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What Should the Next Version of Accountability Look Like?

The No Child Left Behind Act is way past its expiration date, and the Obama administration's temporary stop-gap solution—giving states waivers from the law's mandates in exchange for taking steps like teacher evaluation through student outcomes—hasn't exactly been a smashing success.

So where do we go now, when it comes to accountability, the federal-state role, testing, and student improvement? It's a question that this Congress is grappling with as it tries to rewrite the law and that the next administration may get to answer if that update doesn't make it across the finish line. And of course, it's something that edu-think-tank land and academia are also mulling.

The latest pitch: "Pacts Americana: Balancing National Interests, State Autonomy, and Education Accountability" was published Tuesday morning by Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting organization in Washington. The authors: Chad Aldeman, who worked in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration; Andy Smarick, who served in the department under President George W. Bush and also worked in the New Jersey Education Department; and Kelly Robson, a senior policy analyst at Bellwether.

Their idea: Instead of going back and forth with the feds on the finer points of waivers (which has led to a lexicon of fun terms like, "waiver waiver" and "accountability pause"), states and the feds would come up with "compacts" on accountability.

These agreements would include goals for student achievement in areas including proficiency, reading and math, and graduation rates. States could also count things like social and emotional learning and "grit," as some states already do under waivers.

The states' compacts would also have to include a focus on low-performing students (not necessarily low-performing schools, which is a key difference from programs like the School Improvement Grant program).   

As under NCLB, states would have to set challenging standards and continue to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. But states would get to decide which tests, which standards, and what the rules of the accountability road were.

And there would be no SIG-style menu of interventions for low-performing schools, or forced free tutoring, as there have been under NCLB and waivers. Instead, states would get to set the interventions and strategies. They could go whole-hog on school choice, for instance, with lots of charters and vouchers, or offer super-intensive professional development to teachers and bring in lots of social service supports. Or, both, if they wanted.

 "This mindset is focusing on outputs instead of inputs," Smarick said in an interview. He noted that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said he'd like be tight on goals and loose on means, but that waivers fell short of that. The proposal "really is freedom" for states, which in his view, take primary responsibility for K-12 schools.

But, the Bellwether gang emphasized that under their plan there would still be some form of accountability so that the feds aren't just handing out billions of dollars for K-12 with no strings attached.

States would be expected to update their compacts every four years, but could make tweaks if, say, new leadership came on board that had a different idea of where the state should go than its predecessors.

So what happens if a state didn't meet its goals by the end of the term of the compact? It would have to revamp its strategies and apply for flexibility again. States that didn't make much progress could ultimately lose Title I money, or be forced to revert back to a much-more structured accountability regime.  

And who polices all this? The trio proposed a few different possibilities, including the Secretary of Education, a group of peer reviewers, or some sort of outside body, appointed by Congress and the president, kind of like the National Assessment Governing Board. All of those ideas have their drawbacks, of course, the paper acknowledged.

The report's authors said this vision is just a starting point. And there are certainly some points that might be fleshed out in further discussion, like how, exactly, the department or peer reviewers or that other appointed group might monitor states' progress towards their goals, and how ambitious those goals need to be, especially for struggling students.  

It's worth noting that the Bellwether trio isn't the first to reimagine accountability in a post-NCLB, post-waiver era. Another trio of well-known researchers came up with their own "51st state" accountability model last October, including Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor often identified with the progressive wing of the Democratic party; Gene Wilhoit, the former executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers; and Linda Pittenger, the chief operating officer for the Center for Innovation in Education at the University of Kentucky.

Should we expect more papers on the future of accountability and the federal role as we move beyond waivers? And what do you think of the Bellwether plan? The comments section is open.

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