Accountability In Gotham

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.

2 Replies to “Accountability In Gotham”

  1. Taken at face value, this sounds “break-through-ish.”

    Sure: possibility of it being wink-wink to members like Obama to Canada — “We’ll say this but we’ll keep the old way.”

    But assuming good faith, I like it, and applaud Ms. W, because she’s taking a risk.

    In particular, wise policy proposal to include school culture as a real metric — not just reported assaults, but the little things like noise in the hallways which makes it even harder for teachers to succeed.

    It’s possible to unite a failing school community around improving the culture; celebrate hard work which led to those gains; then use the trust to delve into the needed changes to bolster achievement.

  2. Andrew,

    ggw is correct in stressing school culture. Our fundamental goal should be an improved school culture that allows for 21st century education. Accountability is just one tool in creating that culture. Your subsequent post linked to a reference to Michelle Rhee’s “Culture of Accountability.” I have no problem with that goal, as long as we are using a valid system of accountability, but it is 14 years after 1994 and we are not even close. You may cite a few examples of an accountability culture that does not degenerate into a “Testing Culture,” but I doubt you will find many.

    The AFTs proposal should raise the question of who is accountable for safe and orderly schools, because to paraphrase your post, if everyone is accountable about everything then none is. Given the tenor of your recent comments, I suspect you’ll agree that teachers have some accountablity for disorderly and dangerous schools, and principals have more, but the real accountablity should rest on the policies of central offices. But this is a grey area bordering on a “social and fiscal policy issue over which they have no control.” As we head into the Fourth Nine Weeks, I am again reminded our our school’s annual pattern. Despite our ongoing gang war, we no longer have dangerous and chronically disruptive students detroying our learning culture. So, we know how to get the job done, and we do it in a humane and legal manner, which is one reason why it take seven or eight months every year. We could follow due process and create a safe and orderly environment in the first Quarter if social and fiscal policies allowed.

    This is the hard truth: some individuals and perhaps some schools can raise student performance even in high poverty secondary schools in spite of the chaos, but that number will always be very small. And I doubt that the NYC central office really wants to address that issue. It is much easier to argue that “high expectations” and professional developement will solve some of those most intractable problems of generational poverty. And if you don’t believe teachers like me, then the AFT proposes that student and parent surveys be considered.

    I reviewed the Ed Sector research, and read the articles on the Turnaround conference, and I still don’t see why you seem to believe that we have a viable system of accountability on the horizon. Were you to reread your own research from the perspective of a teacher, I suspect that you would agree that your own research undercuts your faith in the prospects of output accountability. I’d love to have a “city by city” rearguing of this issue. This is too long, but soon I’ll be arguing that we should break NCLB into pieces, and incorporporate accountability into each piece, as we abandon any effort to create some overarching system of accountability by test scores, replacing it with diagnostic testing.

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