Beyond Staples: How Parents Benefit from School Accountability

If you’re a parent like me, at the start of each school year you eagerly learn all about the course content your child will study, the enrichment opportunities available, the field trips your child will take, and the school supplies your child will need as you brace yourself for that evening’s trip to Staples. If you’re a taxpayer like me, you know how much of your money goes to public education.

In other words, you are well-informed about everything that goes into your child’s educational experience, which we can call “input.” But what about the output? How much do you really know, outside of parent-teacher conferences and the quarterly report card, about your child’s learning outcomes? The answer is likely “not much,” and that’s true across America, both at the micro-level of your specific child and at the macro-level of schools, districts, and historically under-served subgroups like English Language Learners, students with disabilities, students of color, and students from economically-disadvantaged homes. Yet, according to federal law — once called No Child Left Behind (NCLB), now called Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) —  schools and states are responsible for both inputs and outputs in order to ensure adequate school quality and equity.

Another word for this sort of responsibility is “accountability,” a much-maligned word in the education arena, often clustered with other imprecations like “No Child Left Behind (NCLB),” “Race to the Top,” “standardized tests,” and “value-added teacher evaluations.” But accountability simply means that states are responsible not only for adequate inputs like sufficient funding, ambitious course content standard, and high-quality instruction, but also for outputs like accurate measures of student learning and teacher effectiveness. They are also responsible for intervening in the lowest-performing schools (called “Priority Schools” in New York State and “Renewal Schools” in New York City) through extra funding, new leadership, and other turnaround strategies.

These strategies, of course, are mere inputs. If student achievement — the ultimate output — remains stagnant then those initiatives represent wasted resources and, more urgently, wasted time for that school’s students.

Over the last several years federal and state accountability legislation has come under attack from a duo of strange bedfellows: Tea Party/Trump-ish acolytes who wave the banner of local control and teacher union leaders who disdain objective measurements of student learning, at least when they’re tied to teacher evaluations and job security.  ESSA, America’s new federal education law, provides wiggle room to accommodate this political pressure, a kind of NCLB-lite, extracting federal teeth to gum onto the cachet of hands-off government.

Yet states still must, like under NCLB, administer annual standardized tests to students in grades three through eight,  intervene in the lowest-performing schools, report progress for historically under-served subgroups, and submit accountability plans to the U.S. Department of Education. But states can also play limbo (how low can you go?) with tying student outcomes to teacher evaluations and with how they measure school quality.

Daria Hall of Education Trust warns, “we have to be really cautious because we know that states have a long track record of not making tough decisions when it comes to the interest of low-income students, students of color, English-language learners. If states are going to walk away from those students, we are going to lose whatever progress we’ve made with those students, who now make up the majority of our public school population.”

As we enter the first year of ESSA’s implementation, it’s worthwhile to  take the temperature of two aspects of educational accountability in New York City, the  largest school district in the nation. New York State has always been great with inputs — one of the highest per pupil costs in the country ($23,370 in 2015) —  and early adopters of the Common Core State Standards (currently under a re-evaluation- process per Gov. Cuomo’s sop to suburban voters and union leaders).

But outputs are complex and politically fraught.  What percentage of student growth from the beginning of the year to the end should count in teacher evaluations? How much information must schools schools share with parents? How do schools transition from old tests that deemed most students proficient to new Common Core-aligned tests that paint far bleaker results? How do you reconcile the disruption inherent in mandated interventions — even closures — with student and community needs?

So here is a brief accounting of Gotham’s status in two output areas: rating teacher effectiveness and student academic growth, particularly children from historically under-served cohorts.

Two years ago, Gov. Cuomo celebrated the State Legislature’s decision to change the way teachers are evaluated. While the old system relied on entirely subjective measures like classroom observations, the new system would link 50% of teacher ratings to student academic growth. (Too high, by the way.) But Cuomo caved once teacher unions and wealthy suburban parents launched an anti-accountability/pro-local control campaign funded by UFT member dues. Now there’s a four-year moratorium on the use of test scores in teacher evaluations.

Out with the new, in with the old.

In New York City last year, once teacher quality accountability was shelved, a mere one percent of teachers were rated “ineffective.” (Have ninety-nine out of one hundred of your child’s teachers really been good or great? Can you think of another profession that boasts that degree of competency?) The New York City school system, under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s leadership, is reneging on its responsibility to ensure that students, especially those in struggling schools, are taught by truly effective teachers. “This is a scheme to rate every teacher effective, cooked up by Mayor de Blasio’s biggest donors,” said Jenny Sedlis of StudentsFirstNY, “and it’s a major setback for students.”

(You can’t fault Mayor de Blasio for inconsistency. In 2014 when he signed off on UFT’s contract, Dan Weisberg of TNTP, said, “[i]t’s likely to have no net benefit for kids at all.”)

But the City gets higher marks for taking responsibility for accurate assessments of  student academic growth.  If you go to the NYC DOE’s website and click on “Performance and Accountability” on the left-hand menu, you can type in the name of any school and get that school’s “School Quality Snapshot” and “School Quality Guide.” Let’s look at John Bowne High School in Flushing. (Full disclosure: my Dad taught social studies there.) What can parents learn about this school’s effectiveness?

According to the NYC DOE’s data, 83% of John Bowne 9th graders earned enough credits to be on track for high school graduation, although only 74% actually graduated in 2015. Fifty-three percent of students successfully passed courses that are geared toward college readiness, but only 33% met CUNY’s college-ready standards and could attend CUNY without taking remedial courses. (Grade inflation, anyone?) On state standardized tests 48% of students were proficient in language arts and 67% were proficient in math.

The NYC DOE presents clear and sober data that can help parents make informed school choices and learn more than what goes on that Staples shopping list. That’s a key goal of accountability systems.  Now if only New York City, as well as the rest of the state, could accept responsibility for other elements necessary to ensure that all students, from the top of the Bronx to the western tip of Staten Island, have access to the input of effective instructional services and the output of developmentally-appropriate proficiency.

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