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True Accountability: Giving All Students a Shot

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This post is by Joseph Bishop (@joepbishop), Policy Director for the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, an initiative of the Schott Foundation for Public Education; Executive Director of Opportunity Action; and Co-Chair of the Coalition for Teaching Quality.


13,418. That's the number of field goals Kobe Bryant has now missed in his 19 year career, putting the five time NBA champion ahead of greats like Kareem-Abdul Jabbar and Michael Jordan in career misses. When asked by reporters on Veteran's Day what he thought about breaking the league record for missed shots, here's what Bryant said. "You've got to go out and figure that out and play and do the best you can, and whatever happens, happens. You can't be held captive by the fear of failure or the fear of what people may say."

Bryant's attitude mirrors the dispositions a growing number of employers are after. They want employees who are determined and willing to take risks and try new things. They want critical thinkers, problem solvers and people who can work well in teams.

But you wouldn't know that if you were to look at the types of current accountability systems being used to drive instruction, school improvement, and student success, which emphasize students' ability to memorize information and find one answer out of five on multiple-choice tests in reading and math. Some schools have creatively figured out how to keep learning fun, engaging, and relevant, in rural, urban, and suburban districts, but unfortunately, far too many are weighed down by the restrictive shackles of No Child Left Behind. Particularly in low-income schools, many feel compelled to drill to narrow tests to avoid punitive sanctions, often neglecting subjects like history, science, and the arts, as well as activities like projects, investigations, and presentations.

School and district personnel are hungry for release from those accountability shackles to give them the freedom to make classroom experiences as dynamic as the world around them, and less dependent on end-of-the-year summative tests that have become the focus for many schools. Educators and students alike want to experience student-centered, project-based learning to tackle real world problems, like the students at Tech Valley High School in Albany, New York, whom I visited. Students shared inspiring stories with me of how they were developing a prototype portable sewage system in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. They were applying lessons from biology, sociology, chemistry, and physics to their Hurricane Sandy projects. A high school senior named William Kested eloquently described the "deeper learning" experience at his school in Albany: "We try to create goals out of real-world problems and solve them with teamwork."

But these schools are still an anomaly and until we shift our definition of accountability the majority of American students are consigned to learn within the limiting constraints of an archaic accountability system. Several weeks ago, 11 civil rights organizations, including mine--the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign--spoke up for a shift in how accountability is defined. True accountability needs to look beyond sanctions based on summative test scores to more relevant outcomes that demonstrate whether students can apply new knowledge like William Kested is doing at Tech Valley High. We also reminded the Obama Administration, Congress, and state policymakers to focus on the conditions and resources all students need in order to be successful from the time they enter the school system.

New college-and-career-ready standards are being implemented across the country with the goal of moving towards 21st century schools. This is happening in the wake of a record number of children living in poverty and an increasingly diverse student population. Students of color represent more than 50 percent of youth and are more than twice as likely to attend segregated schools. English learners now represent 10 percent of all public school students nationwide, and students living in poverty represent virtually half of all US public school students.

For the first time in decades, we have the opportunity to create an education system that is truly accountable and--most importantly--effective. To succeed, such a system must acknowledge and address the backdrop of challenges facing students and schools and foster the type of deeper learning students need to be college and career ready. Such a system, we argued, needs these key features:

1. Appropriate and equitable resources that ensure opportunities to learn, respond to students' needs, prioritize racial diversity and integration of schools, strengthen school system capacity, and meaningfully support improvement.

2. Multiple measures: Accountability systems should acknowledge that both inputs and relevant outcomes matter, and thus should monitor both appropriate inputs that support academic, social, emotional, physical health, and cultural well-being, along with student and school outcomes (knowledge, skills, and dispositions) that demonstrate college-and career-readiness and civic literacy.

3. Shared Responsibility: Each level of the system--from federal, state, and local governments to districts and schools--should be held accountable for the investments it must make and for the oversight, accountability, data collection, monitoring, and actions it must undertake to produce high-quality learning opportunities for each and every child and to ultimately achieve equity in student outcomes.

4. Professional competence: Systems of preparation and ongoing development should ensure that educators have the time and supports necessary to acquire the knowledge about curriculum, teaching, assessment, linguistic and cultural competence, implicit bias, and student support needed to teach diverse students effectively.

5. Informative assessments for meaningful 21st Century learning: A system of assessments should document both student and school system progress using tools that evaluate deeper-learning skills (e.g., critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and creativity) that are necessary and valuable for today's and tomorrow's world and that represent authentic applications of knowledge.

6. Transparency: School systems should provide useful, publicly accessible, and actionable school system information and data for parents and community members, as well as students and educators.

7. Meaningful and culturally and linguistically responsive parental and family engagement: Schools must create opportunities for meaningful engagement with all parents and families to tap their expertise and gain their input in the teaching and learning process and in decisions associated in the planning and implementation of P-12 system investments.

8. Capacity building: Finally, accountability should be geared towards continuous improvement of school systems. When intervention is necessary, it should be a mechanism for strengthening schools, education professionals, and their communities.

The argument that resources don't matter continues to be disproven by research. Finger pointing between local, state, and federal government leaders about who is responsible for improving and supporting schools isn't a productive one. Voters want results from those they vote into office, including opportunities for students to engage in deeper learning opportunities within their neighborhood public schools.

Now is the time to make a pivot towards accountability strategies at the local, state, and federal level that promote equitable access to 21st century learning and strengthen, rather than weaken, schools so that they can prepare students to be fearless and creative thinkers. We need risk takers who aren't afraid to take that shot on the court, in the courtroom, boardroom, or even the classroom. It's an opportunity we can't afford to miss.

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