menu search recent posts
May 29, 2011 standard

As we take time this weekend to remember the sacrifices of the men and women who fought for all of us to have freedom, liberty and brighter futures, it’s important to keep in mind to fulfill their missions in our own lives by pushing for the reform of American public education. And critical to this is to hold our schools accountable for providing high-quality instruction and curricula to every child. Contrary to what some — notably Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli — may think, transparency isn’t enough. Accountability has helped rally families and others to begin the push for overhauling schools and meet the challenge of solving the greatest civil and human right of our time. As Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle points out in this reprint from last year’s Education As A Civil Right collection, we can’t pursue reform without it.

If you believe that education is the most-important civil rights issue of this era, you must also demand that every school and district is held accountable for improving the instruction, curricula and expectations it provides for every child. It is just that simple. After all, the history of American public education is one in which poor and minority children — be they black kids in the Jim Crow South to poor immigrant families whose parents were recent arrivals to this nation’s shores — have been shortchanged of a high-quality education.

Yet the discussion among school reformers and defenders of the status quo these days is not about expanding the level of accountability, but about letting more schools (if not all of them) off the hook for continuing to fail the very kids they are supposed to educate. From President Barack Obama’s blueprint for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act — which would essentially ditch AYP for more-amorphous “college and career readiness” provisions — to incoming House Education and Labor Committee Chairman John Kline’s plans to gut accountability altogether to even the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s supposed “Reform Realism” (a term that is as wonky as it is Kissingeresque), it’s all about talking the talk and not bothering to walk the walk. And the justifications for doing so aren’t worth the reams of paper upon which they are written.

There’s the argument that current accountability measures allow for too much gamesmanship by states and school districts to avoid the spotlight of accountability. But oddly enough, they fail to realize that the gamesmanship has actually helped school reformers shed light on the practices that have led to systemic academic failure and continuous mediocrity. Without AYP, we would not be able to compare state curriculum standards and proficiency cut scores to the National Assessment of Educational Progress or international tests such as TIMSS and PIRLS — and thus have concrete evidence that the education provided to our children overall is, on average, substandard and atrocious. The investigative power that AYP has provided to researchers, reporters and activists cannot be understated.

Then there’s the argument that AYP and other accountability provisions penalize far too many schools, that it labels schools that are supposedly performing well as failing. This point would be valid if not for the fact that they leave one part of the sentence out: That the schools are falling under scrutiny because they are failing to provide high-quality education to poor and minority children (along with those who are labeled special ed and learning disabled). This reality remains as true as ever. Whether it is Montgomery County, Maryland or Carmel, Indiana, there are still far too many suburban schools systems that are comfortable with continuing educational neglect and malpractice.

The argument that AYP ends up miring schools in bureaucratic compliance activity would only be valid if this was not a pre-existing condition of public education. The reality is that, if anything, districts and states have received federal funding for far too long without having to provide an accounting for outcomes.  Whether you are a conservative, a progressive or a small-l libertarian with a social conscious, accountability is what we must require of schools that spend more than $486 billion a year.

All this said, accountability must be more-expansive. It cannot just focus on Title I schools and it must involve more than just test score growth. One step that can be taken is easy to do: Elevate graduation rate data — the ultimate sign of academic success — to the same primary status as test score data and require states and school districts to break down the data by subgroup.

Accountability must also shed light on the various acts of educational malpractice and antiquated rituals that have done little more than assure that millions of children will either drop out or leave school unprepared for success outside of the schoolhouse doors. Evidence has shown that special ed is one of the academic ghettos of American public education. Far too many young men — black, white, Latino and Asian — are being diagnosed with learning disabilities when they really need intensive reading remediation and school environments in which they can thrive. The number of kids being relegated to special ed and spending more than 60 percent of their time outside of regular classrooms — already collected by local, state and federal education agencies — should be part of any AYP measurement.

We also know that alternative high schools are also used by districts as way-stations for students on the way to dropping out. Accountability must include ensuring that the curricula in those schools meet the same high levels of rigor and of high quality that we are demanding of our traditional high schools. The schools within juvenile prisons and jails must also come under scrutiny; at this moment, they are afterthoughts in school reform (when they aren’t forgotten altogether).

Accountability must also include holding teachers, principals and superintendents responsible for laggard student achievement and rewarding them for doing what it takes to foster a culture of genius within their schools. This means publicly releasing value-added evaluations of teacher performance — which is opposed, naturally, by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers — and similar longitudinal data for schools and administrators. If value-added can be used in research, then it should be used in accountability. It also means shutting down dropout factories and academic failure mills, which perpetuate cultures of mediocrity that essentially relegate our poorest kids to shoddy teaching, and providing kids with options — yes, school choice — that allow them to escape systemic academic failure.

Accountability isn’t just a sideshow in reforming American public education, it is the most-critical element of providing the equality of opportunity in education we say every child deserves.

February 21, 2011 standard

As we head into the home stretch of Black History Month, one thing that must be kept in mind is in many ways, the times we live in aren’t that much different from that of James Forten, Richard Allen and Martin Luther King. While blacks and Latinos are no longer blocked by Jim Crow laws, zoned schooling requirements and the unwillingness of defenders of traditional public education to embrace school choice has all but assured that far too many kids will not be able to fulfill their economic and social destinies. It is time for this to change.

Read this reprint of December’s Dropout Nation column, part of the collection of essays on what education as a civil right truly means. Consider what you can do to expand educational opportunity for all kids. And take action.

Asking families and children to put up with mediocre schools  is almost criminal. It is just that simple. Keeping the families of our poor and minority kids shackled to dropout factories and failure mills should most certainly be against the law. When defenders of the status quo say that families should not have a wide array of educational options available — be they traditional districts, public charters, private and parochial schools, or even online learning — they are essentially arguing that there should be no civil right to a high quality education. That argument is absolutely wrong on every moral and intellectual level.

Poor and minority families should not have to wait for these dropout factories to either shut down or be overhauled. Neither should middle-class families or anyone else. What these families deserve is the option to escape. They deserve school choice.

At this moment, for many families (and most-certainly for our poorest kids in urban and rural communities) choice doesn’t really exist. Most traditional districts continue to zone kids to particular schools, restricting their ability to escape low-performing schools. Even in cities such as Houston and Indianapolis that are home to numerous school districts, a child must still attend a zoned school even if a better traditional public option is right across the street from their home. When intra-district choice options — notably magnet schools — do exist, they usually end up being used by middle-class households, who use their strong political connections (and exploit ability tracking systems that serve as the gateways into such schools) to assure seats for their own children.

But it isn’t just about escaping the worst American public  education has to offer. Even in relatively better-performing (if often still mediocre) suburban schools, poor and minority kids are often afterthoughts in instruction and curricula. For them and their middle-class schoolmates, the need for options that better-suit their educational needs is one that most traditional districts just cannot meet.

We know that better options are emerging and some of our poor black, white and Latino families can walk with their feet. High-quality charter schools can improve student achievement, especially for poor and minority students. Are all charters high-quality? Certainly not. But most of the problem lies mostly with how schools are authorized and which agencies or groups handle the authorizing; high-quality charter school laws will lead to high-quality authorizers will foster the development of high-quality schools; low-quality charter school laws (such as those in Missouri), will lead to the converse. Solving those issues is a matter of improving regulations (and moving away from allowing traditional districts from serving as authorizers), not by restricting the growth of charters. Charters should be as plentiful in suburban communities as they increasingly are in our big cities.

School vouchers can help poor students attend private and parochial schools that succeed in improving their achievement. The options are already out there. Catholic diocesan schools have been serving as a way out for poor families for the past century; the average nine-year-old Catholic school student scored 8 percent higher on the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress than his counterpart in a traditional district (and that gap remained constant among middle-school and high school students tested). Is it a perfect solution? No. The biggest problem of choice is providing poor families with the information they need to make high-quality choices. The other problem is that  there aren’t enough of them. The number of Catholic schools in the United States — 42 percent of which are located in big cities — has declined by 12 percent between the 1998-1999 and 2008-2009 school years, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

But as seen in Milwaukee and in Florida, vouchers can help stimulate a market for new school options; more importantly, unlike traditional public schools, failing schools can also be shut down — especially when knowledgeable parents walk away from them with their feet. The solution is to the availability of school data, provide parents with resources for making better choices, and stronger oversight of schools, not restricting the options. (This also holds true for online learning options.)

The reality is that the traditional model of public education — school district bureaucracies, zoned schools and local control — is not only antiquated (if it ever worked at all), it also denies our poor and minority kids equal opportunities for high-quality education. If education is truly a civil right, then there should be no political restrictions on school choice. Wider array of school choices are always better than fewer and none. And opponents of full choice — a group that can sometimes include centrist Democrat school reformers opposed to vouchers — can’t offer strong and convincing arguments to the contrary.

The argument that public funding shouldn’t go to private or religious organizations doesn’t hold water: As the Thomas B. Fordham Institute pointed out in a 2008 report on reviving urban Catholic schools, the federal government already pours $3 billion annually into Catholic Charities alone. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Zelman ruling allows for vouchers. Centrist Democrat and progressive school reformers are more than happy to back charters, which are operated by nonprofit and even for-profit organizations. And billions of federal and state funds flow through our nation’s private universities — the choice options for aspiring collegians.

Nor can opponents appeal to history to continue justifying the restriction of choice. From Blaine amendments to the debate in the early 1960s over President John F. Kennedy’s effort to provide funding from the National Defense Education Act to Catholic and Jewish schools through loans, the opposition to the use of public money for parochial schools has had less to do with any honest objections than to religious bigotry. The old-school goal of immersing kids in a civic religion — be it the old Protestant-dominated version of a century ago or the more political ideology-tinged versions of the modern day — should be abandoned for the more-important goal of making sure children have the tools they need to take advantage of all the opportunities life in the global economy offers.

All this said, choice cannot work without the rest of civic society playing its part. African-American churches such as Floyd Flake’s Allen A.M.E., for example, have played strong roles in fostering charter schools. But they must take on the role long-occupied by the Roman Catholic Church and start their own parochial schools serving the very kids in the community whose souls they shepherd on Sundays. Charter school operators must improve the quality of their own offerings, innovate in training teachers and make parents the true kings and lead decision-makers in education they should be. And it may be time for black and Latino families to conduct their own homeschooling on a mass level, starting schools that serve kids in apartment complexes or even on just one block.

If defenders of the status quo truly want every child to receive a high-quality education, they need to abandon their opposition to school choice. Progressive and centrist Democrat school reformers must get over their squeamishness about vouchers. And we must all accept that choice is part of securing the civil right of high-quality education. There is no reform of American public education — and education cannot be a civil right — without school choice.

December 10, 2010 standard

If education is truly the most-important civil rights issue of this era, it means that black churches must play their part in ensuring that every child in the pews and communities they serve are educated in cultures of geniuses. It is as important for them to step up and embrace school reform as it was for them to combat Jim Crow segregation fifty years ago. For these churches, they can learn this important lesson from another civil rights movement — the effort by Catholics to receive equal treatment in public schools: You must take education into your own hands and start your own schools for the children in your flock.

Catholic schools had existed in this country since the 1600s, when the church started schools in the Spanish colonies (including what is now Florida and California) to indoctrinate American Indian children into Christianity. But by the early 1800s, Catholic education in the English colonies that became the United States took on a different purpose: to providing an education and freedom from religious oppression for the children of parishioners. At the time, most public schools were Protestant-dominated (in this case, a heavy dose of Calvinism at the expense of Unitarianism and other sects)  with students reading from the King James Version of the Old and New Scriptures.

This heavy-handed religiosity intensified by the 1840s as Irish emigres populated urban locales; Protestants, driven by their fear of foreign “papist” influences (and their own bigotry), began adapting the Unitarian-shaped civic religion approach of Horace Mann in order to get Catholics under their thumb. In Philadelphia, for example, Protestants burned down five churches after the diocesan bishop demanded that Catholics be exempted from having to read the King James Bible; in New York State, efforts by Gov. William Seward to provide funding to Catholic schools was met with the kind of bigotry that was otherwise reserved for African Americans of the time.

But Catholic schools didn’t become a widespread until 1852, when the First Plenary Council of Baltimore called for parishes to start diocesan schools in order to provide an alternative to Protestant-dominated public schools. This accelerated in 1859, when Thomas Whall, a Catholic attending the Eliot School in Boston walked out of the school after twice refusing to read the King James Version of the Ten Commandments (and being spanked by the principal after his second refusal); his walkout, along with that of 100 other students, led St. Mary’s Parish to start it own school; other parishes in Boston and elsewhere soon followed.

But for Catholic priests and laymen, it wasn’t enough to just free the kids of parishioners from religious oppression (and ensure that all kids who received communion were educated).  Ensuring that poor kids were educated became as much a part of the Catholic school mission. Catholics began educating black students in 1829 when Mother Mary Lange cofounded the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore; by 1894, this educational mission included teaching black and American Indian children in the West thanks to the work of Saint Katharine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. And in an age in which preparation for factory work  was a critical part of education, Catholic schools began forming industrial schools to prepare kids for productive activity. By 1920, in spite of bigotry-inspired Blaine amendments and general hostility towards Catholicism, diocesan schools had become the primary private schools for America, serving 1.8 million students in 6,551 schools.

Today, Catholic schools continue this mission, with blacks, Latinos, Asians and American Indians making up 26 percent of its students; 14.5 percent of students overall (and often, the majority of kids in big city schools) are not even Catholic  These schools also achieve great results despite the poverty of the students in their care, with the average Catholic 4th-grader scoring 16 points higher on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress than their traditional public school peers; only 18 percent of kids reading Below Basic proficiency versus 34 percent of their public school peers.

But the high cost of maintaining aging Catholic school buildings, along with the costs of hiring laymen to teach students (versus the nuns and priests of decades ago), and the view among some Catholic that the schools have diluted their perceived primary mission of providing a religious education, has led to a decades-long decline in the number of schools. As seen in New York City (where the nation’s largest archdiocese is struggling with budget deficits) and in D.C. (which closed all but four of its inner-city D.C. schools), it is harder for dioceses to continue serving kids who aren’t part of their faithful.

Yet poor, minority, and even middle-class kids still need escape from the worst (and the mediocre) American public education offers. As seen this week in the results from the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (along with results from the NAEP and a dropout crisis that leads to 1.3 million kids dropping out every year), these students need and deserve high-quality education. And while charter schools have begun to fill some of the needs in big cities (and achieve the same levels of student achievement found in Catholic schools), state laws restricting their expansion, along with the opposition of affiliates of the NEA and AFT, frustrate the growth of charters.

Meanwhile one can also say that these kids need more than just academics. At its best, religious instruction provides students with the hope and the moral education they need to avoid falling into poverty and prison. The lessons of self-sacrifice, delayed gratification and the Golden Rule are almost as critical to surviving in life as Algebra and reading.

For black children and their Latino counterparts in big cities and suburbia, black churches could provide the academic and spiritual education they will often not receive in traditional public schools. These  churches already provide food pantries, social services on behalf of government agencies, and provide Sunday School to kids in their flock. And black churches have filled this role before. It was the African Methodist Episcopalian denomination that launched some of the most-prominent Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including Wilberforce University (which my grandmother attended) and Morris Brown. During and after Reconstruction, other black religious leaders founded Morehouse, Clark Atlanta University and Spellman.

Some churches, most-notably Floyd Flake’s Greater Allen Cathedral in the New York City borough of Queens, are already involved in sponsoring charter schools and serving on their boards; others lease their surplus space to charters as part of expanding high-quality school options for kids in their respective communities (along with collecting rent on unused real estate). A few even operate schools of their own. But this isn’t enough. As Catholic parishes did 150 years ago, more black churches must step up to the plate and ensure that the kids of their faithful get the high-quality education they need in order to fulfill their economic and social destinies. It isn’t enough to stand idly by or simply provide mentoring programs to students in local schools. It is as important for black churches, their pastors and their flock to save their kids from the nation’s educational crisis (and keep them off of the ravages of public welfare) as it is for them to save their souls.

It isn’t as if black churches don’t have the money. As one would say, if you want to know about where the money of black people go, start at doors of their local churches. Ninety-percent of charitable giving from African-Americans goes to their local churches, according to the Internal Revenue Service; these churches often buy abandoned properties in the neighborhoods in which they serve in order to spur economic redevelopment. While many black churches aren’t blessed with massive treasuries or megachurch-sized memberships, there are plenty with the means — financial and otherwise — to start their own schools. One-eighth of all black churches have revenues of more than $1 million, or have more than enough means to get into the education game. Even smaller churches can band together and form schools that serve communities within their radius.

The issue is capacity; after all, many black churches struggle to properly manage their operations and use strong financial controls. But even that isn’t difficult to solve. In many black churches, the very people who can help with these capacity issues — including accountants, lawyers and other professionals — already sit in the pews. There are school operators, including Green Dot Public Schools and the Knowledge is Power Program, with whom churches can partner on developing the academic capacity. The emergence of digital learning and other technologies can also allow churches to provide education at a relatively low cost; imagine an Abyssinian Baptist Church providing blended learning in Harlem?

The benefits of black churches starting schools would most-certainly benefit kids. But it also helps the bottom lines (financial and social) of the churches themselves. By saving young minds, the churches keep kids out of prisons and help them become productive citizens who rebuild surrounding communities. The presence of black churches as school operators would also bolster the case for expanding school choice itself. For reformers, this is an opportunity to build the kind of alliances with grassroots leaders that will help sustain reform and end the status quo of mediocrity and educational malpractice in American public education. And for school choice activists and those who support a free market in education, the presence of black churches as school operators also expands the number of choices and players in the market for educational options.

Black churches can no longer play gospel in the sanctuaries while kids drop out into poverty and prison. They must embrace school reform and take the role that Catholic churches have done for so long and for so many.

December 3, 2010 standard

Asking families and children to put up with mediocre schools  is almost criminal. It is just that simple. Keeping the families of our poor and minority kids shackled to dropout factories and failure mills should most certainly be against the law. When defenders of the status quo say that families should not have a wide array of educational options available — be they traditional districts, public charters, private and parochial schools, or even online learning — they are essentially arguing that there should be no civil right to a high quality education. That argument is absolutely wrong on every moral and intellectual level.

Poor and minority families should not have to wait for these dropout factories to either shut down or be overhauled. Neither should middle-class families or anyone else. What these families deserve is the option to escape. They deserve school choice.

At this moment, for many families (and most-certainly for our poorest kids in urban and rural communities) choice doesn’t really exist. Most traditional districts continue to zone kids to particular schools, restricting their ability to escape low-performing schools. Even in cities such as Houston and Indianapolis that are home to numerous school districts, a child must still attend a zoned school even if a better traditional public option is right across the street from their home. When intra-district choice options — notably magnet schools — do exist, they usually end up being used by middle-class households, who use their strong political connections (and exploit ability tracking systems that serve as the gateways into such schools) to assure seats for their own children.

But it isn’t just about escaping the worst American public  education has to offer. Even in relatively better-performing (if often still mediocre) suburban schools, poor and minority kids are often afterthoughts in instruction and curricula. For them and their middle-class schoolmates, the need for options that better-suit their educational needs is one that most traditional districts just cannot meet.

We know that better options are emerging and some of our poor black, white and Latino families can walk with their feet. High-quality charter schools can improve student achievement, especially for poor and minority students. Are all charters high-quality? Certainly not. But most of the problem lies mostly with how schools are authorized and which agencies or groups handle the authorizing; high-quality charter school laws will lead to high-quality authorizers will foster the development of high-quality schools; low-quality charter school laws (such as those in Missouri), will lead to the converse. Solving those issues is a matter of improving regulations (and moving away from allowing traditional districts from serving as authorizers), not by restricting the growth of charters. Charters should be as plentiful in suburban communities as they increasingly are in our big cities.

School vouchers can help poor students attend private and parochial schools that succeed in improving their achievement. The options are already out there. Catholic diocesan schools have been serving as a way out for poor families for the past century; the average nine-year-old Catholic school student scored 8 percent higher on the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress than his counterpart in a traditional district (and that gap remained constant among middle-school and high school students tested). Is it a perfect solution? No. The biggest problem of choice is providing poor families with the information they need to make high-quality choices. The other problem is that  there aren’t enough of them. The number of Catholic schools in the United States — 42 percent of which are located in big cities — has declined by 12 percent between the 1998-1999 and 2008-2009 school years, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

But as seen in Milwaukee and in Florida, vouchers can help stimulate a market for new school options; more importantly, unlike traditional public schools, failing schools can also be shut down — especially when knowledgeable parents walk away from them with their feet. The solution is to the availability of school data, provide parents with resources for making better choices, and stronger oversight of schools, not restricting the options. (This also holds true for online learning options.)

The reality is that the traditional model of public education — school district bureaucracies, zoned schools and local control — is not only antiquated (if it ever worked at all), it also denies our poor and minority kids equal opportunities for high-quality education. If education is truly a civil right, then there should be no political restrictions on school choice. Wider array of school choices are always better than fewer and none. And opponents of full choice — a group that can sometimes include centrist Democrat school reformers opposed to vouchers — can’t offer strong and convincing arguments to the contrary.

The argument that public funding shouldn’t go to private or religious organizations doesn’t hold water: As the Thomas B. Fordham Institute pointed out in a 2008 report on reviving urban Catholic schools, the federal government already pours $3 billion annually into Catholic Charities alone. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Zelman ruling allows for vouchers. Centrist Democrat and progressive school reformers are more than happy to back charters, which are operated by nonprofit and even for-profit organizations. And billions of federal and state funds flow through our nation’s private universities — the choice options for aspiring collegians.

Nor can opponents appeal to history to continue justifying the restriction of choice. From Blaine amendments to the debate in the early 1960s over President John F. Kennedy’s effort to provide funding from the National Defense Education Act to Catholic and Jewish schools through loans, the opposition to the use of public money for parochial schools has had less to do with any honest objections than to religious bigotry. The old-school goal of immersing kids in a civic religion — be it the old Protestant-dominated version of a century ago or the more political ideology-tinged versions of the modern day — should be abandoned for the more-important goal of making sure children have the tools they need to take advantage of all the opportunities life in the global economy offers.

All this said, choice cannot work without the rest of civic society playing its part. African-American churches such as Floyd Flake’s Allen A.M.E., for example, have played strong roles in fostering charter schools. But they must take on the role long-occupied by the Roman Catholic Church and start their own parochial schools serving the very kids in the community whose souls they shepherd on Sundays. Charter school operators must improve the quality of their own offerings, innovate in training teachers and make parents the true kings and lead decision-makers in education they should be. And it may be time for black and Latino families to conduct their own homeschooling on a mass level, starting schools that serve kids in apartment complexes or even on just one block.

If defenders of the status quo truly want every child to receive a high-quality education, they need to abandon their opposition to school choice. Progressive and centrist Democrat school reformers must get over their squeamishness about vouchers. And we must all accept that choice is part of securing the civil right of high-quality education. There is no reform of American public education — and education cannot be a civil right — without school choice.

December 1, 2010 standard

Segregation is no longer the problem. But holding American public education accountable still is.

If you believe that education is the most-important civil rights issue of this era, you must also demand that every school and district is held accountable for improving the instruction, curricula and expectations it provides for every child. It is just that simple. After all, the history of American public education is one in which poor and minority children — be they black kids in the Jim Crow South to poor immigrant families whose parents were recent arrivals to this nation’s shores — have been shortchanged of a high-quality education.

Yet the discussion among school reformers and defenders of the status quo these days is not about expanding the level of accountability, but about letting more schools (if not all of them) off the hook for continuing to fail the very kids they are supposed to educate. From President Barack Obama’s blueprint for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act — which would essentially ditch AYP for more-amorphous “college and career readiness” provisions — to incoming House Education and Labor Committee Chairman John Kline’s plans to gut accountability altogether to even the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s supposed “Reform Realism” (a term that is as wonky as it is Kissingeresque), it’s all about talking the talk and not bothering to walk the walk. And the justifications for doing so aren’t worth the reams of paper upon which they are written.

There’s the argument that current accountability measures allow for too much gamesmanship by states and school districts to avoid the spotlight of accountability. But oddly enough, they fail to realize that the gamesmanship has actually helped school reformers shed light on the practices that have led to systemic academic failure and continuous mediocrity. Without AYP, we would not be able to compare state curriculum standards and proficiency cut scores to the National Assessment of Educational Progress or international tests such as TIMSS and PIRLS — and thus have concrete evidence that the education provided to our children overall is, on average, substandard and atrocious. The investigative power that AYP has provided to researchers, reporters and activists cannot be understated.

Then there’s the argument that AYP and other accountability provisions penalize far too many schools, that it labels schools that are supposedly performing well as failing. This point would be valid if not for the fact that they leave one part of the sentence out: That the schools are falling under scrutiny because they are failing to provide high-quality education to poor and minority children (along with those who are labeled special ed and learning disabled). This reality remains as true as ever. Whether it is Montgomery County, Maryland or Carmel, Indiana, there are still far too many suburban schools systems that are comfortable with continuing educational neglect and malpractice.

The argument that AYP ends up miring schools in bureaucratic compliance activity would only be valid if this was not a pre-existing condition of public education. The reality is that, if anything, districts and states have received federal funding for far too long without having to provide an accounting for outcomes.  Whether you are a conservative, a progressive or a small-l libertarian with a social conscious, accountability is what we must require of schools that spend more than $486 billion a year.

All this said, accountability must be more-expansive. It cannot just focus on Title I schools and it must involve more than just test score growth. One step that can be taken is easy to do: Elevate graduation rate data — the ultimate sign of academic success — to the same primary status as test score data and require states and school districts to break down the data by subgroup.

Accountability must also shed light on the various acts of educational malpractice and antiquated rituals that have done little more than assure that millions of children will either drop out or leave school unprepared for success outside of the schoolhouse doors. Evidence has shown that special ed is one of the academic ghettos of American public education. Far too many young men — black, white, Latino and Asian — are being diagnosed with learning disabilities when they really need intensive reading remediation and school environments in which they can thrive. The number of kids being relegated to special ed and spending more than 60 percent of their time outside of regular classrooms — already collected by local, state and federal education agencies — should be part of any AYP measurement.

We also know that alternative high schools are also used by districts as way-stations for students on the way to dropping out. Accountability must include ensuring that the curricula in those schools meet the same high levels of rigor and of high quality that we are demanding of our traditional high schools. The schools within juvenile prisons and jails must also come under scrutiny; at this moment, they are afterthoughts in school reform (when they aren’t forgotten altogether).

Accountability must also include holding teachers, principals and superintendents responsible for laggard student achievement and rewarding them for doing what it takes to foster a culture of genius within their schools. This means publicly releasing value-added evaluations of teacher performance — which is opposed, naturally, by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers — and similar longitudinal data for schools and administrators. If value-added can be used in research, then it should be used in accountability. It also means shutting down dropout factories and academic failure mills, which perpetuate cultures of mediocrity that essentially relegate our poorest kids to shoddy teaching, and providing kids with options — yes, school choice — that allow them to escape systemic academic failure. On

Accountability isn’t just a sideshow in reforming American public education, it is the most-critical element of providing the equality of opportunity in education we say every child deserves.