Accountability Opinion

Getting High School Accountability Right

By Tom Vander Ark — June 23, 2004 8 min read
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The overarching goal must be to improve student outcomes, which means a focus on turning around (rather than simply punishing) low- performing schools.

During the celebratory high school graduation season, it is sometimes hard to remember those who are not there. According to a recent study conducted by Johns Hopkins University, 2,000 high schools in this country lose more than 40 percent of their students. Recently released reports from both the Urban Institute and the Manhattan Institute have highlighted the toll of this failure on our young people: Nationwide, one-third of high school students will fail to graduate, and another one-third will graduate unprepared for college or work.

Consensus is building that we need to devote more attention and resources to turn around the nation’s high schools. One of the single most important starting points is to develop stronger and more effective accountability systems for secondary schools.

Over the past 10 years, districts across the United States have improved their elementary schools by using distinguished educators to assist struggling schools in improving curriculum and strengthening teaching. With clear goals and sustained effort, this formula can turn a struggling elementary school into a school that serves most students well.

Unfortunately, the same formula has proven woefully insufficient for attacking the fundamental flaws of secondary schools. Sandwiched between middle schools and college, with three policy-influencing actors—school boards, state legislatures, and now the federal government—high schools work in a complex environment. Yet with thousands of high schools failing or performing below par, the need for improvement is great.

Based on our work with districts across the country, we have been able to identify the elements that are critical for such efforts. They include: a progressive-intervention strategy for district-operated schools that diagnoses problem schools and offers appropriate resources to help them; performance contracts for independently operated schools that clarify what is expected of every school; and an aligned accountability system for everyone in the system, not just the students.

To date, most discussions of accountability have focused on student testing and sanctions.While those are important elements, the overarching goal of an accountability system must be to improve student outcomes, which means a focus on turning around (rather than simply punishing) low-performing schools. Because districts are ultimately responsible for ensuring that all of their high schools are high-performing, the accountability system should give districts a structure and set of tools closely linked to overall school performance. These should include:

  • Clear mission and metrics. Districts should end the multiple-mission confusion of high schools by adopting a single mission: all students graduating ready for college and work. Each high school will be held accountable for student achievement, high school graduation rates and postsecondary enrollments, safety, and satisfaction.
  • Differentiation approach based on school performance. Districts should base their relationship with each high school on its performance. High-performing schools can be rewarded with greater autonomy, while struggling schools should be targeted for assistance.

One of the best examples of an effective differentiation approach has been the work of former Superintendent Steve Adamowski in Cincinnati. He created a transparent system with five levels that included guidance for struggling schools, prescriptive assistance for failing schools, and replacement for chronic failure. Similarly, many urban districts, goaded by the No Child Left Behind Act’s threatened sanctions, have adopted some differentiated management strategies and progressive intervention policies. While they lack the transparency and elegance of Mr. Adamowski’s work, the plans are stepping up to the challenge of assuring that all students have access to quality schools.

  • Articulated approach for failing schools. Failing schools need a fundamental redesign, so they can engage every student in a rigorous, relevant course of study in a personalized and supportive environment.

Our grantees around the country have found that deepchange in a high school is disruptive and expensive. The elementary school approach of sending in a school coach has limited effect. Based on our experiences with failing high schools around the country, we calculate that it costs at least $1 million to transform a high school and will likely take four to six years. These schools will require significant investments by public-private partnerships.

Ultimately, if the changes are not effective, the failing school should be replaced by a new school or schools based on proven design principles and with qualified staff members, as has been done in New York City, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Sacramento, Calif. These schools systems are intervening in struggling elementary schools, and replacing failing and obsolete secondary schools.

  • Role and goal clarity. Finally, principals can only be held accountable for their schools’ performance if their roles and goals are clearly enumerated, and if they are empowered to manage an adequate budget; retain and discharge staff members (with cause and due process); and make improvements to the structure, curriculum, schedule, and community connections. Well-intentioned federal, state, and local programs with separate budgets and program managers make it difficult to create this level of clarity and empowerment for principals.

The second critical element within a high-school-focused accountability system is the execution of a standard performance contract for each school. This strategy is most frequently used with independently operated charter schools, but could also be applied to district-operated schools to clarify the relationship and expectations between schools and districts.

A performance contract for a charter school provides a simple accountability decision: renew or nonrenew. To date, charter authorizers have decided to revoke about 6 percent of the approximately 3,000 charters issued. The fact that charters are being revoked means the system is working: Failing schools are being forced to shut their doors. But we can do better—charter authorizers should ensure that they issue contracts to qualified and capitalized operators with a sound plan to meet a demonstrated community need. They should be held to performance standards at least as high as district-operated schools’.

School districts can build upon the work they have done with charter schools to create explicit performance contracts with district-operated schools. Results from Boston’s Pilot Schools, Oakland, Calif.’s New Autonomous Schools, and Chicago’s contract schools are all promising examples.

Ideally, districts could move toward adopting a blended model that would include progressive-intervention strategies within a performance contract. Combined with school-based budgeting and staffing, a performance contract would simplify and clarify who’s responsible for what. It would outline steps of progressive intervention, including supports and sanctions in the event of low performance.

Lastly, an effective school-level accountability strategy needs to exist within a broader accountability strategy that carefully aligns the expectations and incentives of each critical stakeholder in the system. This integrated approach to accountability systems was gaining momentum 10 years ago, but is something we have all lost sight of with the passage of the No Child Left Behind law. That legislation injected new, important, but trying provisions into the accountability equation. In 2004, every state’s challenge is to align district, school, staff, and student accountability in thoughtful and supportive ways:

Getting accountability right for high schools is the first step in a much broader push to ensure that all students have access to a high-quality high school.

  • Student accountability. Students should demonstrate that they have mastered important content and skills at regular intervals, including at graduation. Standardized tests have become an important part of a portfolio that demonstrates mastery, but should not be the only form of assessment. Given the difficulty of capturing what a student has learned through a single test, states and districts should continue to develop graduation requirements linked to a variety of assessments valued by the community.
  • School/staff accountability. Many states are beginning to think about how to assess teacher performance to develop an effective accountability system for teachers. Ideally, this system will acknowledge good teachers, generally through a mix of financial rewards and additional responsibilities, and offer struggling teachers the professional support they need to be more successful in the classroom.
  • System accountability. Like school accountability, district accountability should be a transparent system of progressive intervention that begins with guidance, moves to prescriptive intervention, and concludes with alternative governance.

In most states, student-accountability systems for high school students are in place. Students are being tested and evaluated. But we should not hold students, or teachers for that matter, accountable without holding schools accountable for creating an environment where all students have the opportunity to learn. After all, for better or worse, every school promotes positive or negative working and learning conditions, and should be held accountable for those conditions.

Getting accountability right for high schools is the first step in a much broader push to ensure that all students have access to a high-quality high school. Community by community, and state by state, we need to build strong public-private partnerships to attack what we think is America’s most pressing challenge. As a nation, we will need to invest more than $10 billion just to develop new schools and improve existing schools, so that they are able to adequately prepare all students for the economic and civic challenges of the day.

To accomplish this, states, districts, and community organizations will need to work together to deliver strong, coordinated support to our schools. We all have a role to play in making sure that all students graduate ready for college and work.

Tom Vander Ark is the executive director for education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in Seattle.


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