No, not Kristen, school accountability. Yesterday UFT President (and likely AFT leader) Randi Weingarten unveiled the anticipated alternative to (or revisions to, depending on how you look at it) the city’s new accountability reports for schools. The UFT site has the speech and proposal.
I do think Weingarten is on to something with the idea that a district-level accountability matrix should measure more than just test scores and should incorporate some concept of reciprocal accountability. Weingarten uses the 360 degree concept, which could be incorporated here. This, incidentally, would be one strategy to help change the conversation about teachers contracts from a deficit one to one about opportunities to better use contracts to support teachers and schools.
But, there are several risks here policymakers must guard against. First, reciprocal obligations can’t morph into grandiose utopian ideas that put on hold accountability for serving kids well pending massive and uncertain changes. That fight is mostly settled at the federal level after 1994 and it would be a shame to start reigniting it city by city now. A key insight in education policy today is that different schools (and different teachers) have different effects on similar students. An accountability system – and our policies more generally – must reflect that. Put another way, it is a good idea to hold school district officials accountable for providing a safe and functioning work environment, but not to incorporate social and fiscal policy issues over which they have no control.*
So my problem with Weingarten’s proposal here is that while I think it puts some good ideas on the table, it seems to me to move accountability too far away from demonstrable outputs. That’s been a perennial problem in education in the postwar period. It’s not that inputs don’t matter; only that genuine accountability must focus on results. I like the idea of paying more attention to many of the aspects of schooling that she puts on the table but think that policymakers in NYC are going to have to disentangle what information they want to know from what measures they want to hold schools accountable for. That’s a key accountability question that too often gets muddled in the school accountability debate. Speaking as a policymaker, I want to know a lot more about what’s happening in schools than I want to hold educators accountable for. That’s because you can’t measure everything as well as you need to and even if you could, accountability for everything is accountability for nothing.**
It sounds like the NYC Department of Education is open to some of these ideas. That’s good because this is the right conversation to have. And as you think about Weingarten’s position here it’s worth remembering some of the nonsense she has to put up with from within her own ranks about accountability and all the rest. And Weingarten also deserves some credit for putting ideas out there to debate at a time when too many of her colleagues just say “no.” But ultimately schools exist to serve kids and any accountability system has to put outputs for kids first and foremost in terms of the actual accountability piece.
Finally, good a time as any to say welcome to life under value-added and growth-models accountability schemes! In many ways the NYC system is doing what these systems are supposed to — showing what schools are really adding value for students and which ones are sort of coasting. Now there are some technical problems because there is a “ceiling effect” in today’s assessment systems that does create limits for high-performing schools that don’t exist for low-performing ones. But, it was amusing that after all the calls for measuring growth, when the actual growth wasn’t what people thought and didn’t comport with everyone’s idea of a “good” school, all hell broke loose.
*Yes, I know, people say that No Child holds schools accountable for things they can’t control. But in fact if you look at the actual requirements it really doesn’t.
**Also worth noting that there is a second conversation about non-regulatory accountability mechanisms, in particular consumer choice, that also matters a lot here. As opposed to the conservative caricature of “free markets,” most markets in this country, especially for goods and services where there is a keen public interest, are quasi-regulated. Think about the food you eat, the car you drive, the major appliances in your home, or stocks and bonds you might own. In American education a key strategy for creating incentives and accountability for all the important but non-measurable attributes that people want from their public schools is going to have to be more choice within the public system. Marrying public oversight and accountability (pdf) with greater customization is something public schools are going to have to do or else they will find themselves way out of alignment with their public.
Update: See also Leo Casey at Edwize on the same.