Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

How Should We Hold Schools Accountable?

By Bill Jackson — October 12, 2012 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Note: Bill Jackson, founder and CEO of GreatSchools, is guest posting this week. Follow Bill and GreatSchools on Twitter at @Bill_Jackson and @GreatSchools.

I’d like to shift gears a bit today and talk about accountability.

If you read my Tuesday post, you know that I have certain ambitions for my daughters. Many of my goals depend on actions I take as well as actions that teachers and schools take. Reviewing my list of 16, I see at least 11 that are going to require a lot from me:

• Be passionate about some activities or commitments

• Love to read; read for pleasure

• Know a lot about the world (for their age) and want to know more

• Have skills in at least one visual, fine or performing art discipline (piano, theater, etc.) 

• Have at least one manual skill (sewing, cooking, fixing car, etc.)

• Have friends (fewer closer or more less close both OK)

• Be active in serving people in need and/or advocating for ideas larger than themselves

• Be kind to everyone they interact with

• Have demonstrated resiliency through failure

• Be physically active

• Be optimistic

Of course, I hope that my school helps a lot with these 11 goals. In some cases, teachers may be doing more than half the work. If it works out as I hope, it might be what you call “co-production.”

And then I see five more that I hope the school is going to take the lead on - I just need to play a supporting role

• Have strong analytical and mathematical skills

• Know a lot (for their age) about at least one area of science (biology, physics, etc)

• Write well

• Have at least basic computer programming skills

• Be able to draw reasonably well

All good. And here is the implication for school accountability systems and policy: I’m going to be holding my school accountable for how well it pulls its weight in all of the areas I care about. I’m going to be collaborating with teachers to make these things happen, and I know that I’ve got to pull my weight, too.

So, given these facts (and to the extent that my experience and perspective matters), how should states hold schools accountable? I see four options that could be combined in various ways:

1. Provide performance transparency. The state can test students to see how much they know and can do. Then it can analyze the results to provide insight into how much students grow academically (according to test scores). In addition, for high schools, it can analyze data to shed light on how well students are prepared for college or work. And it can boil these numbers down to a letter grade.

2. Require turnarounds for poor performing schools. In addition, states can require turnarounds or closure for schools that do poorly on performance measures.

3. Let the market do its magic. After providing parents with the best possible information, states can sit back and let the market do its magic. They can foster an environment where parents have more real choices by enabling charter schools or passing voucher or tax credit legislation. Parents will leave the low-performing schools and clamor to get into the higher performing ones. Or not. Another flavor of market magic: they could implement parent trigger legislation to allow parents to drive the transformation of local schools.

4. Let the locals figure it out. States can let local districts and cities figure out how to hold schools accountable. That authority could be vested in a local school board or the mayor.

So what’s best?

Performance transparency clearly makes sense. I understand the policy case for a school grading system, including an A-F system. It’s a compelling way to focus everyone on the academic proficiency and growth of students - especially students who are struggling to meet basic standards. Look at Florida’s NAEP progress in the past decade.

However, as a parent, I’m not sure whether an A-F grading system makes sense. Does the state really know enough about how well my school is doing? Is the data good enough? Aren’t those cutoffs pretty arbitrary and subject to political manipulation? I can imagine a situation where a particular B or C school will do a better job of serving my child than a particular A school can.

I prefer a more subtle approach - a 1-10 rating perhaps - that will simplify the maze of testing and other performance information for me, but not make such a strong judgment about the school - a judgment that might in the end insult my intelligence.

Now we’re down to the debate between requiring turnarounds (or shutting schools down), letting the market work its magic or letting the locals figure it out.

I like a combination of “market magic” and “let the locals figure it out.” Especially if the locals are thinking in terms of a Portfolio Strategy as evangelized by the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CPRE) at the University of Washington.

I think a fusion of these approaches offers several benefits:

• Parents and local officials can understand the nuances of how well schools are serving students to a degree that the state cannot. For example, two schools may be low-performing (and thereby viewed as identical by the state accountability system), but one school is much safer than the other. That needs to count for something.

• School systems benefit when they receive constant feedback from discriminating parent consumers. Do more parents want language immersion? Or after-school care? Parents can signal their preferences through their actions. Then, local leaders can continuously evolve their portfolio of schools to better match market demand.

• When parents vote with their feet to leave a low-quality school or they demand the transformation of a low-quality school in their community, they are demonstrating knowledge and commitment that is enormously beneficial for their children, their community and themselves. How powerful are these kind of parents? Very powerful, at least in the movies. As Jamie Fitzpatrick (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) says in Won’t Back Down, “You know those mothers who lift one-ton trucks off their babies? They’re nothing compared to me.” We need a system that cultivates this kind of parent engagement and leadership!

• Same thing for communities. When local leaders pull it together enough to figure out how to evaluate schools and drive a process of continuous improvement in their community, they are developing management and social capital that is enormously beneficial to local schools and the community. In fact, I think history shows that you can’t really build better schools without this kind of commitment and skill at the local level. As I said before, local leaders can call CPRE to learn about their strategies.

The weakness with this theory? Yeah, I know. Some parents will be happy with low-performing schools. Many parents won’t have the time or knowledge necessary to change schools or challenge the system. School boards that have been captured by employee interest groups will be slow to act to challenge the status quo. Voters may elect board members or mayors who don’t care about or know how to drive continuous improvement in their community.

We’ll talk about these challenges tomorrow and the day after.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.