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The Letter From: Information Systems, Accountability and Adaptive Management

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As a thinking person, I know that student outcomes are the joint product of students, parents, teachers, administrators, superintendents, and school boards; the products, services and programs employed in the classroom; and the tax dollars citizens allocate to public education through the election process.

As someone involved in school reform in dozens of districts, I know that no single factor assures success, but any can assure failure.

As someone who values fair play, I want teachers to be held accountable, but not solely accountable.

As a voting taxpayer, I want “the most bang for the buck,” the highest level of student performance for the most students for the tax dollar.

As an advocate of market-based public school improvement, I know that funding should go where the value-added to student outcomes is highest.

As one who believes in a school improvement industry, I want the basis of competition to shift from brand to value-added – the only way new innovative providers can take market share from established publishers, and the only way the industry can attract the investment it requires.

As a policy analyst, I know that the state of the evaluation art in k-12 is progressively better able to assess the value added by teachers, teacher training, educational practices, administration policies, proprietary classroom offerings and resource levels.

As someone who watches state and local education agencies purchasing, I know that both are installing student information systems capable of tracking all these inputs.

Finally, as someone who reads the newspaper, I am more than a little disappointed to see that the use of student information systems for accountability has focused narrowly on teachers. I know it is simplistic, impolitic, unnecessary and counterproductive.

Simplistic, because it puts far too much weight on one factor.

Impolitic, because it predisposes teachers to oppose the use of analytical systems for accountability and pushes the Democratic party in the same direction.

Unnecessary, because its well within our capacity to assess all these factors at relatively low additional cost.

Counterproductive, because it will only make it harder to institutionalize the use of these systems to assess teacher performance.

Student information systems should be used to assess teacher performance, but the nation is heading down the wrong path to do so. We have a real choice. Information systems and accountability strategies can be introduced in ways that turn teachers into scapegoats for systemic failures and reinforce the traditional adversarial relationships between labor and management, Democrats and Republicans, left and right that make school reform intractable. Or they could be introduced in ways that bring all parties necessary for school improvement – including teachers and their unions - into a process that makes necessary changes far more likely.

Employed correctly, student information systems can help us move from a debate based primarily on ideology and political power – which has brought us to stalemate, to one based on facts and analysis. Politics will never end, but it can be channeled in productive directions and focused on factual questions.

To understand how, consider the debate over clean air. Up until passage of the Clean Air Act in 1963, the arena for debate over the existence of air pollution, its consequences, and policies to deal with both was the ballot box. The Act gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to set limits on the amount of pollutants in the air. It does this through a process of adaptive management involving all those with a stake in the decision.

Setting an acceptable level of pollutants intelligently depends on several inputs. First, our ability to measure a pollutant’s levels and to identify its sources. Second, our understanding of how a pollutant affects health and the economy at different levels. Third, our appreciation of the state of the art in technologies that might reduce the release of a pollutant into the air. Fourth, our knowledge of the cost of adopting various emissions-reducing technologies.

The nation’s collective knowledge of these inputs is far from perfect. Instead, the process relies on the “best available information.” This standard incorporates and encourages constant improvement in our understanding of every factor.

The politics of air pollution hardly ended in 1963. Firms continue to worry about the impact of regulation on their competitiveness and profitability. Political leaders in regions that depend on industries that pollute continue to lean in the direction of those industries. Conservation groups continue to push for the highest possible standards of clean air. Politicians aligned with those constituencies follow a similar course. When all is said and done, Presidents and EPA administrators do make decisions that move pollution levels in one direction or the other - but placed in a historical context, politics now influences only the margins of debate.

What the act did was give those with a real stake in decisions about pollution a seat at the table, clarity about decision criteria, assurance of a fair hearing, and stability and predictability in the pace of change. Today, no party in the process would go back to 1962. Industry understands how much the process has reduced political risk, and so the cost of capital. The environmental groups see movement on net in the direction of clean. Politicians on both sides have fewer problems now that the debate is more technical than ideological.

I can think of no good reason why our information systems and ideas of accountability cannot be introduced to public education in precisely the same way. We want every child to be proficient in math and reading, and we’ve set 2012 as the goal. Setting those two objectives - and any districts plan to get there - intelligently depends on several inputs. First, our ability to measure proficiency levels for individual students. Second, our understanding of how students, parents, teachers, administrators, superintendents, and school boards; and the products, services and programs employed in the classroom affect student learning. Third, our appreciation of the state of the art for each of these inputs. Fourth, our knowledge of the cost of adopting various policies and programs.

As with air pollution, the nation’s collective knowledge of these inputs is far from perfect. But it is engaged in serious research and evaluation in each area. I imagine the “best available information” is comparable to what the EPA had in 1963. And, again, the standard would incorporate and encourage constant improvement in our understanding of every factor.

If we were to introduce the idea of teacher accountability as part of a broader approach to accountability covering all the relevant inputs, I believe teachers and the teachers unions would accept the use of student information for this purpose. Adaptive management would give those with a real stake in decisions about student learning – teachers, providers, parents, taxpayers, education advocacy groups - a seat at the table, clarity about decision criteria, assurance of a fair hearing, and stability and predictability in the pace of change. I believe that after a few years no party in the process would want to go back.

Marc Dean Millot is the editor of School Improvement Industry Week and K-12 Leads and Youth Service Markets Report. His firm provides independent information and advisory services to business, government and research organizations in public education.


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