Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Next Generation Accountability: A Misbegotten Heritage

Last summer, the Center on Reinventing Public Education and the Fordham Institute had a little get-together to discuss accountability systems for public education. The conversation involved charter school mavens, a law firm, some college folks (like Morgan Polikoff), more charteristas, and not a single person directly connected to public schools. Just so you know, right up front, what we're in for here.

The results of this conversation were boiled down into eight pages. It's an interesting read if you want to get a sense of where the big chartery mess is headed.

The Problem

Give these folks partial credit for sort of facing reality. After looking back to the National Governor's Association accountability summit twenty five years ago, we survey the crossroads:

Skepticism and political pushback have emerged from the left and the right as state accountability systems, school turnaround strategies, teacher evaluation, the Common Core, and standardized assessments have been conflated by skeptics into one overwhelming, unwieldy system with limited results and a host of unintended consequences.

Whether critics’ perceptions are right or wrong, growing criticism—including an emerging “mom and dad revolt”—may undermine and ultimately upend the entire concept of state-based accountability unless responsible changes are made, and made quickly. As one policy expert lamented, “We could lose this thing.”

"This thing." Hmmm. At any rate, these are practical people who recognize the optics are killing them. On the other hand, these are also severely deluded people who believe that "first-generation accountability systems" have accomplished the following things:

* contributed to improved academic outcomes for all students
* "provided unprecedented school-, teacher-, and student-level data that has been brought to bear on interventions in schools with the highest needs, and broader instructional improvement elsewhere."
* led to "understanding" that teachers are "the key levers of school improvement."

So, on the one hand, they are ready to face cold, hard reality. And on the other hand, they are entertaining fantasies about what accountability has accomplished so far. The first two "achievements" are bunk. And I'm pretty sure the third one just means "we've sold the public on the idea that everything that goes wrong in a school is the teachers' fault."

They've broken down the conversation into several topics. Let's take a look.

Limitations, Contradictions, and Unintended Consequences

Systems are supposed to drive school improvement and inform the public. Doing both at once is hard.
Test fatigue is a key driver of public crankiness with the whole mess, which makes improving the system hard.

"Teachers don't consider annual standardized tests helpful in improving instruction," which is true in the same way as "Teachers don't consider unleashing rabid bats in the classroom helpful in improving instruction" or "Humans don't consider being shot at close range helpful in maintaining health."

To get the kind of granular data that our Data Overlords claim, really, really complex instruments are needed, which may reduce the degree to which anyone is willing to take either the collection process or its results seriously.

States lack capacity for these systems, because states aren't as rich as, say, Pearson. So states just do the bare minimum. The conversants seem to have missed another important part of this-- when you force either a person or a state to do something through extortion (aka Race to the Top), they don't really put their whole heart and soul into it. Go figure.

Unintended consequences include driving compliance rather than innovation. Somebody said, "Being overly directive will lead to teachers who want to follow steps and mandates, not innovate. It cascades down and looks like a lack of creativity from here, but it's a direct response to the regulatory environment." Correct, anonymous person.

The summary writer concludes "Top-down accountability systems may not be the appropriate way to encourage innovation and ground-level improvements." Yes. Also, violent threats may not be the appropriate way to make someone love you. An insight so blindingly obvious that it has even penetrated the veil of fog that surrounds reformsters. Yes, yes, and yes.

An Emerging Framework for Change

If the accountability monkey is to stay balanced on the back of public education, it will have to make some adjustments. The broad consensus was that the next-generation accountability system should have the following traits:

* Be built around the child and his/her family
* Keep beating the equity drum
* Emphasize objectives for schools and opportunities for students
* Also beat the "schools are accountable to government for tax dollars spent" drum
* Emphasize information that drives student choice and improvements in teacher instruction and capacity
* Be transparent, fair, valid
* Be a means to driving motivation and learning
* Come with infrastructure for supporting struggling schools and creating options for students

Let's be clear-- this is not a framework for a good accountability system. This is a framework for using accountability as a means of marketing charters and choice. It could not be any clearer-- we are not talking about how to hold schools accountable for quality education. We are talking about how to frame the system so that it fosters charter school proliferation, marketing and access to the market.

In keeping with that, participants also argued for a lighter touch from the state. "Let's make most of the decisions at the building level," said a room full of charter operators. They would like the power and information to make "human capital decisions" at the building level. They want lots of measures and data, and they are of the opinion that assessments drive curriculum and instruction, and so should drive it towards good stuff. Common Core was used as an example, because gaming it apparently involves writing research papers. Also, participants paused for a break while pigs flew out of their butts.

Resolving Key Issues

If there is a time to suggest sweeping changes to accountability systems, it may be now, as the Common Core and the upcoming round of ESEA waivers provide unprecedented opportunities for states to reframe accountability around providing support to their schools.

These immediate needs mirror a broader, long-term vision of an effective next-generation accountability system in which states provide a formal structure for a far richer decisionmaking process, often led by those who know each school—and the capacity of its leaders to bring about change—best. 

In other words, we have a chance to get the state to back charters' play while giving charters freedom to do whatever the hell they want. Particular issues of concern:

Should states focus accountability efforts on all schools, or just the suckiest ones? If we focus on school-level accountability, what does that mean to district administrations that make the decisions that help or hurt on the building level (good question, actually)? Will local leaders make the right kind of "human capital decisions" about their ineffective teachers (because we're sure they're everywhere, and responsible for all school failures)? How do we work out the mechanics of choice or vouchers-in-everything-but-name (because clearly it's not "if" or "why," but "how")?

Are we collecting data for informational purposes or as a trigger for consequences? Should we publish everything, or just the simplified data that won't confuse people?

How do we handle goal setting? Good quote here-- “We confuse aspirational goals—all kids will be career and college ready—with achievable goals,” one participant said. Good job, anonymous participant. Can we really talk about growth goals? “I’m deeply suspicious of growth measures that don’t end up at the point of college readiness,” one participant said. Go to the back of the class, less wise anonymous participant.

Participants hated the idea of sampling-- testing only occasionally-- because then you lose the ability to track students and rank and sort individual teachers and programs. Apparently those are "must-haves" for this crowd. Current tests may not be great, but they're what we've got, said some. Others felt that more complex tests would be worth it because they would drive instruction in the right direction. You really cannot read this report without being hit in the face with the idea that standards are to drive tests and tests are to drive curriculum. Nobody here was even pretending to pretend that "Common Core is not curriculum" baloney.

Their Conclusion

Next-generation systems can give us the opportunity to return the focus of accountability to students, families, and the public good. They can move states and districts away from checklist compliance and toward fostering innovative approaches to improving teaching and learning.

My conclusion

What we're talking about here is top-down imposed punishment-enforced accountability. As long as your goal in accountability management is to control curriculum and instruction and the make decisions (aka hiring, firing and pay) about your "human capital" you will never foster anything except By The Numbers compliance.

There are clearly portions of this conversation that were insightful and potentially useful, but the degree of delusion seriously interferes with any functional outcomes here. There is no real way to say, "Okay, you must follow the programs I'm imposing on you and hit the numbers that are being set for you, and if you don't there will be consequences, and by the way, be creative and innovative."

You can force compliance. You cannot force creativity and innovation, nor can you coerce enthusiastic embrace of your programs. The "tensions" that this report keeps referring to are the tensions between "How you want to make people behave" and "How live humans actually behave." When I read reports like this, I'm forced to conclude yet again that while many of these folks may have the power and the money, they are not snarling villains or towering evils, but simply garden variety bad managers.


  1. "but simply garden variety bad managers."

    You're far too kind. Fat headed, arrogant, self-important ego maniacs is more to the point.

  2. "bad managers" because they're not true educators and so have no idea what they're actually dealing with.