School & District Management Opinion

Calif. CORE Districts Pilot Accountability Measures

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — November 03, 2016 3 min read
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Listen to the presentation from the research partnership between CORE and Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) about the efforts to use fine-grained data about student achievement. Heather Hough, the research project director, and Rick Miller, the CORE executive director present, accompanied by visuals.

In school accountability, flashlights work better than hammers.

That’s the oft-repeated argument of California’s CORE districts, a data collaborative now serving over 1.8-million students. It’s generally recognized that the practice of using data to bash schools—commonly known as naming and shaming—doesn’t help them get better. But it’s still an open experiment whether illuminating school problems with more focused data will do a better job.

A recent policy briefing in Sacramento (see video above) provided crucial insights into how the data flashlight works.

Research from the partnership between CORE and Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) suggests that data flashlights can help struggling schools pull themselves up, but that more and better data is not nearly sufficient to create a cycle of continuous improvement. Data alone “don’t drive,” don’t lead to immediate action, the policy brief said.

The study found that even in school districts that volunteered to become early adopters of multiple-measures accountability need additional help. As Heather Hough, who leads the CORE/PACE research effort told the briefing session, “a lot of capacity needs to be built.” Both a culture shift and a skill shift are needed.

Partly, the capacity shift involves trying to make sense out of the numbers. As extensive at the CORE data system is, the researchers found that districts and schools used it as a part of a larger local data system of their own making. But the more localized indicators become, the more difficult it is to interpret the numbers. In a couple of cases, the CORE measurement system differed slightly from the state’s official one, and the schools were confounded by mixed signals.

Partly, the culture shift comes from valuing a network of professional associations rather than relying only on formal structures. Administrators reported informal contacts with peers in other districts, and they reported that they routinely called and texted one another on emerging issues without going through a chain of command: “There’s a cross sharing that’s really been...a widening and a bigger circle of collaboration than we ever had before.”

Forming what are known as Professional Learning Communities has been the goal of educators for decades, and in order for these communities to be robust improvement mechanisms, they must be able to wrestle and make sense of data, said CORE executive director Rick Miller, who describes their work in the video at the top of this column. (It’s also been featured in earlier ‘On California’ posts about multiple indicators and how more extensive data can help intervention in struggling schools.)

But efforts to establish professional accountability were hampered by a lingering compliance mindset. Researchers found that peer reviews of data use across districts was largely a checklist activity that did not promote reflection.

I, for one, am not discouraged that researchers found implementation efforts incomplete. I’d be suspicious of an overly rosy report. Implementation is always the hard part of educational policy change, and, unfortunately, it is the part that policy makers have the least patience for.

CORE created a well-constructed data and indicator system focused on equity and highlighting progress and challenges revealed by subgroups as small as 20 students. Its districts are ahead of the curve in creating an innovative accountability measurement system in line with the needs of federal law. I believe that CORE has great value as a research and development pilot for both the state and the nation, one that involves some of the state’s largest school districts and leading research universities.

In a real way, the CORE districts serve as a real-time research and development lab for both California and the nation as it adapts to multiple measures accountability systems under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Both for the CORE districts and for California’s multiple indicator system itself rest on the ability of the schools and districts to build political confidence that they are headed in the right direction.

But as the report says, it takes time to move from a top-down to a bottom-up system.

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