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How Accountability Can Help or Hurt Equity

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As the California Assembly continues hearings on a bill to shape the state's accountability system, it might be a good time to fly up to the 30,000-foot level and take the broad view of what the state wants or needs from its education accountability system.

The problem is—and the folks who sponsored this legislation know this—the prior system didn't work.  Narrowly prescribed achievement targets narrowed the curriculum and in the worst cases created test prep factories instead of schools.  Billions of dollars in categorical funds failed to make a big dent in the achievement gap.  If the goal is to increase equity, we need to avoid reproducing the failed system.

Creating Dumber Organizations

There's an organizational reason that the old system failed: it dumbed down schools.  Compliance mandates had the perverse effect of taking noble equity intentions and turning them into the base metal of incoherent schooling.  School finance expert Jacob Adams tells of a superintendent who put colored dots on kids' desks to signal the categories into which a student fell, and thus the services they should receive. "The programs that developed from a kid's point of view were so chopped up and there was no continuity between what developed during a day," he said.  In his edited book Smart Money, he and his colleagues show that when a school has a coherent education plan for all students money yields good results.

Accountability systems work in the same way.  The narrower the accountability system, and the higher the stakes attached to it, the greater the incentive to reverse engineer the standardized tests on which it rests.  The curriculum that the teachers teach teaches what the tests test and in the way the tests test it.  The curriculum becomes less coherent, not just to the students, but to the teachers.

When teachers lose the ability to connect their efforts with what students are achieving, they lose the ability to tailor their instruction to what they see as their students' needs.

Magnify this effect across a school, and one gets a dumb organization.  The people in it fail to learn from their experiences because the structures of schooling don't allow it.  In reality, the school has a learning disability.

Creating an Alternative

California is in the midst of developing an alternative to this failed system.  It discarded its old standards and developed stronger ones and better statewide tests.  In the most radical change in school financing in the last four decades, the state replaced scores of funding silos with a new finance formula that gives additional dollars to economically disadvantaged students, English learners, and foster children and even more to schools where these students are concentrated.  The new finance system was coupled with the Local Control Accountability Plan intended to push districts toward consciously associating its dollars with activities that would help all students achieve and help the targeted students catch up.

It's been generally recognized that the Local Control Accountability Plan mechanism has not created either the level of local innovation that was hoped for or the hard-edged look at how resources were aimed at helping the most vulnerable students, such as English Learners [Californians Together].     

The instinct to view this with alarm is understandable; there's an accountability vacuum in Sacramento.  But likely counterproductive.  Depending on whom you talk to, AB2548, the accountability bill now in the Assembly, will either fulfill the original intent of the legislature in passing the local control finance system or recreate failure.

Easy to Recreate Failure

It will be pretty easy to recreate the old, failed system.  School administrators are risk adverse.  A few lawsuits and a handful of regulations will send them scurrying for safety, readopting scripted teaching, segregating treatments, retreating to a culture that is legally safe and educationally absurd.

But it doesn't have to be.

The old, failed system can be replaced only when there's coherence among three elements of an accountability system: picking some indicators, using them to improve, and specifying consequences of not improving. 

The bill in the legislature—carried by Assembly member Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) and largely written by Education Trust West and Children Now—addresses only one of these: picking key indicators that will be used in a multiple indicator system.  Then, it essentially punts, kicking responsibility for implementation back to the California Department of Education and the State School Board where it always was.

Three Parts of AccountabilityThe problem is not just picking the indicators—that's the easy part—the harder part comes in articulating how data use will help.  In State Superintendent Tom Torlakson's words in the 2.0 version of his Blueprint for Great Schools: "Communicate the shift in California's student assessment system from 'test and judge' to 'assess to improve'."

If indicators in an accountability system don't help schools learn to improve and don't clarify the consequences of not improving, then they can't help the cause of equity.

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