School & District Management Opinion

Pressure Builds Around California Accountability Vacuum

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — April 19, 2016 5 min read
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Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does politics. Matter tries to fill the void. And that’s the problem with the accountability system in California.

In a bold, defiant action, Gov. Jerry Brown led the state’s education officials in terminating its old testing scheme as teachers and students transitioned to new tests aligned with California’s new, higher standards and the Common Core. It wasn’t quite a High Noon shootout, but in a real way Brown was daring former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to withhold federal money from the country’s most populist state...and one filled with Democratic voters.

The vacuum

Because there were no tests, there could be no test scores. Schools could not be ranked. Fingers could not be pointed at the bad ones, and realtors could not chat up houses for sale in neighborhoods surrounding high-ranking schools, although they still do using the old numbers. Programs and entitlements that relied on test scores became problematic.

Brown has signaled that the single number accountability system is not coming back, and a chorus of educator and scholar voices has been raised in favor of a multiple indicator system. But while most agree that there’s more useful data in an array of indicators, the state’s education officials are mired in the details of creating one even three years after the LCFF legislation passed.

The lack of an accountability system creates anxiousness among parents that is often voiced as a need for a single indicator that would signal that a school is performing well or badly. At least, they want a digestible summary. As Carrie Hahnel of Education Trust-West writes, “Parents often tell us that they want an at-a-glance summary of how their schools are doing, and the assurance that someone in authority has given their child’s school a stamp of approval—or not.”

Seth Litt, executive director of Parent Revolution, decries the lack of a single indicator, such as the discarded API, as a way to allow educators to shift focus away from academic achievement. He describes his experience in a Los Angeles school: “I found my ears growing hot and my feet tapping furiously as the principal spoke at length about Halloween parades and spelling bees. There was almost no attention paid to implementing the overall school transformation plan that parents and the district had agreed to during the previous school year, nor were there any concrete plans presented for how classroom instruction was going to improve for their students. I found myself feeling a sense of angry disbelief as he ran out the clock by focusing on everything other than student achievement while district staff nodded their heads in approval.”

While I understand the need for clarity, the “stamp of approval—or not” isn’t very effective in helping schools get better or even helping parents judge them. Data ought always be easy to use, but it’s journalists and economists that appear drawn to ranking and comparisons more than parents. Parents engage in scores of decisions involving multiple indicators. When they choose a place to live, parents subjectively balance a multiple of indicators: price, location, safety, aesthetics, and the bathroom tile color. Daily, they engage in “supermarket math,” judging quality, price, and volume at the same time. And while I can empathize with Litt’s frustration, a single number accountability system won’t solve the problem of a school not focusing on academics. Only getting rid of bad administrators will do that.

Most folks agree that the old accountability system was bad, but it provided certainty. Without a clear alternative, there is tremendous pressure to revert to what is known.

The Pressure

An array of civil rights organizations is pressing for more specific outcome measures along with an audit trail that follows funds for students from low income families, foster children, and English learners into the classroom.

At root, the problem is trust. For the last half century, education politics has been built on profound distrust of school districts to act in the best interests of poor and minority students. Civil rights efforts in the United States were born of this reality.

Brown’s principle of subsidiarity is about trusting schools and districts, and, increasingly, the advocates and legislature are pushing back. As Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters wrote mockingly, “This is important, even vital, stuff. Not only are huge sums of money being spent, but the futures of millions of children—and perhaps that of the entire state— are hanging in the balance. And the best Brown, [State School Board president Michael] Kirst, [State Superintendent Tom] Torlakson, et al. are giving us, basically, is ‘Trust us’”.

As Walters demonstrates, trust is in short supply. The legislature is being encouraged to preempt the state board and education department to fill the vacuum.

Assembly Bill Hearings on Wednesday

The most tangible evidence of legislative pressure comes in the form of a bill introduced by Assembly member Shirley Weber (D-San Diego). The Assembly Education Committee will hear her bill, AB2548, which displays the fingerprints of Children Now and Education Trust-West and other advocacy groups, on April 20.

AB2548 is advertised as a coherent statewide accountability system. It does not create a single number or index accountability system, but would effectively narrow what visibly counts as school or district’s measures of success and progress to a few variables. Schools would be free to gather what other variables they wished, but what the bill calls “key variables” would be publicized on a state web site and be used as triggers for assistance and intervention. In the current version of the bill these are:

  • Achievement in at least English language arts, mathematics, and science.
  • A measure of academic growth for elementary schools and graduation rates for high schools.
  • Progress toward English language proficiency.
  • A measure of chronic absenteeism.
  • A measure of school climate.

All these would be reported by student subgroup.

Statewide data for the last three key indicators does not yet exist, so one important contribution of the proposed legislation would be to augment the data that schools must collect and make it uniform throughout the state.

The State Board of Education would also be required to set specific standards and targets for each indicator.

It’s too early to judge the Weber bill. Much of what it requires—is already in law—which raises the question of exactly why is legislation necessary. The bill is sure to garner lots of amendments, and it is too early to forecast the likelihood of its passage or whether Brown would be inclined to sign it.

But the existence of the bill is certainly not a ringing endorsement of the State Board or the California Department of Education. If it succeeds, the accountability mandate that was handed to the state board with the passage of the Local Control Financing Formula would become much more legislatively directed.

Image courtesy of chrisroll at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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