‘51st State’ Proposal Suggests Next-Generation School Accountability

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 16, 2014 3 min read
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It’s pretty clear at this point that school accountability as structured under the No Child Left Behind Act will be something of a nonstarter, but the form of a new accountability system is still very much up for grabs.

This morning three top names in education policy—Linda Darling-Hammond of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and Gene Wilhoit and Linda Pittenger, both Council of Chief State School Officers alumni who now lead the Center for Innovation in Education at the University of Kentucky—weighed in with a proposal intended to focus schools on college and career readiness.

The proposal evolved out of a full-day conference in June on “Rethinking Accountability,” as well as the experiences of the districts in the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE. The authors argue that any school review system must be geared to promote continuous improvement throughout the system and ensure a broader base of skills in students, including both academic and so-called “soft skills” like critical and creative thinking.

They described a theoretical “51st state,’ in which federal, state, and local governments would be held more accountable for providing education resources; schools would be accountable for thoughtful spending and staff allocation and professional support for teachers; and teachers would be accountable (via multiple measures) for teaching standards responsively to their students’ needs.

What would that look like in practice?

• A move to significantly more formative and locally based testing, particularly in early grades, validated by state testing in specific grade spans (a move which district superintendents called for in their own recent accountability proposal). It would be capped by a “graduation portfolio” at the end of high school showing students’ mastery of key skills and content in the curriculum and “a profile of their accomplishments that can be communicated to colleges and employers.”

•Closer scrutiny of how states and districts equitably fund schools and manage resources, including weighted student funding and public “dashboards” of key indicators, with student progress still disaggregated by race and poverty, language, and disability status.

• A “school quality review” given every five years, in part using outside peer reviewers and data analysis, accompanied by support for pairing struggling schools with better-performing schools and staff and teacher coaches trained in turnaround strategies.

• Much more intensive professonal development for teachers learning to teach college- and career-ready standards, like the Common Core State Standards.

In spite of ongoing debate on the common core, it makes sense that building capacity around the standards is a foundational premise of the report, whose authors had hands in developing the common core and which was supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (Full disclosure: Hewlett also supports some Education Week coverage of deeper learning.)

The proposal is just one of a flurry of recent proposals and debates aimed at laying the groundwork for the next federal accountability system, even though it doesn’t seem likely that Congress will take up any comprehensive approach soon. In the meantime, the Obama administration is already getting pushback for state waivers of the existing NCLB law as well as for its efforts to make higher education more accountable for students’ success once they arrive at college.

The Alliance for Excellent Education hopes to give the proposal an early boost by holding a Webinar to launch discussion of the proposal later this afternoon. (On a funny note, California eduwatchers attempting to use #51ststate for discussions of the report may overlap with foodies looking for the route of a popular San Francisco food truck. It remains to be seen whether policymakers will show an appetite for this vision of school accountability as well.)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.