The Back End Accountability Question?

In the NCLB debate you hear a lot of back and forth about what kind of schools should be identified as needing to improve and how good is good enough.   While only the very intrepid, for instance NYT reporter Sam Dillon, take on the seemingly impossible task of arguing that schools where fewer than 1/3 of the minority kids are passing tests somehow are being unfairly maligned, there is a more serious debate here about exactly what should constitute a school that needs to do better and what should and should not happen to such schools.

I’ll take the unpopular position that as a matter of identifying schools that need to do better, No Child Left Behind has actually been pretty good although that utility will diminish as we get closer to 2014 in some states.    Despite the rhetoric there are no examples of really high flying schools that are somehow being forced to close or reconstitute the entire school because of the law.   It’s a shame that states have done such a poor job of differentiating between schools that are not making “adequate yearly progress” because of just one subgroup of students and schools that are missing targets across the board as well as schools that are making a lot of progress and those that are not, but that’s not a reason to back off on reporting or accountability.  That’s because schools where relatively few of the students, overall or in different socioeconomic groups, are passing state tests need to improve — period.  

And, having a dashboard of data is useful for parents, policymakers, and educators.  That’s important information in every school and there are too many suburban schools with big gaps in achievement between racial and ethnic groups.  In the interest of easier public relations for public schools it’ll be shame if we back off from a hard-nosed appraisal of school performance.   After all, all those students that drop out, lag behind, etc…go to school somewhere and, contrary to stereotype, it’s not just in urban schools.  

So sure, policymakers should now do more to force states to differentiate more amongst schools and allow them to use better school improvement measures than were available in 2001 when the law was passed in order to better measure student growth as well as status.  And where to draw the line on how good is good enough will remain a thorny political question as long as our schools are politically governed and regardless of whether we have national standards or not.

But the fight about identifying schools has distracted from a debate about how to refine the policy to better support school level improvement efforts in the schools that really need to do a lot better.  Almost wherever you draw the line, unless it’s a joke, there are going to be a lot of schools that need help to improve.   The differentiated consequences pilot the Secretary announced turned out to be a big snoozer because the states are not, for the most part, really aggressive about dealing with low-performing schools.   (And who can blame them.  Aside from being the right thing to do there’s not a lot to recommend it.)  So part of that is improving the ability and willingness of states, districts, and non-governmental actors to do that work.

Another big problem, though, is timelines.  Right now, after a school does not make “adequate yearly progress” for two years it enters a school improvement timeline with a series of escalating consequences for the next four or five years if it does not improve.   The problem is that really low-performing schools almost regardless of how good they get, will struggle to beat that timeline.   Critics cite this as evidence of the futility of the whole endeavor while too many of the law’s supporters don’t want to engage with the issue because they fear it will undermine the urgency of fixing lousy schools.

Policymakers have to find a way to balance urgency with realism.  One solution it seems to me is to build on the Ed Trust’s sensible suggestion (pdf) that we give states longer to get most of their students to proficiency (the law actually requires less than 100 percent) if their standards are especially rigorous.   In the school improvement context that means making allowance around the timeline for school improvement so that it is proportional to how ambitious the reforms are.  That way rather than the gradually escalating consequences each year, you could have a system of substantial activity followed by a breathing period for the educators at the school to implement the reform.     Put another way, rather than a slope the policy would encourage big steps followed by plateaus, more like stairs.  The law could keep the current timeline and overall approach (and the Ed Trust offered some good suggestions there as well on restructuring options (pdf)) but create a second timeline for more ambitious reforms.

Of course, right now states can expedite the restructuring of schools although they very rarely do.   But that’s actually another reason to give some flexibility around the timeline now, it’s not going to slow down restructuring efforts.  So, while a dual track with more plateaus for really aggressive action wouldn’t address nearly all of today’s problems, for instance the cosmetic evasion problem, at least in places that are serious about school improvement it would give them an option for a somewhat better structure within which to do it.

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