It’s such a simple question. We ask it all the time. If I had to guess, I would say that these are now the three little words that wife and I share most often. There is no denying, however, that this innocuous little question becomes quite confounding, perhaps even contentious, when directed toward schools and applied to school accountability.
That was not always the case.
The question “How You Doin’?”, was a favorite greeting of Dave Driscoll, former Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts. In fact, he used it to kick off his address at the opening session of the 2004 CCSSO Large-Scale Assessment Conference in Boston. Massachusetts had just wrapped up the seventh annual administration of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) and the second cohort of seniors were about to receive their diplomas after meeting the MCAS graduation requirement. The content of his address can be summarized best by paraphrasing the lyrics from the Billy Currington song People Are Crazy,
People were mad as hell. But me I’m’ doing well.
Commissioner Driscoll was doing well because schools and students were doing well – as measured by MCAS; and the news would continue to get better.
Although we didn’t know it in June 2004, Massachusetts was about to start a long run at the top of The Nation’s Score Card, er, The Nation’s Report Card and Boston’s professional sports teams were about to strike a duck boat size lode of championship trophies. (Never underestimate the impact on public policy of a region’s sports teams doing well.)
It was a simpler time. Life was good.
Then the requirements and realities of NCLB kicked in.
How You Doin’? Damned If I Know.
We have now spent nearly two decades with the promise of the perfect school accountability model dangling like a carrot just beyond our reach. We ran the gauntlet of AYP, waivers, super subgroups, A-F ratings, CCSS/CCR, value-added ed eval, and fifth indicators. Some thought that our blurry accountability picture was starting to come into focus, revealing a school with solid achievement and growth, good attendance by students and staff, equitable discipline policies, and multiple legitimate pathways to postsecondary success.
Then the plagues of 2020 struck.
It seems now that we may be closer to the beginning of the journey toward the ideal school accountability model than the end. There are no givens. There are no assumptions. Everything we believed about schools and school accountability is open for questioning and debate.
There may not be a single aspect of K-12 schooling on which there is agreement on what should be done, how it should be done, or when, where, and why it should be done – literally, not a single input, outcome, or process. Not one.
Think about that.
That statement is not presented for shock value or as hyperbole.
Sure, there is some agreement on principles viewed from 30,000 ft and on bumper sticker platitudes that have as much chance of being operationalized as a typical latent construct.
But when you start to focus on details?
There is not even agreement on whether the ‘12’ in K-12 should be 12, 14, 16, 10-11 + dual enrollment opportunities, or perhaps tied to competencies and not years at all; or on whether the ‘K’ should be PK or pre-school. And if there is federal funding for universal preschool or universal community college, should either or both be mandatory?
A common core of knowledge and skills on which all students should be proficient? At each grade level? By the end of primary, middle, and secondary school?
A common set of knowledge, skills, and abilities that all teachers should master and demonstrate before being placed in a classroom?
The length of the school day? School year? The starting time for the school day?
School size? Class size?
The interests of students? The interests of society?
The role of the federal government? The rights of parents?
How You Doin’? Damned If I Know.
How Do I Find a Way to End This Post? Damned If I Know.
I am a big fan of questioning assumptions and questioning authority – just ask anyone I ever worked for.
And I am highly skeptical that a K-12 public education system and infrastructure built in the last century to do a couple of things really well can be fixed by making some additions, even much-needed additions, to either end or by tinkering with the parts in the middle. Systems don’t work that way.
But I am also a big fan of program evaluation, particularly when it involves the evaluation of programs receiving multi-million-dollar allocations for the purpose of improving student learning. And at its core, school accountability is, or should be, program evaluation.
We don’t need answers to, or to reach consensus on, all of the issues raised in the previous section to design and implement effective school accountability programs. In fact, well-designed school accountability programs will help us answer some of those questions, will help us determine What Works!, for whom, and under what conditions. Spoiler alert: There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.
We do, however, need to acknowledge that somewhere along the way we made a few wrong turns on school accountability, are now hopelessly lost, and need to ask for directions.
Across my next few posts this month, I will share my thoughts, for all they’re worth, on where and why we made those wrong turns, paths that we might take to get school accountability back on track, and precautions that might be taken in the future to minimize the chance that the same mistakes are repeated as people attempt to build back public education better.