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State Chiefs Pledge to Continue Focus on Accountability

Charlotte, N.C.

The No Child Left Behind Act identified wide education disparities between white students and students of color, state school chiefs acknowledged at a Council of Chief State School Officers policy forum here Friday. 

But during the legislation's  lifespan, when the federal government rolled out strict mandates for how to turn around underperforming schools and evaluate teachers, those gaps barely closed, they said.  

Now, an ESEA reauthorization that passed a congressional conference panel on Thursday stands to shift a great deal of turnaround and accountability work to state chiefs. The dozens of state schools chiefs in attendance committed to continue that work around equity, the theme of this year's conference.  

"Our members want to be held accountable," said Chris Minnich, the executive director of CCSSO, a non-partisan organization that brings together the state chiefs. At least 40 of the country's state chiefs were in attendance.  "NCLB did a great thing in bringing the data foward. With this flexibility, it's time for states to step up. They're ready to build better accountability systems."

Critics point out that it was the federal government that had to enforce school integration and step in after years of principals suspending students of color at disproportionate rates. Without federal accountability, those problems would only get worse, they say. 

But in interviews, state chiefs said that under NCLB, they weren't able to assist schools with support and funding for initiatives they say are proven to work. 

 "We welcome accountability," said Thomas Bice, the Alabama chief. "We believe in assessment. But one size doesn't fit all. What we need in Alabama may look different than what they need in Montana."

Michael Martirano, the school chief from West Virginia said commissioners have been stuck enforcing federal mandates while trying to pacify legislatures and state board members wanting state control. 

"There's been a lot of tension for state chiefs between what the federal expectations are and what the state legislature and state board wants," he said. 

The framework of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the compromise measure being considered by Congress, would give wide latitude to state chiefs to design teacher evaluations, turnaround models and standards.  

On Wednesday, state chiefs, assisted by colorful graphics and videos from their home states, spoke of what equity meant to them and what data point keeps them up at night. On Thursday, they held a three-hour roundtable where they described best practices, work they would like to expand if they are given more flexibility. 

Hawaii wants to break out subgroups of Asian-American students to more aggressively target lagging groups of students. And Kentucky wants to focus more on fine arts and science. 

On Saturday, John B. King Jr., who's slated to become the acting U.S. Secretary of Education, was scheduled to speak to the group. 

"We built a great accountability structure with the waiver," said Brenda Cassellius, the state superintendent of Minnesota. "I'm bothered when I hear people say that school chiefs won't hold schools accountable. That's not been evident with the waivers. We've done really good work. We've supported our schools and we've held them accountable. I hope America can see that." 


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