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.