and declares: “If meaningful learning for all students is the focus of an accountability system, the system should use a range of measures that encourage and reflect such learning, and it should use those measures in ways that improve, rather than limit, educational opportunities for students.  This means we need both much better assessments of learning—representing much more authentically the skills and abilities we want students to develop—and multiple measures of how students, educators, schools, districts, and states are performing.”

The problem is not merely the quality of the tests, however.  An enormous concern is the amount and frequency of testing.  Sixteen superintendents of large, county-wide school districts recommend that the U.S. Department of Education, even in the waivers it is offering from NCLB’s failed policies, reduce the time and energy being devoted in America’s classrooms to testing by substituting grade-span testing instead of annual testing.  They are suggesting that federally required standardized tests be reduced from seven (grades 3-8 and once in high school) to three times (once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school).

Last week Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing was featured as a guest columnist by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post: “Across the nation, resistance to test overuse and misuse reached unprecedented heights in the spring of 2014.  The rapidly growing movement built on significant test opposition unleashed in 2013.  This year, resistance erupted in more states with far more participants, and it won notable victories such as ending, lessening or postponing graduation exams in at least eight states and easing or ending grade promotion tests.”  He describes a growing opt-out movement among parents and adds, “School boards are also resisting test overkill.  In New York, about 20 districts refused to administer tests used for the sole purpose of trying out items for next year’s state exams.”

Neill remains sober about the amount of work still needed to grow such actions, however.  “The ultimate goals of the movement are to dramatically reduce the amount of testing, end high stakes uses, and implement educationally sound assessments.  Progress has been made, but much more must be done.  To succeed, the movement must keep rapidly expanding while uniting across lines of race, class and where possible, politically ideology.  And it must turn its growing strength into greater victories.”

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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.

In NYC, Farina Replaces “Test-and-Punish” with “Support-and-Improve.” Wow!

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign slogan last fall described New York as a tale of two cities.  He was referring to alarming income inequality exacerbated by the policies of former mayor Michael Bloomberg.  The metaphor of two cities also captures the contrast in philosophy between the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations, a contrast that has never been exposed more plainly than it was this week.

On Wednesday, New York City schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, went to  P.S. 503/P.S. 506 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn to deliver her second major policy address.  She announced a new philosophy of school improvement and the abandonment of letter grade ratings for public schools.

Then on Thursday, charter school diva Eva Moskowitz closed her Success Academy charter schools and led students, parents, and teachers at a rally in support of charter schools, a rally that was coordinated with a huge TV ad buy that cost nearly half a million dollars.  The ads—that ran most of the week—malign the public schools and promote school choice.

Farina’s policy address, filled with the kind of intangibles that must be the heart of any real school improvement, was described by the press primarily for its promise that the New York Public Schools will abandon a rating system that assigns public schools grades of A-F and instead publish School Quality Snapshots.  The Chancellor says the new Snapshots will, “provide the first balanced picture of a school’s quality—and reflect our promise to stop judging students and schools based on a single, summative grade…  The Snapshot will provide rich details about the life of the school by capturing successes, challenges, and strategies for improvement.  This is a totally new approach.  We are no longer penalizing a school for its weaknesses.”

It is important to stop for a second and think about what we are really reading here.  The New York City School District is abandoning a philosophy of test-and-punish and adopting a philosophy of support-and-improve.

Anyone who has been reading the literature about turning around the schools maligned by the federal testing law No Child Left Behind as “failing” or “in need of improvement” knows that New York City under Mayor Bloomberg was a leader in experiments that closed so-called “failing” schools and emphasized school choice by expanding privatized charters.  And anyone who has been following this conversation over the past dozen years knows that one of the best alternatives to the wave of punitive school reform is described in a book from the University of Chicago: Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, by Anthony Bryk and his colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Sadly Rahm Emanuel has not followed the advice of the Consortium on Chicago School Research.  Carmen Farina just announced that New York City will adopt this plan.

Bryk is a sociologist, and Organizing Schools for Improvement is about shaping the cultural dynamics of a public school to support professional educators—thus enabling them to nurture children.  Farina describes what she calls “six essential elements that have driven continual school improvement and moved students to the next level… rigorous instruction, a supportive environment, collaborative teachers, effective leadership, strong family-community ties, and a culture of continuous learning and trust.”  She explains, “We are looking beyond test scores and focusing on making sure that each school has what it needs for sustained and continuous growth.  And we have developed a framework that mirrors the essential elements we see in schools that continually improve… We built our framework around an established body of research conducted by Anthony Bryk and his colleagues from the University of Chicago.”

According to Bryk and his colleagues—and to Farina—the building of relational trust among the professionals in a public school is key.  Bryk and his colleagues describe school improvement as akin to baking a cake:  “Taking this analogy further, four of the organizational supports—parent-community ties, professional capacity, student-centered learning climate, and the instructional guidance system—can be conceived as a list of essential ingredients. Should a core ingredient be absent, it is just not a cake….   We can think of relational trust as the oven heat that transforms the blended ingredients into a full, rich cake. Finally, standing behind all of this is the head chef, in our case, this is the school principal, who orchestrates the collaborative processes of school transformation.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, p. 203)

In her address, Farina lists major changes instituted or launched since she took over the schools last winter:  pre-kindergarten for more than 50,000 students, major expansion of after school programming for students in middle school, the addition of 40 minutes each week (right in the union contract) for teachers to involve families in creative ways, the development of more than 40 new full-service community schools with wrap-around services that may include health clinics and parent support services, new staff development for counselors and school social workers, enhanced programs and support for English language learners, expansion of arts education, enhancement of career and technical education, enhanced professional learning opportunities for teachers and time (again set aside in the contract) for such activities, and collaboration among public schools for support and improvement.  Farina succinctly summarizes what’s changing in New York’s public schools: “We are no longer forcing change on people, we’re creating change with people.”

Of course, there has already been complaining that this is all intangible.  How can anyone measure it?  How can parents digest the information that will be released, when the letter grades were so simple and clear?  And of course the first person to leap in with criticism is Eva Moskowitz, the $500,000-per-year CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools whose supporters raised what Capital New York reports is $479,200 for a TV ad buy.  Many board members of Moskowitz’s  Success Academy charter schools also serve as the leaders of the ads’ sponsor, Families for Excellent Schools.  The spots, Don’t Steal Possible, malign the public schools, which are depicted as stealing opportunity from children.  According to Capital New York, Eva Moskowitz declared, “Our school system is stealing possibilities from New York’s children.”  We are reminded that Families for Excellent Schools also “sponsored a multimillion dollar ad buy earlier this year attacking de Blasio after he initially blocked three of Moskowitz’s charters from moving into existing public schools and sharing the space. He lost that political battle, in part because of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s strong and public support of Moskowitz… Cuomo also denied de Blasio his plan to charge wealthier charters rent.”

If they are given time, Farina’s policies to strengthen school organizations to support teachers and to connect schools with the children’s families are likely to expand what’s possible for children in New York City.  Farina explains: “One size does not fit all… Likewise, schools have unique qualities that cannot be captured in a letter grade.  They are not restaurants…  One way we will support schools is to evaluate their performance based on multiple measures….  This is no longer a competition.”

The question is whether New York’s citizens and the rest of our culture—that worships competition and invests hope in numerical ranking and rating—will risk trying something new.  Do we any longer even understand the importance of supporting human relationship and building community? Will we give New York City’s new learning philosophy a chance to improve the educational experience of over a million children in the public schools?