Accountability Opinion

ESEA Reauthorization and Accountability: A Chance to Do It Right

By Marc Tucker — December 03, 2015 4 min read
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Congress has contracted a rare case of bipartisanship in recent weeks and it now appears that the long-overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is imminent. In last week’s blog, I argued that states should take advantage of the new flexibility that the compromise legislation promises and give real power to their academic standards and create performance-based high school diplomas that certify that the holder of that diploma is truly college and career ready.

In this week’s blog, I’ll take a look at how the accountability system would work if we had a standards system of the sort I described last week in place. First, the examination score profile of every school would be made public and would be broken out for minority, low-income, ELL and disabled students, although the scores of individual students would not be published, nor would the performance of teachers be publicly rated based on the scores of their students.

In addition to the specific requirements outlined in the final version of the compromise legislation, schools would be rated in this system based on exams measuring the degree to which students were making progress toward explicit measures of college and work readiness. How well are elementary school students doing on the curriculum frameworks for the early grades? Are those students on a trajectory that will make them ready for the middle school curriculum when they leave elementary school? What about the end of middle school? In high school, what proportion of the student body is reaching the new performance-based diploma standards by the end of the sophomore year, by the end of their junior year, by the end of their senior year? What proportion is going on to success in AP courses, the IB program, the Cambridge A-levels and so on?

The state would be responsible for maintaining a database that answers questions like this for every school. It would be looking at absolute performance as well as improvement or lack of improvement over time. It would use the data to identify schools that might be in trouble. Those schools would be scheduled for a visit by a highly trained group of teachers, principals, consultants and university professors all selected by the state to conduct such visits. These teams would take into account many sources of information about the school and make recommendations to the school staff, the community and the district for changes they think are needed. No school would be automatically sanctioned based on examination data alone. Indeed, no school would be sanctioned at all unless it had failed to respond to the recommendations.

The most important resource available to the visiting teams would be a system in which first-class principals would have strong incentives to take responsibility for schools in addition to their own, so that principals of low-performing schools would, in effect, find themselves apprenticing to master principals. The visiting teams could recommend that teams of teachers in low-performing schools apprentice to master teachers in high-performing schools. The teachers in the low-performing school would have strong incentives to apprentice themselves to master teachers and the master teachers would have strong incentives to take them on. In these ways, a whole system would be set up in which the performance of weak principals, teachers and schools would be strengthened by strong principals, teachers and schools. There is very strong evidence that this system for school improvement is very powerful.

One of the most important features of the whole accountability system described in this and my previous blog post is that it holds the students accountable for their performance and therefore provides strong incentives for students to take tough courses and work hard in school, a feature generally lacking in American accountability systems. Though it provides incentives for schools to get better, it is not a punitive system. Rather than assuming that school faculties know how to do a better job but are holding back because they will make the effort only if they are punished for poor performance, this system assumes that they would like to do better but lack the leadership and support they need to do so.

It should not surprise us that systems of standards and accountability of the kind I have described are prevalent in the countries that, year in and year out, are outperforming the United States. Now that our states will have the freedom to use such systems, I earnestly hope they choose to do just that. It looks as though the reauthorized ESEA would fit such a system like a glove. It would both require the states to identify their worst performing schools and to do something to help them. The measures I have suggested would respond to that requirement. It also seems likely that Title I funds could be used to fund the system of advice and support that I have described. Systems of the sort recommended here are used by many of the countries that are performing far above the performance levels of American states. They have been used by those countries to close the gaps between their low-performing schools and those that perform far better than our average performers. That is a target well worth shooting at.

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