Why two reform movements — choice and accountability — have fallen short

Public education has been rocked over the past two decades by the choice and accountability movements, both launched by reformers in an effort to “fix” failing schools. Why haven’t they worked as well as promised? This post examines this question. It is written by Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and the author of Excellence For All: How a New Breed of Reformers Is Transforming America’s Public Schools. He tweets @Edu_Historian.

By Jack Schneider

Over the past 20 years, two reform movements — choice and accountability — have transformed the face of K-12 education.  With strong support at the state and federal level, as well as among the American public, each has become a standard feature of the modern policy landscape.  As such, parents today frequently choose which schools their children attend, and low-scoring schools are routinely sanctioned for their performance.

Yet while each movement has shown some promise for improving access to good schools, neither has lived up to expectations.  Why?  Critics have a whole host of explanations, some of which are quite compelling, and some of which are burdened by political agendas.  But the simplest answer, which also happens to be true, is that both movements are dependent on good information about school quality.  And, frankly, our information stinks.

Consider briefly the theory of action for the choice movement, which asserts that when given the freedom to do so, parents will select good schools over bad ones.  As a consequence of this, bad schools will go out of business and new schools—many of which will be good—will open to fill the gap.  Thus, without any heavy-handed interventions, good schools will prosper, bad schools will wither and die, and everyone will win.

The theory of action for the accountability movement is not so different, only it relies on state and federal authority rather than individual self-interest as a driver for change.  By developing curricular standards and a set of aligned assessments, or so the theory goes, good schools can be recognized and rewarded, while bad schools can be identified for assistance or shut down.

Both of these models, of course, are dependent on accurate information about school quality.  Whether parents have the power or accountability officers do, the central assumption is the same: that we can measure school quality precisely enough to make high-stakes decisions.

Yet this is fundamentally untrue.  As scholars (including myself) have argued before, standardized test scores provide a very narrow picture of what happens inside schools.

This, obviously, is a problem when schools are penalized or shut down for poor performance.  What if a school is doing great things with a hard-to-teach population, for instance, but given its clientele continues to produce low scores?  Or what if the scores are adequate, but fail to convey triumphs in areas other than math and reading—like moral development or scientific habits of mind?

But the limited nature of the available data—based mostly on multiple choice tests in just two subject areas—is equally problematic when we assume that high-scoring schools are succeeding.  After all, what if high-scoring schools are drilling kids for exams and ignoring untested subjects like history or the arts?  Or what if a school is adding very little value to what well-supported students are already bringing with them from home?  Many parents assume that high test scores are indicative of a good school.  And sometimes that’s true.  But schools with high scores often get credit they don’t deserve, just as schools with low scores may be getting a bad rap.

I am not saying that we should stop trying to measure outcomes in education.  I believe that parents should have some say in where their children are enrolled, whether they are choosing a charter or a traditional public school.  And I believe that truly bad schools should be shut down.  But I also believe that parents and policy elites need rich, high-quality information in order to make these decisions.  And right now they just don’t have it.  Instead, they have piles of data that provide only the narrowest and crudest measures of school quality.  In short, it’s time to recognize that if choice and accountability are going to work, we need new information.

Massachusetts, where I live, is among the best when it comes to school data.  The state makes available test scores for reading and math, as all states do.  But we also have access to scores in science and engineering-related subjects, which are tested at grades 5, 8, and 10.  We have access to graduation rates and teacher/pupil ratios.  And we now have a “growth” score that measures a student’s performance relative to other students with similar academic records.  All of those pixels help fill in our picture of school performance, and such data should be available in all states.

But other things matter, too.  What about the arts, for instance?  Or what about how well supported teachers are?  What about how happy the kids are?  And what about diversity?  We can measure those things.  And though we would do so imperfectly, it would be no worse than our measures of reading or math.  Further, inclusion of such data would paint a fuller and more accurate picture of what is really going on inside a school.

So what would this look like?  I have five categories of ratings in mind, but there are no doubt many more worth considering:

1. The arts.  We might measure this through how many hours each day are spent on art, music, and other creative activities, per pupil.  We might also include the number of full time teachers of the arts there are at each school.

 2. Family satisfaction and involvement.  We might measure this through surveys completed by parents along with their children—done at a few points over the course of a year and not connected with teacher evaluation.  The aggregate would be an reasonable snapshot of how parents and students feel about a school over the course of several years, and might also be combined with a measure of parental volunteerism.

 3. Teacher satisfaction and support.  This could be determined through surveys, as well as though measures like length of service at particular schools relative to district and state averages.  Surveys might ask teachers how supported they feel by administrators, how much time they have for collaboration and professional development, and how they feel about school climate.

 4. Diversity.  This could be measured through school demographics—racial, linguistic, ethnic, ability, etc.  Much of this data is already available, of course, but it would be worth its own category because of the clear message it would send about the problematic nature of monoculture.

 5. The future.  As long as we’re at it, let’s track students for six years after graduation and see where they are.  Graduates of 8th grade will be in college, or not.  Graduates of 12th grade will be in the workplace or pursuing graduate degrees.  And since this in many ways will be shaped by socioeconomic status, we might level the field by asking students to answer three short additional questions: 1. How happy are you with the education you received?  2. How well-prepared for the next level were you?  3. If given a chance to go to a different school, would you?

This is all just food for thought.  But all of these things matter.  And, as research reveals, all of these factors affect student learning.  We certainly might measure other things, but this seems to be a reasonable place start.

 Test scores, as many parents and policymakers already know, are misleading.  But they aren’t going away.  They aren’t going away in state or federal decision-making.  And they aren’t going away in the role they play in parental decisions about school choice.  In fact, the opposite is happening: test scores are insidiously taking hold in policy discourse and among the public as a perfectly acceptable measure of quality.  They aren’t.  And, as such, it is our job not only to resist narrow and simplistic measures of educational quality, but to demand access to the data we really need—information that allows us to make thoughtful decisions about our schools.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · June 12, 2013