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Should Communities Determine Their Own Accountability Measures?

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Jack and Julian wrap up their conversation about testing and accountability today.

Schneider: I ended our last conversation with a question about how to evaluate school performance beyond student standardized test scores.

I know what I'd like to see as part of that equation. But what about you? What other information do you think the public should have access to?

Heilig: I think accountability should include local and community-based processes. The Texas model that birthed NCLB has an intense focus on top-down goal setting and measurement. I first proposed a new bottom-up form of accountability called Community-Based Accountability (CBA) in 2012. A workgroup at the University of Texas at Austin then designed several policy briefs that outlined how strategic plans developed at the local-level could serve as alternatives to top-down, one-size-fits-all policy.

A bottom-up approach would enable local communities to focus on a set of multiple measures in addition to, or instead of, standardized high-stakes testing. A new form of bottom-up accountability would allow for communities to drive a locally-based approach that focuses on a set of measures of educational quality for short-term and long-term community-based goals. The role of the state and federal government would be to calculate baselines, growth, and yearly ratings for a set of goals that communities selected in a democratic process.

There are already examples of policymakers considering local approaches for accountability. The first evidence of a shift was in Texas, where the High Performance Coalition (HPC) of 20 districts empowered by Texas Senate Bill 1557 sought to adopt a Community-Based Accountability and Assessment plan in 2012. Michael Williams, Texas Education Agency Commissioner, eventually rejected the HPC plan. While Texas, the birthplace of NCLB-style accountability, was the first to dabble with locally-determined accountability, the California Legislature recently codified a locally based accountability approach for school finance for the entire state.

Schneider: Locally-developed accountability measures have some promise, particularly in terms of buy-in. Communities have a right to have their voices heard and to shape school quality frameworks. But perhaps more importantly, if we measure the things a community values, it might empower them to get involved in school improvement.

I'm leading a project right now in Massachusetts where we're trying to build a fairer and more comprehensive measure of school quality, and we're beginning by asking stakeholders what they actually care about. And the reception we've gotten so far has been amazing; people seem almost shocked that they would have input in deciding what matters in education.

But let's consider a hypothetical: What if the local community makes irresponsible choices about what to include in a measure of school quality? And what if district leaders push for measures that they'll look particularly good on? There seem to be some potential problems here in terms of information gaps in communities and incentives for district leaders.

Why not provide a menu of options rather than starting with a blank slate? And why not identify a core of factors that has to be included in any menu?

Heilig: I agree that community leaders may not actually render the will of the people in a district. I attended a lecture by Dolores Huerta here at California State University Sacramento a few weeks ago. And she noted that Los Angeles has decided that the district will spend $3 million of their new local funds on more police in schools. When a district decides that they should make new investments in police, rather than college counselors, I consider that malpractice.

The larger issue is whether we trust democracy as a process; should the community have input in what they are held accountable for? In the current top-down context, local communities have no say. To use Deb Meier's words, "What amazing lack of faith we have in the idea of democracyeven when it comes to 'raising' our children." She argues that we can have honest, no-stakes assessments, that inform parents and the public, coupled with regulations pertaining to civil rights, health and safety and equity.  

That said, I do agree that a menu of choices should be in play, and some components could be required—including desegregation of data by race, gender, etc. Those important components could easily be kept in a new bottom-up form of accountability.

Schneider: I trust the public. But I also think that there are real limits to public knowledge, and some decisions demand expertise. In our project in New England, for instance, we're asking the public what they care about. But we're also looking at what the research tells usabout outcomes like career readiness, college readiness, school safety, etc. There's a great deal in education that simply can't be intuited.

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