Friday, October 17, 2014

Accountability: It’s In the Eye of the Beholder

When it comes to school accountability, different people see the same events differently. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

When a school district closes a school with persistently low student outcomes, is it punishing the teachers? Or is it acting to protect the children in the school from a damaging experience?

The answer often depends on a person’s loyalties and policy preferences. Union leaders and their allies claim punishment; pro-choice reformers and their market-focused allies focus on student protection.

Is this so mired in ideology that there can be no debate? Maybe, for some. But I think most people who care about schools and student learning see that circumstances matter. For example:

  • It’s punitive if the school being closed has been starved of funding relative to other schools in the same locality, assigned different groups of students every year, or been denied help that it asked for and other schools got. Teachers in a school closed after being treated this way are indeed victims of “gotcha” treatment by the district.
  • School closing isn’t punitive if a school with low student outcomes is equitably funded compared to other schools in the locality, hasn’t experienced big shifts in its enrollment population or location, and has had fair access to help.
  • School closing is definitely protective if a closed school’s students are able to move to another school where their chances of achievement and graduation are measurably higher.

Naturally, gray areas exist. District leaders may think they have given school staff many chances, but the school culture is too negative to allow improvement. Staff in the same school can think the district has not been fair, or that it pulled the plug just when things were coming together. Similarly, teachers in a school with a constant revolving door of teachers and principals might think the district could have done more to create clear expectations and stability.

Disagreements about particular schools will continue. Some argue the only legitimate remedy for a school failure is more professional development for teachers, no matter how long it takes. This ignores what kids lose in the meantime.

How one views accountability depends on the beholder’s definition of a school district’s primary duty. Is its chief task to maintain secure and predictable jobs for teachers? Or is it to do anything in its power to ensure that children will learn? Of course, these duties are complementary if teacher job security always leads to school effectiveness. But that’s not always the case. Secure, happy teachers are often good but sometimes complacent.

I can’t resist a sports analogy: NFL coaches need to maintain their starting quarterback’s self-confidence. They talk supportively about the quarterback’s performance right up to the time they decide to sub in a replacement. The coach has a duty to put the best team on the field that he can. Benching a quarterback is about trying to win the game, not punishment.

Ultimately, the argument is not about the teachers (or quarterbacks) and how they or their critics feel. It is about the children in the school in question. If a school closing leads to better opportunities for students, the case for protection is overwhelming. If a school is closed without clear provision for the students—who are cast to the winds and do no better or worse than in their previous school—there’s no case for protection.

To avoid fair charges of punitiveness, district leaders need to make sure they haven’t made a school’s failure inevitable with inequitable funding and staffing. To show that actions are protective, district leaders need to say both what the kids in a school stand to lose if it remains open and what they stand to gain if they go elsewhere. It is not enough to say: “This school is too bad for any child to attend.” Leaders also have to make sure the next school those children attend is measurably better.

This is how closures have been handled in many portfolio districts that are committed to equitable funding of schools, where all schools can choose their staff and not have their best people transferred away. But other cities, most recently Chicago, haven’t done enough to explain criteria for closures or ensure that kids actually benefit.

Critics who consider all performance assessments punitive will insist that accountability is about rewarding or sanctioning teachers. But most thoughtful people, including some who have criticized crude accountability systems, know that accountability is about protecting children and improving their chances. Reformers need to make common cause with them.

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