Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Reforming Accountability: Does CRPE Have Something New To Say?

News comes this morning of yet another initiative, this one aimed squarely at school accountability. Or as Michael Petrilli put it on twitter, "Not just a change in tone."

It's the Center on Reinventing Public Education (and why couldn't they be reinventing Excellent public education, because then they would be CREPE instead of CRPE). And they are going to deserve a look on their own. CRPE's founders include Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation. [Correction: Petrilli is part of this particular conversation, and Fordham is connected to CRPE, but Petrilli is not actually offically "at" CRPE]. Next is Robin Lake, "internationally recognized for her research and analysis of U.S. public school system reforms, including charter schools and charter management organizations; innovation and scale; portfolio school districts; school turnaround efforts; and performance-based accountability systems." And Paul Hill, whose "current work focuses on re-missioning states and school districts to promote school performance; school choice and innovation; and finance and productivity."

Yes, the reformster is strong in this one.

This morning the three founders offer "A New Start on Accountability." It's an outline of where they propose the accountability bus needs to travel.

They lay out their premises pretty simply.

First: "Every child should be in a school where he or she can learn effectively." "Effectively" is a vague enough word to make this acceptable to anyone.

Second: "Actions taken in pursuit of the goal are controversial because they are difficult and complicated. There is a lot of work of many kinds to be done: improving teacher training, experimenting with more effective methods, and continuously improving learning opportunities for children." Like many teachers, I've been doing two of these and complaining about one for decades, so I can't disagree.

Third: The connecting link between all improvement efforts is accountability. Meh. I've addressed this at length in responding to the Brookings bathroom scale analogy. Short answer-- you don't need a bathroom scale to lose weight. You don't even need a bathroom scale to know you're losing weight. I'm more inclined to believe the "taxpayers deserve to know what they're getting for their money" argument for accountability. The Trio say that in America, it's never enough to say "just trust us." Fair enough. But let's file that discussion for another day so we  can get on to the bullet points.

There is a little bit of mystery here.

Earlier this year, a bipartisan and multi-disciplinary group of analysts and educators met to work on our unsolved accountability problem. Everyone in the group believed accountability was necessary, but all agreed that we had not been going about it right. Under the leadership of the three of us, the group formulated a set of principles to guide our search for the best way to redesign school accountability systems that can help states deliver on the promise of Common Core. 

So, somebody met somewhere at some time about some stuff. And again, for the sake of moving forward, go ahead and insert here the argument that the "promise of the Common Core" is at best a promise made to corporate interests that they'll get to cash in big, and at worst just a big pile of crap.

Let's instead look at CRPE's list of Things We Need To Do To Make Accountability Swell:

All parents need to know immediately when, based on current achievement levels, their children are not likely to graduate high school, or be ready for college or a rewarding, career-ladder job. 

This one is just silly. Most schools issue these things called grades that are pretty good predictors of going-to-graduateness. And despite the various reformster initiatives to the contrary, nobody knows how to predict the college-or-career readiness piece.

Student test scores are indispensable as timely indicators of student and school progress. But they should be considered along with other valid indicators, e.g., course completion and normal progress toward graduation

No, they're not. Test scores are indispensable as indicators of student ability to take standardized tests. And of course, as noted a gazillion times, they are excellent ways to tell the socio-economic class of the students. So "considered along with" is a weasel phrase. In student achievement salad, test scores should not be the lettuce. At best, maybe bacon bits.

Every family should have the choice among public schools that are demonstrably capable of educating children well.

Given that the mystery committee is being run by charter folks, this is not a shocker. But since the topic du jour is accountability, I'd really like to hear how charters fit the picture. They're run by people who are not accountable to anyone, including taxpayers, and modern charters have frequently gone to court to insist that they not have to account for money or spending or much of anything. So how, exactly, do charters help with accountability.

States and school districts must support creation of new options for kids who are not learning.

 I suspect "new options" means really different things to different people, but in principle I think this is just fine. Traditional public school, particularly under the current status quo of reformster twistiness, does not serve everyone equally well.

School leaders must have enough freedom to lead their schools and take responsibility for the results they get.

This is such unobjectionable language because school principal hands are soooo tied. But I can't shake feeling that this means that you want school leaders to be able to run schools like corporations-- specifically corporations where there are no unions and labor is cheap and easily replaceable.

States should hold schools, not individual teachers, accountable for student progress.

Hey look! Something that is, in fact, different. Not new, actually-- threatening to punish just schools is what we tried under NCLB, and it didn't work. Not to mention that we don't know how to do it, just as we don't know how to hold individual teachers accountable. This is no more useful than saying "Santa should lend us his naughty and nice list for accountability purposes."

The article also provides a list of Things To Worry About While Pursuing Accountability.

  • How to avoid specifying outcomes so exhaustively that schools are unable to innovate and solve problems.
  • How to drive continuous improvement in all schools, not just the lowest-performing.
  • How to coordinate and limit federal, state, and district demands for data.
  • How to prevent cheating on tests and other outcome measures.
  • How to motivate students to do their best in school and on assessments.
  • How to give children at risk new options without causing a constant churn in their educational experience.
  • How to adjust measurement and accountability to innovations in instruction and technology.
This list is actually the best thing about the whole article. There is nothing remotely new about the list of Things To Do-- it's the same old, same old reformster stuff we've heard before.

But this list of problem areas? That's a good piece of work, because it does in fact recognize a host of obstacles that generally go ignored and unrecognized. These are "problems" in the sense that gravity is a problem for people who want to jump naked off high buildings, flap their arms, and not get hurt. I don't know that CRPE, given its clear focus on charters, finance, and high stakes standardized testing, has goals and objectives any different from a few dozen other reformy iterations. But the recognition of obstacles shows some grasp of reality, and that's always a nice sign.

Here's their finish:

These problems are solvable, but they require serious work, not sniping among rival camps. It is time to start working through the problems of accountability, with discipline, open-mindedness, and flexibility. 

We—all the co-signers of the September 24 statement—are eager to work with others, including critics of tests and accountability. Issues of measurement, system design, and implementation must be addressed, carefully and through disciplined trials. 

I'll accept that from a step up from, "Shut up and do as you're told. We totally know exactly what we're doing." I'm not seeing much in CRPE's ideas that represent a new direction on the issue; it's basically reframing and repackaging. But the recognition of real-world obstacles is more than a simple shift of tone. (And there's still the Whose Party Is This problem). But keep talking CRPE. I'm still listening.


  1. If you go to the links, they seem to recommend more power to principals to fire teachers as key to school improvement.

  2. I pretty much agree with everything you said. To me this obsession with "accountability" is really putting the cart before the horse. If you want to improve teaching, the emphasis has to be on finding the most effective methods and improving teacher training. "Accountability" doesn't tell you how to do anything. All the "accountability" in the world is not going to improve a thing if you don't have workable strategies.

  3. This reminds me that Nixon's re-election team had the moniker Committee for the Re-Election of the President: CREEP.

    1. The same thing came to mind for me---shades of Watergate! (Which may reveal more about our ages than anything else... ;-)

      But the other, more "timeless" similarity that occurred for me was C R A P!, which is universally understood across all cultures, ethnicities and generations.

      And this group---which is an embarrassment to those of us who live in the same state and who hold degrees from the University of Washington, which it falsely claims to be a part of--- definitely deserves that most fitting scatological association!

  4. The other thing is this idea of "driving continuous improvement". There's simply no acknowledgement that things in schools (even if they're well resourced, staffed by folks who are naturally superior people and attended by students from Lake Wobegon) can always be getting better. Schools are really very organic, fluid entities. If a group of teachers get into a groove with a group of amenable kids, wonderful things can happen. But the next year, same people involved, humans being what they are - i.e. human - stuff may just be out of sync and magic might not happen. Guess that's why Gates is pushing robotic teaching.

  5. Ah, continuous improvement. "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?"

    The bottom line with all of the reformster efforts seems to be: If only we can dehumanize all of the teachers and administrators and students and guidance counselors and cafeteria workers and maintenance workers and bus drivers enough, oh what great things we can do! The schools would be so much better if it weren't for all the people in them messing up the numbers.