Best of 2009: Here's what schools accountability looks like

It's time to put some teeth into one of education's over-used buzzwords. What's needed are proper testing and real consequences for failure.
Crosscut archive image.

A classroom in the Laotian school in Ban Na Muang.

It's time to put some teeth into one of education's over-used buzzwords. What's needed are proper testing and real consequences for failure.

Editor's note: This story, originally posted on June 23, 2009, is part of our Best Crosscuts of 2009 series.

Accountability: Probably the leading candidate for bureaucratic buzzword of the 21st century so far. Maybe even the winner in the last decade of the previous century where its use by educators got rolling.

Props to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. In his speech Monday (June 22) to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools he only used accountability or accountable seven times. In my view, a low rate in a 3,000 word speech.

Duncan was, as is typical at these events, urging the educators to hold one another accountable for the student achievement in their schools. Don'ꀙt settle or let others settle for the sound and fury of reform, in charter schools or district schools, without real achievement, improvement in students'ꀙ skills that will also give them a real shot at success in life. The schools he was talking about were the bottom five percent, about 5,000 "chronically low achieving schools" scattered across the country, but the kind of accountability he was talking about would apply anywhere. But accountable for what, exactly? Let'ꀙs look at that because it also bears on state Superintendent Public Instruction Randy Dorn's plans for a new Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) or shorter WASL, whatever it will be.

Well, the obvious answer is that educators should be accountable for improving student achievement, presumably as measured by some test or other. Yes, they should. But by how much? Two or three percentage points? Is that enough? Or should it be 10 or 20 points? And if we say we're holding administrators and teachers accountable for closing the achievement gap between whites and most Asians and other minorities, as communities across America insist, how much or how little is OK if it's not closed all the way? And how much time should school administrators have to reach these goals? The answer is already decades. Sometimes it seems like forever.

There'ꀙs a lot of talk about accountability but little or nothing, certainly almost nothing specific, about the goal or goals that educators say repeatedly they want to be held accountable for. That might not be a coincidence.

So it's time to set real goals, not settle for moving targets like the WASL and its brethren in other states. (A shorter WASL such as Dorn proposes won't provide better information. It will only take less class time, though at least that has its advocates among both teachers and parents.)

It actually wouldn't take much effort or be very difficult to set real standards or which educators could be held "accountable." (Or maybe we could say "responsible" just for a change.) For example, graduation rates are a good measure of high school effectiveness, so let's look at the four-year graduation rates of the top ten percent or so of schools. It's sure to be 85 or 90 percent and that seems like it would be a good standard in a world where 75 percent and below is today's norm. A test the federal government gives regularly, year after year, to a complete cross section of schools called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), provides good benchmarks for what really counts as proficient in reading, math, science, U.S history, the arts and other subjects. Real goals of 80 to 90 percent proficiency on the NAEP for appropriate grade levels look like a standard any community would want its schools to achieve.

Arne Duncan himself could fund broader use of the NAEP to keep track of schools receiving the new federal stimulus monies or to validly compare the good and bad among the charter schools run by members of his Monday audience. Broader administration of the NAEP could make the WASL and similar state tests wholly unnecessary.

And if by some chance your school district has a core curriculum for high school, administrators could even set a benchmark combined score for graduation on a series of four to six content tests such as the SAT II achievement tests. They'ꀙre handy, off the shelf and the scores are easier to work with than the narrowly ranged five-point scales of Advanced Placement courses — but those would work, too.

Standards like these would provide real bench marks against which to hold educators accountable. Set a fixed time for their achievement, say five years. That's gradual enough (though sadly it's more than a third of the time a child is in the K-12 system). And then have the school board write contracts for all the administrators in the district, including principals, requiring them to resign if the goals have not been achieved in their school or in the district by the time that five-year deadline rolls around. If that sounds too harsh, as an alternative they could be offered a pay cut equal to the percentage they fell short of the goals. Either way, that's what accountability looks like.  

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered Seattle neighborhoods, City Hall and public schools during 14-years with the paper.