States Opinion

Laboratories of Innovation

By Contributing Blogger — October 27, 2014 4 min read
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This post is by Stephen Bowen, Strategic Initiative Director for Innovation at the Council of Chief State School Officers

On October 16, I was honored to be a part of an event in Washington, sponsored by the Alliance for Excellent Education, and designed to shine the light on new approaches to school accountability. The event, which featured a host of thinkers and school leaders, occasioned the public release of not only a new accountability paper by Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond and former CCSSO Executive Director Gene Wilhoit, but of an accompanying paper we at CCSSO had the pleasure of co-authoring with our colleagues at the Center for American Progress.

Gene and Linda’s paper, “Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm,” was designed to describe what a new system of school accountability might look like in a fictional “51st state” that was starting from scratch and wanted to build an accountability system more aligned to the current push for college- and career-ready outcomes for all students. Wisely, the authors didn’t start with the proverbial “blank sheet of paper,” but rather built on current research and, more importantly, built on the innovative accountability work already underway in states and districts across the nation.

The paper we at CCSSO authored with CAP was designed to assess the degree to which the ideas laid out in Gene and Linda’s paper were already in development or in practice. Our scan of the states, and the resulting paper, “Next-Generation Accountability Systems: An Overview of Current State Policies and Practices,” revealed that nearly all of the ideas or approaches proposed in Gene and Linda’s paper are already in place in a state or district, or being piloted or otherwise in development. From new measures of college and career readiness, to new assessment systems, to new state-level intervention and support strategies, state and district leaders across the nation are hard at work rethinking and redesigning their accountability systems.

My message to those attending the Alliance’s event was simple: states are leading on this critical issue; they are exploring new approaches to accountability; and if we want these new approaches to be more fully developed, we need to collectively support states in this work.

As I was preparing my remarks for the event, my eye wandered over to my office bookshelf and landed on David Osborne’s 1988 book Laboratories of Democracy. The book, which featured a forward by a then little-known governor from Arkansas named Bill Clinton, describes the work of what Osborne called a “new breed” of reform-minded governors. Osborne celebrated these governors, Clinton included, for their outside-the-box thinking in areas such as public-private partnerships, economic development, welfare reform, and education. These governors, Osborne argued, were giving life to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s view, expressed in a famous 1932 court opinion, that the nation benefited when “courageous” states decide to “serve as a laboratory” in order to “try novel social and economic experiments” from which the rest of the nation might learn.

Justice Brandeis could not have known how prescient he would be. Not only would the governors Osborne cited influence the thinking of their fellow governors, but the innovative work they collectively did on issues like welfare reform ultimately led to a new approach in federal policy, one that relied more than ever on the policy leadership of the states. Fittingly, it was the Arkansas governor Osborne featured in his book, Bill Clinton, who as president signed landmark federal welfare reform legislation that not only had broad bipartisan support (something almost unthinkable in the Washington of today), but had its roots in the state-level leadership of Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson and other governors, who found themselves trapped in a maze of federal regulation and restrictions that hampered their ability to best meet the needs of their citizens. The solution, in then-Governor Thompson’s words, was for Washington to “get out of the way” and “let America’s laboratories of democracy create innovative and flexible solutions that will work in each and every state in our diverse nation.”

Such sentiments can be heard from state school chiefs today, as they too find themselves struggling to innovate and move forward the kinds of meaningful accountability reforms described in the two papers released at the Alliance’s recent event.

In states like New Hampshire and Kentucky, for instance, state education leaders are looking to better meet the needs of students and families by including more authentic performance-based assessments in their state accountability systems, and they want to include more locally-developed measures of student and school achievement as well. While federal flexibility waivers have allowed states to innovate, the exhaustive and repetitive process that is required to both secure and then sustain a waiver over the length of time it takes some of these reforms to develop creates uncertainty and consumes the time and energy of already strapped state education agencies.

The time is now for a reauthorization of ESEA that allows for and encourages the kind of flexibility and innovation at the state level that accompanied federal welfare reform legislation a generation ago. Reasonable guardrails are obviously needed to ensure that state-level reforms never undermine the fundamental goal of preparing all students for college, careers, and civic life, but our chances of seeing that goal realized would be greatly enhanced by the launching, by Congress and the White House, of a new era of state-federal partnership that brings real reform and innovative approaches to the nation’s schools.

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