Wednesday, January 13, 2016

ESSA, Fordham and Accountability: An Open Letter to Mike Petrilli

     TO: Mike Petrilli, Fordham Institute
FROM: Peter Greene, English teacher

RE: Design competition

You recently announced a design competition for developing a state-level design for accountability under the new ESSA. I totally meant to indicate my interest in throwing my hat into the ring, but it's the end of the grading period here and the start of rehearsals for school musical (Beauty and the Beast-- it's going to be good) and I missed the Jan 11 deadline for indicating interest. But since I intend, at a minimum, to roundly criticize your winner, I feel it's only fair to put up so that I don't have to shut up.

The competition is to design a school accountability system for elementary schools in some average-sized, demographically diverse state. The focus is to rate the schools, and not to answer the question of what to do with the ratings.

1. Design objectives. What are the priorities of the system, which I understand to mean what is the system supposed to care about or value, as much as a system can do such a thing.

You listed some options, but of all of them "a holistic view of school quality" comes closest. However, my design would prioritize a holistic view of student, health, well-being, growth and educational achievement. All other priorities are important only insofar as they effect the health and well-being of the child; and the health, well-being and growth are the entire purpose of the school. Period, full stop.

Strong local control. Well-paid, well-supported autonomous teaching staff. Well-maintained physical plant. Broad, well-rounded, developmentally appropriate educational program. Solid funding. These are all important only insofar as they meet the needs of the child.

And since each child and each community present a different constellation of needs, "meeting the needs of the child" will look different from school to school. Any accountability design will have to account for that.

2. Clear (uh-oh) explanation of proposed accountability system that hits each of the following:

a.) Indicator(s) of academic achievement. ESSA requires state accountability systems to include an indicator of academic achievement “as measured by proficiency on the annual assessments.” 

This is not the worst way to measure academic achievement (it still beats "reading frog warts under a full moon"), but the requirement is still the equivalent of saying "indicate basketball skill by measuring height." So my goal here would be to use the Big Standardized Scores in the least possible manner, while using the actual measure of academic achievement-- student grades-- from maybe third or fourth grade up. Giving grades to K-3 students is just silly, but more detailed descriptors of their skills and strengths as well as weaknesses and still-working-on-it areas. The indicators should cover as broad an area as possible; narrowing them to just math and English misses a large part of the important work of an elementary school.

b.) Indicator(s) of student growth or an alternative. ESSA also requires state accountability systems to include “a measure of student growth, if determined appropriate by the State; or another valid and reliable statewide academic indicator that allows for meaningful differentiation in school performance."

Again, the law lacks a convincing argument that its goal (differentiation in school performance) is a worthy one. Also, reliable indicators of student growth are, to date, as elusive as rainbow-maned unicorns (let's not insult anyone's intention by proposing that VAM/VAAS models are useful here-- particularly in the primary grades). My preferred measure-- vertical conferences among the student's teachers by grade, to compare both assessed achievement and narrative accounts of the student. That, plus asking the parents, and the students themselves. All students should grow, and that growth should be marked and documented based on the child's actually progress and achievements, not comparison to some imaginary child in some alternate universe.

c.) Indicator(s) of progress toward English language proficiency. ESSA also requires state accountability systems to measure “progress in achieving English language proficiency, as defined by the State.”

Basic English proficiency testing, over time, accompanied by a portfolio of student work.

d.) Indicator(s) of student success or school quality. ESSA also requires state accountability systems to include “not less than one indicator of school quality or student success that allows for meaningful differentiation in school performance” and that is “valid, reliable, comparable, and statewide.”

At the risk of repeating myself, this is a requirement that states do a good job of hitting the wrong target. "Differentiation" aka "ranking" is actually a terrible way to tell whether schools are getting the job done. Ranking is not measuring. But since this is the open section in which the feds don't tell us what to do, I'm going to say:

* Ask the parents and students how successful they think the school was. Ask the students again over the years after they leave the school.

* Track student success in middle school and high school (provided success is being isefully measured on those levels).

* Happiness quotient. How happy, confident and strong are the students at the school.

e.) Calculating summative school grades. ESSA implies that these various components would be combined (probably via an index) in order to generate overall school grades or ratings. 

"Implies" is not good enough to compel me to do this. There is no value in generating school grades or ranking. None. Any such rating involves reducing a complicated set of variables and elements into a single number or letter that lacks nuance, detail and the sort of richness that parents mean when they ask, "So, are the schools there any good?" Such rating is like asking the zookeeper, "So, which animal in the zoo is the best one?" There is no meaningful answer to the question.

I realize this will probably earn me the Fordham buzzer, but there is precedent for ignoring parts of the law. NCLB, RTTT, and Duncan's Waiverpalooza all contained a requirement that states identify the best teachers, then design and implement a plan for putting the best teachers in the neediest schools. No state ever took any such plan past the Baloney On Paper stage, and no state was so much as scolded for their failure to meet the requirement in any meaningful way. This proves a number of things, not the least of which is that the USED is capable of ignoring the law when it needs to. Let's see how hard USED is willing to push the 95% Testing Or We'll Cut Your Funds threat before we rush to follow their most useless directives.

f.) What about schools with low-performing subgroups?

Every school district in the country already knows what its low-performing subgroups are. Ask them to tell the state. Ask the parents in the district to tell the state.

g.) School grades or ratings. What would you propose by way of “labels” for the school grades/ratings themselves: an A–F scale, or something else?

I would propose the following ratings:

-- Well-supported by the state
-- Adequately supported by the state
-- Not sufficiently supported by the state
-- Level of state support indicates criminal abdication of state responsibility for supporting schools

3. Any recommendations for the Department of Education. Is there anything in your proposed accountability system that is not clearly allowed by the letter of the law? 

I think I've pretty well covered this. I know the Department is concerned that districts (and states) will under-serve certain populations and try to shove their dereliction of duty under the rug. I assert that making sure that parents, teachers and community members all have a strong voice in how their schools are run and in evaluating those schools is the solution to that problem. This does not mean abandoning parents to the continual huckstering of charter operators, and it doesn't mean bringing in high-powered top-down overseers to tell them what they need. Parents by and large know whether their children are being well-served by their local school. School districts know what their needs are and what support they aren't getting from the state. Teachers know what their students need.

Yes, there are levels of complexity and nuance to this-- not all parents are wise and responsible, and not all school districts are well run. But the solution to the problems of democracy has never been less democracy. I would love to discuss all of this in greater detail-- perhaps when you fly me to the Fordham Institute to make my presentation and offer me a thinky tank fellowship. But in the meantime, I'm mindful of this other point from your call for proposals

Proposals should not exceed two thousand words in length. 

Yeah, that's not really my thing.

Best of luck with this competition. I am sure the entries will give us all something to think about.

PS-- I forgot an important point, and I have responses to this already, so if you're not too bored, move on to Part II


  1. I like your school ratings based on how well they're supported by the state. That's the kind of data that can be measured, and the kind of data we need.

  2. Good list. The one thing I disagree with is the English proficiency requirement as currently constructed. Your state (PA) happens to use the same English proficiency test that my former state (IL) and current state (NJ) uses- the ACCESS. Having given that test more than a few times, can tell you it is a truly awful test where many "native English" speakers would not reach proficiency (as determined by state criteria). I also think this list should cover promoting bilingualism and celebration of other cultures.

  3. I am shocked, shocked to find you endorsing grades that use a single-axis shmerglishness number to represent the actual measure of academic achievement....

    Here is your grade sheet sir....

    Don't post this one either. I am sure that opinions posted without danger of contradiction are a great comfort to your readers. Fox built a television network based on that concept, and perhaps you will be able to follow in their footsteps.

  4. The timeline for such an endeavor is preposterous, making it possible only for individuals or astro-turf to submit proposals. Any kind of meaningful process to develop real responses to such issues requires more than a few weeks. some of the major education resistance organizations would be capable of worthwhile responses in a few months, perhaps, but not less than a month. I'm tired of reform initiatives designed for a preconceived outcome, or failure.