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 A Common-Sense Formula for School Accountability

  Sebastian Wren, Ph.D. ~ 2006, BalancedReading.com


First let me say up front, I strongly believe that accountability and standards are necessary and important.  I think that it is human nature to slack off a little and to make excuses and rationalizations rather than consistently dig deeper and work harder.  There are very few people in this world who have an internal drive to excellence and an uncompromising work ethic.  Almost everybody finds their own "comfort zone" and settles there.  So we all need a little prod now and then to make us work a little harder -- try a little harder -- reach a little further. 

I'm not just talking about education, here.  I'm talking about life in general.  We all know we should eat right and exercise every day, but most of us get a little lazy, and we slack off.  We spend a lot of our evenings eating junk and watching TV when we could be eating better and going to the gym.  We could all live in a cleaner house, but we slack off and let the laundry go a few extra days, or let the dishes sit on the counter for a while.  None of us is perfect all the time.  To be human is to be a little lazy.  That's just natural.

But we shake off the laziness when we need to.  When company is coming over, we clean up the house.  When our high school reunion is approaching, we lose a little weight.  People are a little lazy when we can get away with it, but we are diligent when we need to be.  That's true in life, and that is definitely true in education.

Without standards and without accountability, schools would be a mess.  Kids would be falling through the cracks all over the place.  Some people try to fantasize about a utopia where there are no standards, and there is no accountability, and teachers are simply "free to teach."  Well, that does sound nice, but it's just silly.  Educators, like all humans, tend to settle into a routine and a comfort zone.  Given no standards or accountability, principals will let teachers do whatever they want, and teachers will teach the things that they like teaching.  And they will give all of their energy and attention to the kids they like, and they will neglect the kids who are frustrating or difficult.  That is just human nature.

I don't deny that in a world with no standards or accountability, SOME teachers would still be excellent, excellent teachers.  I don't deny that at all.  Some people are just good teachers, and it really doesn't matter for them if there are standards or accountability.  They have high expectations for every one of their students, and they teach all of their students very, very well.  I am in awe of those teachers.  But alas, those teachers are in the minority.  Without accountability, the rest of us (and I certainly include myself in the "lazy" group) would teach what we like to teach, would teach the way we like to teach, would work when we feel like it, and would make rationalizations about student failure.

In the world of education, there are some schools that are consistently high performers.  Nearly all of their students perform at very high levels all the time.  Most of these schools are just lucky -- they happen to have a population of fairly affluent kids that come from very educated, English-speaking households, and no matter what they do, their students are going to perform at very high levels.  I call these "Lake Woebegone Schools" because all of the kids are above average.  A few of these schools are not just lucky, though -- they are what I call "Beat the Odds Schools" because despite high levels of poverty and diversity, they still manage to provide an outstanding education and help most of their kids succeed.  These are often schools that have a history of failure, but which have instituted policies and practices that have helped them evolve into "high-performing" schools. 

These schools are rare, but their numbers are growing, and I have had the pleasure of talking to people who have worked in these schools.  They are very consistent about their descriptions of what it took to turn the school around.  The formula is almost always the same, and at the heart of the formula -- the cornerstone on which everything else was built -- lies a clear accountability system.  People in these schools always report that they could not have improved their schools without clear, high expectations and support from their state and community.

Strong, clear, and fair accountability is the single, most important ingredient in school improvement.  And I would say the accountability should have some teeth -- if schools do not improve, there should be sanctions.  The recent No Child Left Behind Act provides these things, so despite being a card-carrying lefty-liberal pinko, I am generally in favor of the NCLB.

Of course, it is not a perfect system.  There are a few ways I would have improved it if anybody had bothered to ask me.

For example, right now the sanctions that are imposed against failing schools are financial sanctions levied against THE SCHOOL.  If a school does not consistently improve, it loses money, and part of the school budget must be used to pay for external tutoring services for the students.

Whoever thought of that deserves a dope-slap to the forehead for being so ignorant.

The school is just a building -- it is the people inside the building who make the decisions.  The problem is, when trouble starts, those people can abandon the school and go elsewhere.  When school budgets start getting slashed, good educators are usually the first to leave -- they go to a better school.  With a cut in the budget, educational programs get cut, meaning that students get a poorer education.  And the school gets into a cycle of failure -- cut the money some more, and the school fails more.  That's a silly system. 

The sanctions need to be against the people, not the building.  When a school consistently fails, the school board that allowed that failure should be disbanded by the state, and the leaders of the school district should be challenged to improve the school or else find another job -- outside of education or outside of the state.  School leaders who have allowed a school to fail should not be able to simply get another job in another school down the road. 

In the mean time, there should be MORE money made available for the troubled school -- money should be made available for high-quality professional development for the faculty, and bonuses should be paid to good teachers to encourage them to work at that school.  States should contract with demonstrably effective school-improvement teams who can work closely with struggling school to help them improve instruction and achievement.

The other part of NCLB that I would love to change is the determination of what counts as a "failing school."  Under NCLB, schools were given 10 years (practically speaking) to get all of their students to pass the state criterion-referenced standards-based assessment.  To meet "Adequate Yearly Progress" (AYP), schools have to get one-tenth of their failing students in every subgroup to pass every year.  And it is not acceptable to help the affluent kids succeed but let the children from poverty fail -- every subgroup must meet AYP or else the whole school is deemed "low performing." 

I wholeheartedly support the "every subgroup" part of this system -- I love that schools have to disaggregate their data and focus on the needs of all students in every subgroup.  That's wonderful.  But it is the AYP part that I find silly.  In one small school where I worked, their stated goal in their official School Improvement Plan was to get an additional 9.4 children in each grade to pass the state test every year.  That's just bizzare, but that is the kind of weird logic that AYP encourages.

I very much prefer the "Opportunity Gap" system that is promoted through the National Center for Education Accountability (a.k.a. Just 4 Kids -- go to http://www.just4kids.org -- it is an outstanding site).  In that system, schools are compared against other SIMILAR schools in their state.  So small, rural schools with a great deal of poverty are compared against other small, rural schools with the same levels of poverty.  Inner-city schools with a great deal of cultural and linguistic diversity are compared against other inner-city schools with a great deal of cultural and linguistic diversity.  Apples are compared against apples, oranges against oranges.  That's fair. 

To the extent that other, similar schools are performing better than any particular school, Just 4 Kids describes that as an "Opportunity Gap."  If you are looking at your own school on the Just 4 Kids website, you can see how your school performs against other, similar schools that serve similar populations of kids.  There is no reason why your school shouldn't be performing at least as well as the top-performing similar schools.  (Right now the Just 4 Kids system is best in Texas, but they are working on developing similar systems for schools in other states.)
Just 4 Kids Scatterplot
So let's look at a school here in Texas -- Travis Elementary in Port Arthur ISD.  There is a great deal of poverty, linguistic diversity and student mobility in Port Arthur -- the challenges for that school are substantial.  And yet, year after year, Travis Elementary consistently out-performs most other similar schools in the state.  With over 90% of the students on free-and-reduced lunch, Travis Elementary students have passing rates in the 70 to 90 percent range on the state accountability assessment (the TAKS).  I would describe Travis Elementary as a good school.  I don't know that they make AYP in every subgroup every year, but they are doing a heck of a lot better than other, similar schools.  They are setting the bar that other schools should be aiming for.  If they can do it, other, similar schools can, too.

That, to my mind, is a good framework for a fair and reasonable accountability system.  A good accountability system would challenge schools to rise to the level that has been attained by similar but more successful schools in the state.  That is clearly an attainable goal, and it is perfectly fair and reasonable to expect schools to minimize the "Opportunity Gaps" that exist.  That is the accountability system I would have proposed -- if anybody had thought to ask me...


School Choice -- Caveat Emptor


Every day, I read at least one article about "school choice."  Most of those articles are not research articles, mind you, because there is very little research on the subject.  The fact is, we know very little about the effects or consequences of creating a school choice system.  None-the-less, in the absence of evidence, many people are adamantly convinced that a good school choice program is necessary to improve education in this country.  The competition of the free marketplace, they argue, will force schools to improve or die.  If parents have a choice about where to send their children, they will choose to send their children to the best available school.

Not that we have ever seen any evidence of that elsewhere in the marketplace -- there is a price factor in the marketplace that people who make this "school choice in a free marketplace" argument seem to be overlooking.  In the real free marketplace, the consumer will buy the best available product that they can find at the price they want to pay.  People shop at Wal-Mart, not because their products are better, but because they tend to be cheaper.  People drive cheap little cars, not because they are better, but because they are cheaper.  People use PC computers, not because they are better, but because they are cheaper.  With "school choice" programs, there is not a price consideration (not if it is a free choice), so we really can't apply free market models.  We really don't know what would happen if parents were given free choice about where to send their kids to school.

And even to the extent that we do understand how the free market system works, we know that sometimes the marketplace is just fickle and hard to predict.  Consumers decided to buy VHS video recorders even though the Sony Beta machines were higher quality at the same price.  And of course people will buy a much inferior product if it is marketed and advertised well.  In fact, people will pay much higher prices for a much inferior product if that product is marketed well.  Think about the tires you put on your car -- how do you make that decision?  Chances are, you don't know anything about tires at all, so you go with a tire with a "reputation" for quality -- a good name.  And that reputation was probably earned through an aggressive advertising campaign.  If you were to buy a television today, would you buy an NEC or ViewSonic or Sampo, or would you buy a JVC, Sony, or Philips?  You would probably go with the names you are familiar with, and if you are like most consumers, you haven't heard of the first three.

So how would you pick a school if you really did have choice?  How would you decide if a school is the best school for your child?  Would you be able to tell the difference between a truly good school and one that just has good marketing?

Don't get me wrong, when it comes down to it, I'm in favor of school choice.  In fact, I have personally benefited from school choice.  When I was in high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I decided to go all the way across town to the district's magnet school, Booker T. Washington.  It was fabulous, and I was very lucky to have had the opportunity to go there.  And I mean "lucky" in more than just one sense.  Booker T. Washington was such a good school with such a good reputation that literally thousands of kids applied to get in, but Booker T. had an enrollment limit of 1200 kids.  That means that thousands of kids were turned away every year.  And it was always made clear to me that if I was not a good student who contributed to the Booker T. society, I could be kicked out of the school to make room for another student who was waiting to get in.

That is the first problem with school choice -- most kids do not actually get a choice.  In the middle- to large-sized cities, when parents and kids are given a choice of schools, the truly good schools will be full, and there won't be room for all the kids who want to go to those schools.  In other words, there won't be a lot of "choice."  If you are fortunate enough to get in to one of the good schools (as I was), then you will benefit from school choice (as I clearly have).  But thousands of kids will not even be able to get in to those schools.  What "choice" will they have?  Furthermore, we really don't know what will happen to these good schools when they get an immigration of students from all over town.  It is quite possible that the "good" schools will not be so good when they fill to capacity with a highly diverse population of students.  A lot of schools that are "good" right now are only good because they have low teacher-to-student ratios, and they are populated with a homogeneous population of students who come from the same neighborhood.  It is impossible to predict what will happen to these schools when parents get to exercise "choice."  We don't know what kind of prejudice and discrimination and difficulties kids from outside the neighborhood will experience.  We don't know if the teachers will be equipped to handle diverse populations of students.  We just don't know. 

Of course, in smaller cities and in rural areas, there simply will be no choice because there are not any other schools to choose from.  In rural areas, kids often have to travel many miles to get to the closest school.  They do not have a selection of schools to choose from.  The next school down the road may be 20 miles further away, and likely as not, it is not much better than the school they already go to.  There will be no "competition" of schools in small towns and rural areas, and there will be no choices.  The discussion of school choice is a discussion reserved for families that live in urban areas, but some of the biggest problems in our country's education system stem from the disparity that exists between rural and urban schools.  School choice, if anything, can only serve to widen that disparity.

Also, if there is to be true school choice, the schools have to be held to the same standards so parents can make reasonable comparisons.  Right now, private schools and charter schools are usually exempt from the standards and accountability that regular schools are held to.  Kids in those schools usually do not have to pass any sort of state test, teachers don't have to be certified, and private schools and charter schools can create their own curriculum and teach things that may be discrepant with the standards developed by the state.  Studies of private schools and charter schools show that some of them are very good, and prepare their students very well for future academic and life endeavors.  Most private and charter schools, however, are basically on par with regular public schools -- better in some areas, worse in others.  And of course, studies have shown that some private and charter schools are considerably worse than their public school rivals.  This seems to be especially true of charter schools, which usually have less funding than private schools.  Some charter schools are quite good, but most charter schools, when they are examined, are found to be over-all worse than the public school they are "competing" with.

However, the parents who send their kids to these inferior charter schools do not seem to know that the schools are inferior.  How would they?  As I stated before, charter and private schools are not usually held to the same standards as regular public schools, and they do not have to publicly report student achievement data.  The kids in these schools do not have to take the state accountability assessments, the schools do not have to report drop-out rates or retention rates.  They don't have to publish their school safety record or share discipline records.  They can expel students who are not progressing well, and retain only the students who are successful.  Charter schools and private schools simply are not open to the same levels of scrutiny that public schools are.  So when parents make a choice, they are usually making a choice based on faith when they really should be making a choice based on data.

The Heritage Foundation, a notoriously conservative organization that has been aggressively supporting school-choice programs, has recently released a substantial database of information about school choice in the United States.  I take everything that the Heritage Foundation claims with a grain of salt, knowing they have a reputation for bias in the information they choose to share and promote.  However, even the Heritage Foundation school-choice site describes a spate of problems with existing school-choice programs. 

The Heritage Foundation, in many of their own research reports, finds that school choice usually does not result in increased student achievement or improved educational environments.  The Heritage Foundation also found that some charter schools and private schools are run by unscrupulous people who are using the school choice system for their own unethical financial gain, exploiting the children they are supposed to be helping.  The Heritage Foundations conclusions are the same as my own -- any school-choice system must come with a very clear, objective accountability system so that parents can see for themselves which schools are best for their children. 

If we are to have a viable school-choice system in this country, then we must be clear that all schools that receive state and federal dollars to educate students should be held to the same standards and subjected to the same scrutiny.  The accountability system used for charter schools and private schools accepting public funds must be the same as the accountability system used for the local public schools and magnet schools.  Any student whose education is funded by taxpayers should be regularly tested using valid and reliable measures to be sure they are developing the knowledge and skills that the taxpayers expect of students who are getting a publicly funded education. 

As I said, I am very much in favor of school choice, and I believe magnet school systems provide for us an excellent model for school choice.  Magnet schools are different from mainstream schools -- they provide a viable alternative to the traditional school, and create a little healthy competition.  But they are also held to the same standards as their mainstream competitors.  With a good accountability system, parents can look at publicly available data about the school and make an informed decision about where they should send their child for an education.


A tirade about school finance


I once knew a very wise man who often said, "When ya buy cheap, ya get cheap."  Every time someone would try to save a dime on a purchase, he'd smile and make that snide remark.  Every time a "cheap" purchase would prove to be disappointing in some way, he would remark that cheap things are usually cheap for a reason.  He always said, you can be cheap when it doesn't matter, but if something is important, then you should spend what it takes to get something of quality.

We are very fortunate to live in the wealthiest country in the world.  In fact, our country is the wealthiest country in the history of the world.  We have more wealth and power and strength than any civilization has ever attained -- ever.  Our country has accomplished so much, and we have shown the ability to break down any barrier that we set our mind to, with one notable exception.  We can't seem to teach everybody to read.  About 40 percent of the kids in this country lack even basic reading skills.  How insane is that?  The one, single most important skill that anybody could possibly learn is beyond the grasp of nearly half of our nation's children!  What kind of contribution are these people going to make to our society?  What kind of life are they going to have if we do not teach them to read?  For such a wealthy country, we have a shockingly weak and underfunded education system.

Our federal government has recently provided us with new standards and higher expectations than we have ever had before.  The No Child Left Behind Act sends a clear and important message that we absolutely must fight to decrease education disparity everywhere it exists, and that we must help every single child to master the critical skills necessary to succeed in school and in life.  That is a noble and laudable goal.  But achieving it is not going to be easy, and it is definitely not going to be cheap.  Worthwhile goals never are.

We could not have sent men to the moon cheaply.  We could not have built the greatest military in the history of the world cheaply.  We could not have built highways that cross this country cheaply.  The Hoover Dam?  That was kind of expensive.  Wiping out Polio?  We spent some money on that.  The internet?  That was very costly.  We have always invested in the things that are important to this country, but we have never seriously invested in education.

Currently in this country, we spend between $5,000 and $11,000 per year to educate a child, depending on where that child is.  On average, we spend in the neighborhood of $7,800 per child per year.  That sounds like a lot of money, but it really isn't.  That's cheap.

If you send your child to a typical, reputable daycare every weekday from 7:30 in the morning until 4:00 in the afternoon, it will cost you between $400 and $600 per month.  Over 9 months, that adds up to between $3,600 and $5,400, just to have somebody watch after your child every day and make sure he or she does not come to any harm.  During that time, although it is not required of them, a good daycare center will often try to engage the kids in a few educational activities, which may or may not be effective for enhancing academic skills.  The daycare provider who is interacting with your child might have gone to college, and may even have a college degree, but that is not required.  Like all low-paying jobs, employee turn-over in daycare facilities is quite high, so over the course of 9 months, your child may have several different daycare providers.

Oh, and one other thing.  In some places, getting your child into a reputable daycare center is quite difficult.  Just because you have the money to pay for the service doesn't mean you will actually get the service.  Many reputable daycare centers have waiting lists, and the wait for some centers can be years.

So on the one hand, you have daycare facilities that cost around $4,500 for full-time care during a 9 month period.  For that fee, they are responsible for keeping your child safe and alive.  On the other hand, you have schools that cost around $7,800 per year.  For the extra $3,300, what do you get?

For starters, most kids will only go to school for 9 months, but the school almost always provides summer services for kids who need it at no extra charge.  They often provide support to students before and after school, too, free of charge.

Schools provide safe, free transportation to and from campus for any child who needs it.  Daycare centers do not.

Schools provide a substantial library and course textbooks for the children to use.  Daycare centers do not.

Schools have science labs, computer labs, theaters and athletic facilities that daycare facilities just don't have.

The school facilities are usually substantial.  Daycare facilities are usually cramped and barely adequate.

All of those wonderful things that schools provide cost money.  Libraries are not free, textbooks are not free, school busses are not free.  And daycare centers can not begin to pay for those things.

And then, of course, there is the service that schools actually exist to provide.  They employ college-educated teachers who are responsible for delivering a high-quality curriculum to their students in safe, productive classrooms.  School teachers are required to have bachelor's degrees, and many of them have advanced degrees.  They are trained professionals who are under pressure to show that, under their care, their students make substantial academic gains, and develop the knowledge and skills that are required by the states where they live.  The taxpayers pay for this service, and the state, appropriately, sets clear standards that must be met by educators and by schools.  The state develops assessments and monitors the quality of education provided by schools, and the state intervenes when schools are not meeting those standards and expectations.

All of this takes money.  When the money is short, the quality declines.  Monitoring and intervening with struggling schools becomes impossible.  Retaining high-quality teachers and placing them in the neediest schools becomes difficult.  Class sizes increase.  School safety decreases.  Resources dwindle.  The school year is shortened.  Student support and intervention programs get cut back.  In short, children get a poorer education.

Money is not the only answer.  Throwing more money at education, by itself, will not improve instruction.  We have seen several cases in this country where more money was spent, but no corresponding change in achievement followed.  It takes more than just spending the money.  But the money is definitely a starting point.  Spending money on education is necessary for improvement, but not sufficient.  We should strive to set ever higher expectations for student achievement.  We should do everything we can to recruit and retain teachers of high quality and skill.  But we can not reasonably expect those things if we are unwilling to spend the money to achieve them.

Right now in Texas, legislators appear to be making very little progress in passing a reasonable education spending bill.  Special interests are fighting hard to keep taxes and spending low in Texas, and legislators are in a pinch to find a way to increase spending on education without raising taxes.  Something is going to have to give.  Either we find a way to substantially increase funding for education, or education in the state of Texas will suffer.

Texas is a wealthy state -- as President Bush has so often pointed out, if Texas was a country, it would have the 8th largest economy in the world.  But it is also a highly diverse state.  We have 4.2 million school children in our state, and increasingly they are coming from very culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.  Texas also has one of the highest child-poverty rates in the country, with almost half of our children (44.5%) being eligible for free-and-reduced lunch programs.  These are challenges that would justify increased spending in Texas for education, yet 31 other states with fewer challenges actually spend more on education than Texas does.

And that is not to say that those states are spending enough.  Texas ranks low among states that probably also need to increase their spending for education.  Right now, the state that spends the most on education is also the state that consistently ranks the highest in measures of education achievement and quality.  Connecticut spends just over $11,000 per student per year, and it shows.  Connecticut's students score very well on standardized assessments, they have very low illiteracy and drop-out rates, and they have very high rates of success in higher education.  Connecticut has set a reasonable goal for other states.  There is no reason why every state couldn't spend $11,000 per year per student (adjusting for cost-of-living).  They just have to decide that it is a priority worth spending money on.

It all comes down to this -- do you drive a Yugo?  Do you live in a shack?  Do you dress in rags?  Do you eat dog food?  Of course not.  You spend money on things that matter to you.  When you want something nice, you spend a little money on it.  It's always nice when you find a bargain, but for the most part, you know you have to spend some money if you want quality.

Isn't it about time we spent a little extra money on education?  Isn't it about time the states stopped trying to educate our children on the cheap?  I think it is definitely worth a few pennies a day to invest in education and teach our children the skills they need to thrive and prosper.

I strongly believe we need to hold schools accountable for student achievement, but the accountability system should be reasonable, and the resources provided should be adequate.  Right now, I can not say that either is a reality.





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