There have been plenty of comments about the report released yesterday by Education Trust on school ratings used by Florida, Kentucky, and Minnesota as part of accountability systems developed as part of the Obama Administration’s No Child waiver gambit. As you would expect, fair weather accountability hawks within the school reform movement such as Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute criticize Education Trust for clearly pointing out once again that these systems — including the A-to-F grading approach used in the Sunshine State — are concealing the failures of schools and districts to address achievement gaps.
From where Petrilli and others sit, Ed Trust is off-target because it is arguing for accountability systems that focus”gap-closing and proficiency rates” — the principle at the heart of No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress provision — that the new regimes replaced. Instead of going back to an accountability approach that was supposedly “demoralizing” teachers and school leaders charged with helping poor and minority kids succeed, Petrilli and others prefer the new approaches, which attempt to focus on the growth schools and districts make in helping our most-vulnerable.
Yet what Petrilli and others fail to admit is the reality that Ed Trust is pointing out in its report: That A-to-F grading and other approaches implemented as part of the Obama Administration’s waiver gambit actually do little to inform families, teachers, school leaders, or policymakers how well districts and schools are helping poor and minority kids, either in terms of proficiency, gap closing or growth. You can’t spur systemic reform if the accountability systems in place are neither transparent nor hold anyone accountable.
Even before Ed Trust issued its latest report, there have been plenty of concern (especially from the civil rights wing of the school reform movement) about the displacement of AYP with new accountability systems. For plenty of legitimate reasons. For one, instead of focusing on how schools addressed achievement gaps and subgroup accountability, the administration allowed states to develop accountability systems that primarily focused on the worst-performing five percent of schools along with an another 10 percent of schools with wide achievement gaps. As a result, states receiving waivers carte blanch to let schools and districts — especially those in suburbia — off the hook for serving up mediocre instruction and curricula to black, Latino, Asian, and poor white children. This was made clear last year in a report released last year by the New America Foundation that showed that 73 percent of 6,058 failure mills in 16 states identified under No Child in 2011-2012 escaped scrutiny under the waiver gambit a year later.
Over the last two years, new questions have been raised about whether the new accountability systems are transparent enough to hold schools and districts accountable. Indiana’s A-to-F grading system came under scrutiny last year after it was revealed that former Supt. Tony Bennett amended grades for 165 schools because the underlying formula couldn’t deal the nontraditional kindergarten to 10th grade format for those schools. Hoosier State officials cleared Bennett of allegations that he changed the grades as a favor to Christel House Academy South, whose founder, Christel De Haan, gave to his unsuccessful re-election campaign. But evidence that the underlying formula behind A-to-F grading was far too complex to implement in the aggressive time frame Bennett had set, along with Bennett’s failure to be candid about the decision, raised questions about the transparency of Indiana’s system, as well as similar systems in Florida and New Mexico.
As I noted yesterday, the effort to eviscerate AYP and No Child Obama Administration (along with plans from House and Senate Republicans, egged on by Petrilli and other Beltway conservative reform types, to do the same) is ditching an approach to accountability that has helped spur reforms from which children have benefited. But as Ed Trust research czar Daria Hall points out along with Natasha Ushomirsky and David Williams, the biggest problem with these post-AYP systems don’t honestly detail how schools and districts are doing in improving student achievement.
One of the problems with the accountability systems is that they obscure school performance in stemming achievement gaps, a key goal of systemic reform. This is a particular problem with A-to-F grading systems. Because of how the systems are structured, a school can be rated an A even if it has done little to stem achievement gaps, or does little better on that front than peers in lower-ranked schools. Hall and other civil rights activists within the reform movement have made this point for the past two years. But she, along with Ushomirsky and Williams illustrate that in the case of Florida,where the proficiency levels for black students in A-ranked schools are, on average, four percentage points lower than for white peers in C-ranked schools.
But the problems aren’t limited to A-to-F grading. Take Minnesota, which uses a three-point scale that features Recognized (or top-performing schools), as well as struggling schools which are either “Continuous Improvement” or “Priority”. As Ushomirsky, Williams, and Hall point, out, the average gap in on-track performance rate for black and white students in Recognized schools is 18 percentage points, a mere two points better than for peers in low-performing schools. Yet because the schools are highly-ranked under the accountability system, few would ever know this unless they dig deep for the data.
Of course, for Petrilli and others, the focus on achievement gaps is a non-issue for them. They argue that the focus should solely be on growth (or progress) schools are making in improving achievement for poor and minority kids. Certainly it should be a component of accountability. But focusing growth only works if the accountability systems adequately account for it. Ed Trust didn’t put much focus on this aspect. But based on what it has turned up so far, it is clear this isn’t happening.
Let’s go back to Florida. Thirty-nine percent of Sunshine State schools rated A in 2013-2014 saw declines in reading proficiency rates for black students from the previous year. Another 45 percent of schools rated B in 2013-2014 experienced year-to-year declines in math proficiency for Latino kids in their care. These are clear signs that schools are failing to improve achievement over time. In short, no growth. Yet families, researchers, and policymakers wouldn’t immediately know this (if at all) because these schools were still given the two highest letter grades. This isn’t shocking: Reformers in Indiana such as Indiana Chamber of Commerce education czar Derek Redelman were equally critical of that state’s A-to-F grading system because of concerns that it didn’t actually measure growth or hold schools and districts accountable for failure on that front.
These are serious problems. Why? One of the underlying reasons why AYP helped spur reforms that have improved student achievement for poor and minority kids is because it exposed how schools and districts failed to focus on helping those very children (as well as held them to account for doing so). The accountability systems that have replaced AYP are obscuring subgroup performance, essentially allowing the adults who work within them off the hook for doing well by the children in their classrooms. Put simply, these new systems are a step back for systemic reform.
Two other decisions made by the Obama Administration in its less-than-infinite wisdom make all this even more troubling. The first? Thanks to the No Child waivers, which exclude all but a few schools from sanctions, highly-rated schools aren’t likely to ever be penalized for widening achievement gaps. Second? The Obama Administration’s decision to allow states to implement supposedly “ambitious” yet “achievable” proficiency targets — usually with lower proficiency rates for poor and minority kids than for middle-class and white counterparts — allow districts and schools to do little to help those kids succeed. Because these Plessy v. Ferguson-like proficiency targets are tied to the accountability systems, low expectations for black, Latino, low-income Asian, and poor white kids are being compounded.
Another reason lies with the fact that these new accountability systems hide crucial data that all players in education decision-making, especially families, need to make smarter choices for their children. After all, a school that is top-performing in general may not be the right fit for particular groups of children, especially young black men who, along with American Indian peers, suffer the most from the nation’s education crisis.
Certainly there is a need for accountability systems to provide comprehensive-yet-simplified data, and A-to-F grading, in particular, attempts to make that a reality. But obscuring a key indicator of performance does no favors for families, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds who need that data the most. Just as importantly, what is the point of focusing accountability on growth if the system used for holding schools and districts accountable essentially don’t account for it?
Meanwhile Petrilli and other critics of the Ed Trust report fail to remember this fact: That policies are clear expectation in action of what we expect for our society. You can easily surmise that these post-AYP accountability systems essentially proclaim that state leaders (along with those such as Petrilli who support their efforts on this front) don’t expect districts to do very much for the black, Latino, and Native kids in their care. You can even say that they don’t even expect much from those kids themselves. And the children and families, in turn, probably shouldn’t expect anyone outside of themselves to be concerned for their futures.
Which makes the lack of concern about stemming achievement gaps on the part of Petrilli and other critics of the Ed Trust report particularly troubling. By being more concerned about how accountability supposedly feels to those working in schools than on the demonstrable benefits to the poor and minority kids who deserve high-quality education, Petrilli and others have failed a key tenet of being school reformers. You cannot proclaim you want to help all kids succeed, and yet essentially argue that those long-mistreated by traditional public education should be left behind. Considering that minority children now make up the majority of enrollment in American public education (especially in suburbia), along with the fact that half of the nation’s fifth graders are either reading Below Basic or just at suboptimal levels of literacy, you cannot blithely declare, as Petrilli does, that stemming achievement gaps is “a terrible principle to embed” in accountability.
Instead of criticizing the Ed Trust report, reformers such as Petrilli (along with state officials and the Obama Administration) should welcome it. They should then go back to the AYP model, then add on growth components that can result in a focus on both stemming achievement gaps and on growth in achievement over time. This can easily be done with a narrow No Child waiver similar to that granted by during the last years of the Bush Administration.
What Ed Trust has demonstrated is that the Obama Administration’s No Child waiver gambit is damaging to children in ways we are just beginning to recognize — and that the opposition of some reformers to AYP is equally counterproductive. It is time for the administration to abandon its misadventure in reckless policymaking, and for all to once again embrace an approach to accountability that actually works for kids.