Standards, Testing & Accountability

The Education Trust has a proud and distinguished history. When the group got its start in the mid-1990s, achievement for poor and minority children was lagging, and the education policy community largely ignored their needs. Ed Trust changed all that with a single-minded focus on equity, hitched to the relatively new notion of school-level accountability.

By the late 1990s, achievement for poor, minority, and low-performing students started a meteoric rise, particularly in the states first to embrace accountability; by 2001, Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind act, a law Ed Trust largely designed. And in the early 2000s, achievement continued to climb for the children who had been “left behind,” especially in the late-adopter states. (This history is unpacked skillfully by Mark Schneider in this Fordham Institute report.) Low-income, low-achieving, and minority children are now reading and doing math two to three grade levels higher than they were in the mid-1990s, and Ed Trust deserves a ton of credit for that incredible progress.

But we all know that this progress came with some serious unintended consequences: Teaching to the test, narrowing of the curriculum, and benign neglect for children at the middle and top of the performance spectrum....

The post season edition - October 8, 2014

Philly’s budget woes, NCLB waiver revocations, NYC school grades, and postsecondary education for the disadvantaged.

Amber's Research Minute

"Is It Worth It? Postsecondary Education and Labor Market Outcomes for the Disadvantaged," by Benjamin Backes, Harry J. Holzer, and Erin Dunlop Velez, CALDER (September 2014)

Transcript

Mike:              Hello, this is your host Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Here at The Education Gadfly show, and online at edexcellence.net. Now please join me welcoming my co-host. The Kansas City Royals of education policy, Robert Pondiscio.

Robert:           That could be bad news for us. Do you know why?

Mike:              Why is that?

Robert:           That means this could be a really long podcast.

Mike:              A really long day. I always love going into extra innings, all the time. But they win.

Robert:           They do. We'll try to get this done in nine.

Mike:              They are spunky, I like it. Interesting, the American League, both sweeps. As we do this podcast right now, the National League series each 2-1. That may be different by the time folks listen. What does this mean? It just means in my view that the National League is better.

Robert:           More competitive balance, perhaps?

Mike:              Maybe, that's it.

Robert:           It's hard to root against those Royals.

Mike:              Oh, but I will because I'm rooting for my Cardinals. So Go Cards. It's an exciting time.

                        You know? It's hard Robert, that every year, this time of year, us Cardinals fans have the Cardinals in the playoffs. I mean it's ...

Robert:           Oh yes.

Mike:              I feel bad for the other cities in the country sometimes.

Robert:           It stinks to be you.

Mike:              It's tough.

Robert:           I'm a Mets fan. I feel your pain.

Mike:              What is it that there's the whole meme on the internet about how people hate the St. Louis Cardinals now. What is that?

Robert:          

Robert:           Do you know why? Because the Yankees didn’t make the playoffs. If it weren't for the Yankees, the Cardinals would be the Yankees. They're the second most successful franchise in baseball.

Mike:              Oh my God, but we're not the Yankees. They don’t have the money of the Yankees. They certainly aren't in New York.

Robert:           Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for Microsoft.

Mike:              Exactly. Okay. Let's get started with, "Pardon the Gadfly." Intern Ellen, take it away.

Ellen:              As a way to combat years of budget woes, Philadelphia freed up money this week by cancelling its teacher's contract. Is it fair to blame the state or the teachers for the district's near bankruptcy?

Mike:              This is the school reform commission. This is the commission appointed by what the state, and I believe, the Mayor had a role in this.

Robert:           Back in '98, or some such?

Mike:              It's been around a long time. They basically have said, "Look, we are tired of being on the brink of bankruptcy as we are every year recently. We are going to cancel this teacher contract because it's costing us too much money"

Mike:              "We're going to make teachers do things like pay some of the co-pays and premiums for their health insurance."

Robert:           Right. That's one way to rein in runaway health costs, I guess. I'm not sure this gets them away from the brink of bankruptcy. At least not for very long. It saved, what? 44 or 54 million dollars, I think?

Mike:              Here's the question Robert. The unions want to say that the state has been under funding Philadelphia schools, causing this crisis. You look at the numbers, I think the last numbers I saw was something like $12,000 per pupil. This is not exactly bottom basement spending here. Maybe not as high as some cities, but certainly not the lowest. What's your take on the situation in Philadelphia? Who's right here? Who's fault is it that every year they have a funding crisis?

Robert:           Wow, I'm not really sure. Because this feels to me like legal terra incognito. I'm not aware. Are you? Has this ever been done before? Just unilaterally cancelling a contract?

Mike:              The contract? I was asking a different question. Now they have, I believe they have the authority in the reform law to go ahead and cancel that contract.

Robert:           I'm not sure they do.

Mike:              Well, we'll find out. The bigger question is this, whose fault is it? When you look at the contract, and you look at the situation. Philly, you say, "Okay, they're spending a fair amount of money. Where is the money going?" Well guess what? They have a huge pension problem right?

Robert:           Yep.

Mike:              A huge hole in their pension system, so a huge amount of that money is going to shore up the pensions. Then you also look at the teacher pay, and the teacher benefits. You say for example, "Philadelphia teachers aren't paying much for their health care costs."  It seems reasonable today that "You know what? Like everybody else, you should have to pay some of these premiums."

Robert:           Yes, but they've been negotiating this for quite a while, right? They could not get the teachers to agree to this.

Mike:              Right.

Robert:           This feels to me like a little bit of an exercise in frustration. Maybe bad politics? I'm not sure. You’re point's well taken.

Mike:              You're such a softy. Robert, what are you? Come on! You're going to take the teacher's side on this one? Come on!

Robert:           It's complicated. We're going to say that a lot today, Mike It's complicated.

Mike:              Look, I understand. We want to pay our teachers well. They should have predictable salaries and benefits. We should also not be giving public employees a deal that nobody else gets. Which is basically saying., "We're going to have free health care. We're going to have incentives for you to limit your health care spending." This is a huge issue.

Robert:           I agree, but there's two sets of signatures on that contract.

Mike:              Exactly, and so this one side of this contract is saying, "You know what? We're getting a bad deal. Forget about it. My bad."

Robert:           "We changed our mind."

Mike:              "We changed our mind." Okay, topic number two.

Ellen:              Washington State has lost its NCLB waiver because its legislator refuses to tie teacher evaluations to student scores. Mike, You disagree with waiver revocations, and some are saying that you want to give states a free pass. Is that true?

Mike:              It is not true!

Robert:           Explain yourself Mr. Pachelli, I thought you quoted in the New York Times on this.

Mike:              I did. Look, I think Artie Duncan is way out on a limb here. I would love for Washington State to sue over this. I think they've got quite a case because where in the No Child Left Behind Act, does it say that if you want flexibility from the accountability provisions, you have to adopt a teacher evaluation system?

                        The words teacher evaluation are not in the No Child Left Behind Act. Because back in 2001, nobody was thinking about this. Right?

Robert:           Sure.

Mike:              So Arnie Duncan dreams up this new mandate, attaches it to the waivers. I don’t think there's any legal basis for that whatsoever. I also think it's terrible policy. To have states going thought this process of developing these teacher evaluations because they want to get this federal waiver. Not because they think it's a good idea. It's very predictable, what happens? Many states are doing it poorly.

                        That is causing a backlash to the idea of teacher evaluations. Which the idea is an okay idea. It's also causing a backlash to things like Common Core.

Robert:           Sure.

Mike:              I don’t see what Arnie Duncan is doing here. I think he's totally on the wrong side of this. I don’t want to give states a pass, Robert, or Ellen. They should still have to follow the law in terms of accountability. Arnie Duncan can say how much flexibility they're allowed to have around the accountability provisions of the law. That's fine. He is not allowed to dream up new mandates.

Robert:           Yes, I agree. On the other hand, I shouldn't say on the other hand. This is a little bit bizarre to me that Duncan is saying on the one hand that Washington broke its promise, and has to pay a price. Just a few weeks ago he was saying that the testing is sucking the life out of the room of schools.

Mike:              Yes.

Robert:           So there's very much of a mixed message coming from the administration on this.

Mike:              Robert, it's Orwellian.

Robert:           It kind of is.

Mike:              Here's people  who say, "We are out there saying the old No Child Left Behind system is broken. It's identifying now way too many schools in Washington State as failing." They don’t like the tutoring provisions. They're saying, "But we're going to make you do all of that stuff that we know isn’t working. Is arguably bad for kids. Because a bunch of state politicians wouldn’t do what we wanted them to do. “Talk about "Friendly fire." Explain that to teachers. Explain that to kids.

Robert:           Yes. It feels to me like Duncan is saying, "Look, I don't make the laws. I just enforce the laws." But wait a minute. You do make the laws in this instance.

Mike:              You do make the laws.

Robert:           It's kind of bizarre. What a mess. On the other hand, I feel like we're going to have this ...

Mike:              How many hands do you have?

Robert:           I have a lot of hands today. At least three. Then I'm going to borrow one of Ellen's.

                        I feel like we really need to settle once and for all the role of testing in Ed policy. Because we're just going to have these battles over and over again.

                        This is just another example of this complicated relationship that we have with testing. Does it do what we want? Do we need accountability? Is this the kind of accountability, once you start looking at testing that works for some things, not for others? It just gets so muddy.

                        I just wish once and for all as a field, we could settle out our relationship with testing.

Mike:              I like that pun, "Muddy."

Robert:           We were just talking about Washington State.

Mike:              Oh very good.

Robert:           That's a good one.

Mike:              Okay, topic number three, Ellen. Ellen, who now only has one hand. Very strange.

Robert:           Don’t try to clap with that one.

Mike:              All right.

Ellen:              New York City Schools will no longer receive letter grades after the city moved to a gentler system that's more description, than assessment. Does it matter?

Mike:              So Robert, this is the kinder gentler approach of Carmen Farina and Mayor Bill de Blasio?  Is this okay? Do we care?

Robert:           We do care. But first, let's all join hands and sing a little bit of "Kumbaya", here, shall we? This is another one of those issues ...

Mike:              Why are we singing "Kumbaya?"

Robert:           Well, because we're replacing the hard and fast A through F grades, with a more,   call it what you will, "fuzzy", take on accountability and grading schools.

                        I have a complicated relationship with this, too. On the one hand, I want to spur greater parental involvement in schools, and the A through F grades are very helpful in that regard. It's clear, simple, easy to understand. On the other hand, I did it again. On the other hand, it's reductive, right?

Mike:              You really need to be that Indian God. What's his name?

Robert:           With all the arms. That's exactly right.

Mike:              Or an octopus.

Robert:           New York City, where I live and have taught, has a particularly buisenteen

                        way of evaluating schools. The thing that I've never quite liked, which you could argue is condescending even. Is they evaluate schools compared to their peer group. That makes perfect sense, on the one hand.

                        On the other hand, you could have an A school, that you're basically saying that it's an A school for poor kids.

Mike:              Right.

Robert:           As opposed to an A school on the Upper East Side, or Tribeca.

Mike:              Here's the fundamental confusion, I think. What is the purpose of these school grades?

Robert:           Right.

Mike:              If you're trying to provide feedback to a school so that it can improve itself, then a very comprehensive and somewhat complicated scoring system makes sense.

Robert:           Sure.

Mike:              You want to give them a lot of information back that the teacher's and maybe a parents council can sit around and say, "Okay, what can we do better next year" Very different than something that the typical parent can use.

Robert:           Right.

Mike:              Especially in this situation where they're choosing a school. Neroff Kings  made this point this week about in New Orleans, it's very important to have letter grades because it really is a Choice System. When you put the letter grades out there as a part of the application form, the enrollment form ...

Robert:           It changes behavior.

Mike:              It changes behavior, and parents will gravitate towards the better schools. And that makes sense. Part of this is about, "Look does Carmen Farina believe in a Choice System, or not?" If your assumption is that most kids are going to go to their neighborhood school and the goal then is to give feedback to those schools, so that they can have self-improvement, fine.

                        If you actually want transparency so parents can make choices, you've got to make a system that is transparent. That means having, I think, the letter grade is the most easily understood way, or something that parents can get their head around that basically says, "This school is quite good, and this school sucks."

Robert:           Right. Two things. One, it does end up when you’re looking at schools in affluent neighborhoods, you’re differentiating between good, better, and best. In low income neighborhoods, you're differentiating between bad, worse, and, "Oh my God."

Mike:              No, no. Hold on Robert. Not if you're looking at growth. If you’re looking at proficiency rates, yes.

Robert:           Here we go again.

Mike:              If you're looking at growth, there are some of those poorer schools that are doing great, and can use pro-growth.

Robert:           You know what I always say, "Growth matters most, until it doesn't."

Mike:              Ugh.

Robert:           Until they get out into the real world and they're not interested in how much you've grown. They're interested in how much you know.

Mike:              Well, but if we're judging schools, not individual kids, then growth is what matters. Especially at the elementary level.

Robert:           Fair enough. Let me make one other point, which I don’t think is getting enough play in this A through F thing in New York City. Carmen Farina, in her speech, rolling out the new system talked about what she wanted the system to encourage. She said, "A supportive environment that recognizes that social and emotional growth is as important as academic growth."

                        Like, woe, wait a minute. It's important. Is it as important? That's the problem with this report card. It can start to impose, does this sound familiar? Her values, Bill de Blasio's values on what you look for in schools, and grade them accordingly.

                        If she's looking for, and these are the things she says they're looking for, "Rigorous instruction." Is my definition the same as yours Chancellor? She’s looking for "Collaborative teachers and a culture of trust." Whatever that means.

                        I'm not sure that's what I necessarily what I want. I'm not saying those things are not important. But is that the thing that you're going to keep score by? Color me skeptical.

Mike:              I will color you skeptical. Is that an official crayon color? Can I find it in a box?

Robert:           It's the 65th color.

Mike:              Ah, excellent. Okay, that's all the time we've got for "Pardon the Gadfly". Now it's time for everyone's favorite. "Amber's Research Minute."  Welcome back to the show, Amber.

Amber:           Thank you. Mike.

Mike:              Have you been watching the baseball?

Amber:           Of course. I was at the game Saturday night. I left in the 15th inning.

Mike:              Oh, you're kidding me? You were there?

Amber:           I'm like, "I can’t deal with it anymore." 15th inning, and then we lost. It was nuts.

Mike:              I know. Were you freezing, too?

Amber:           Freezing.

Mike:              Yeah?

Amber:           Freezing, but man it was a great game. But I cannot believe we did not hang on to it. We had that one stinking run for inning after inning, after inning, after inning.

Mike:              Yes.

Amber:           Then, boom, we lost it. It was aggravating. But , we came back, woo-hoo. Good game. 

Mike:              Yes. So Amber, a National's fan. I love it.

Amber:           I am a National's fan.

Mike:              Woo. Okay. Well, what have you got for us this week?

Amber:           I have a new NBER paper called, "Is it worth it? Post-secondary education and labor market outcomes for the disadvantaged." You're going to like this one, Mike.

Mike:              Oh, I do like it. By the way, speaking of being a National's fan. Amber's also an MBER fan.

Amber:           I am. I always kind of gravitate to these things.

Mike:              You need a mascot of some sort. Don’t you think? Let me talk to Carolyn Hotsbie about that.

Amber:           Anyhoo, A List examined outcomes for disadvantaged kids. Post-secondary outcomes, like enrolling, and completing a degree. The Vocational certificate, and salary data after high school for 5 years after the student leaves his last educational institution. It's one of these rare longitudinal studies that we hardly ever get.

                        Al right. They used administrative data in Florida for two cohorts of students who number over 210,000. They graduated between 200 and 2002, so they were able to observe them for ten to twelve years.

Mike:              Wow.

Amber:           Post-secondary and labor market outcomes. Then a ton of data. Secondary, post-secondary school, earning, courses taken in high school, grades they got on those courses, GPA. The college data includes credit earned, major, degree attainment. I mean it was like a major data study.

Mike:              Yes.

Amber:           The control for demographics and prior achievement in high school, which you've got to do that. Two key results. Number one, gaps in secondary school achievement likely accounts for a large portion of the differences in post-secondary attainment and labor market outcomes between disadvantaged kids and those who aren't. Which is kind of ...

Mike:              It is a preparation gap.

Amber:           Yes, that's right.

Mike:              Basically, it kids who are not well prepared for college.

Amber:           Then it carries through. Right.

Mike:              Right, sure.

Amber:           Number two. Earnings for disadvantaged kids are hampered by low completion rates in post-secondary programs. Poor college performance, and not, this is the most interesting part to me. Not selecting high earning fields. Which we've seen this before.

                        Here's the part you're going to like. I'm sorry I'm plucking you! They found that Vocational certificates and Associates Degrees in health, transportation, construction, manufacturing and security, are relatively high paying fields for disadvantaged students. As well as though who score in the bottom half of all high school achievers. Particularly young African American men, who see the greatest compensation in these fields.

Mike:              Interesting.

Amber:           Financial returns in the humanities are relatively low compared to virtually all other fields.

Mike:              Shocking.

Amber:           We've heard this before.

Mike:              Yes.

Amber:           Specifically, those earning Vocational certificates in some of these areas, earn 30% more than high school grads. Those with Associates Degrees, roughly 35-40% more.

                        Finally, analysts recommend that public institutions do a better job partnering with industry. We've heard that awhile. And generating better career pathways, talked about that for a while. And that more high quality apprenticeships be made available for disadvantaged kids.

Mike:              I love it, love it, love it!

Amber:           I thought you would.

Robert:           Yes. How about counseling high school students to look at some of these fields?

Amber:           Yes. That's a [crosstalk 00:16:00].

Mike:              Oh, but Robert? That starts to sounds an awful lot like tracking.

Robert:           Ugh, of course it does.

Mike:              Are you going to start saying we're going to send the poor minority kids into those security fields, and the rich kids get to study the humanities?

Robert:           I don’t know. I'm remembering my father wanting me to take a television repair course, which he talked to me about on my way to college.

Amber:           Wow. Isn’t that something.

Mike:              Yeah.

Robert:           He wanted me to have a skill to fall back on.

Mike:              This is the heart of the issue. Now here you are Robert, well known supportive of Core Knowledge, which is heavy on humanities.

Robert:           Sure.

Mike:              So how do you square this? Are you a believer that all kids should go get that broad, rich, deep, large education K-12?

Robert:           Well sure, because it's not vocational. I mean that really pays benefits with language proficiency. That's one of the great misconceptions about a so-called Liberal Arts education. It doesn’t prepare you to major in Art History. It prepares you to have a big vocabulary, and to work well in whatever field you work in.

Mike:              All right. Would you say then that they need that in K-12, or let's say how about K-8? Then they can start doing something that's explicitly technical, vocational, in high school.

Robert:           Yes, you really want to have the tracking argument, don’t you?

Mike:              Yes I do!

Amber:           You say you're going to do both. Mike, you’re going to say one thing…

Mike:              Exactly. All right, you're going to do both. You've got to start, let's face it, at some point in high school, I think probably 9th or 10th grade.

Robert:           Sure.

Mike:              If you start getting kids on a more technical track, that is okay.

Robert:           I do think it's okay, as long as you're building a good solid common foundation. In K-5, or K-8.

Mike:              There it is.

Amber:           Right.

Amber:           By that age, kids are growing up faster than they used to. By 10th grade, you know doggone well whether you want to go to college or not. You've got some idea of what you’re interested in.

Mike:              Yeah.

Amber:           I don’t think it's completely unfair to start having those conversations with kids.

Robert:           Kids are going to have those thoughts regardless.

Amber:           Yes.

Mike:              Were they able to look at any of the common poverty traps? Like, "The reason that the kids were not completing, is because they have early pregnancy, or incarceration, or substance abuse?"

Amber:           No, they did not. But you know we're going to be looking at that question.

Mike:              I love it. I love it. By the way, these kinds of data that we can link all together is what makes a lot of people very nervous.

Amber:           Very nervous.

Mike:              They didn’t ask the kids, "Do you own or have a gun in the home?" Did they?

Amber:           No, they did not.

Mike:              They did not! Listen to that people. We don’t ask those questions to people. Okay? But it is very helpful to be able to do these studies where we find out ...

Robert:           You’re a brave man Mr. Pachelli.

Mike:              What happens from education to labor market. This is super important.

Robert:           It sure is.

Mike:              I'd also be curious to know about family formation stuff.

Amber:           Yes.

Mike:              Were these kids who ended up getting good jobs, were they then more likely to get married, etc.

Amber:           Yes.

Mike:              This is the kind of stuff that is very powerful.

Amber:           Many more questions to be asking, but yeah, we've got to keep doing these studies.

Robert:           This was a good study.

Mike:              You know what Amber? It was great.

Amber:           NBER.

Mike:              I love NBER almost as much as the Cardinals.

Amber:           I could have done this, or yet another Common Core survey. I mean, come on.

Mike:              Thanks you. All right guys. That’s all the time we've got for this week. Until next week ...

Robert:           I'm Robert Pondiscio.

Mike:  And I'm Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, signing off. 

These days, the words “Massachusetts standards” cause hearts to flutter among some in Ohio. And not without reason. The Bay State had solid pre-Common Core academic-content standards. But less known is how demanding Massachusetts set its performance standards—the cut-score for achieving “proficiency” on its state tests. This bold action bucked the No Child Left Behind trend, whereby many states, including Ohio, set dismal performance standards. (Under NCLB, states were allowed to set their own bar for “proficiency.”) In this new study, we see just how high Massachusetts set its performance standard relative to other states. To rate the “stringency” of state performance standards, Gary Phillips of AIR created a common scale by linking state NAEP results from 2011 to international tests. Looking at fourth-grade math and reading, Massachusetts had the most stringent performance standards in the land. And in eighth grade, Massachusetts tied with a few other states for the most-stringent standards. Meanwhile Ohio’s performance standards were woefully mediocre compared to other states. Importantly, the study also points out that higher performance standards also led to lower state-reported proficiency rates. Massachusetts, for example, reported roughly 40–55 percent proficient in these grades and subjects; in contrast, Ohio reported...

Americans are ambivalent about testing, standards, and accountability in their children’s schools. This is clear from survey results that swing wildly depending on how, exactly, the question is phrased—and on whether the practice in question might inconvenience one’s own kid, as apart from fixing those awful schools across town.

The public shows far greater tolerance for tests whose scores may yield things we crave—admission to the college of one’s choice, for example (SAT, ACT), even advance credit for college work (AP)—than for the kind whose foremost purpose is to rank schools or teachers and give distant officials data by which to fine-tune their policies. Indeed, when it comes to statewide standardized testing of the sort that’s become universal in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era, a great many parents—and a huge fraction of teachers—appear to have had enough. They grump, with some justice, that

  • Too much school time is given over to test prep—and the pressure to lift scores leads to cheating and other unsavory practices.
  • Subjects and accomplishments that aren’t tested—art, creativity, leadership, independent thinking, etc.—are getting squeezed if not discarded.
  • Teachers
  • ...

Call it the Iron Law of Pedagogy: Every good teaching idea becomes a bad idea the moment it hardens into orthodoxy.

The latest example might be “close reading,” which has become yet another hot-button issue among Common Core critics. But complaints about it bother me less than its potential overuse, or the creeping notion that close reading is what all reading instruction should look like under Common Core. That would be bad for the standards, and even worse for reading achievement in the U.S.

Close reading is “an intensive analysis of a piece of text, in order to come to terms with what it says, how it says it, and what it means,” writes literacy expert Tim Shanahan of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Common Core expects students to “read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.”

Sounds simple, benign, even obvious. Would anyone not want students to be able to do this? Close reading for evidence and to support inferences is a...

Though the occasional political firecracker still flares across the night sky, as of mid-2014 it seems likely that most of the forty-six jurisdictions that originally embraced the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will stick with them.

That’s a seismic development for American public education, but whether it produces a 1.0 or an 8.0 on the Richter scale remains to be seen. It depends on (1) the thoroughness of implementation, (2) the selection (and scoring) of assessments, and (3) perhaps most of all, the ways in which results revealed by those assessments affect the lives of real people and their schools.

Today, all three are up for grabs.

The most important thing to know about the Common Core standards is that learning what they say you should learn is supposed to make you ready for both college and career, i.e., for a seamless move from twelfth grade into the freshman year at a standard-issue college, where you will be welcomed into credit-bearing courses that you will be ready to master.

That’s the concept. It’s a really important one and the main justification for the heavy lifting and disruption that these standards...

The Sopranos edition

Common Core reading wars, union endorsements of convicted felons, schools that encourage patriotism, and the health of the charter movement.

Amber's Research Minute

"Examining the Relationship Between Teachers' Instructional Practices and Students' Mathematics Achievement," by Janine M. Firmender, M. Katherine Gavin, and D. Betsy McCoach, Journal of Advanced Academics vol. 25, no. 3 (August 2014).

I’m excited about a recent shift in the reform conversation. After years of focusing on Common Core, common assessments, and teacher evaluation, many of those interested in large-scale K–12 improvements are turning their attention back to state accountability systems.

The Obama administration’s ESEA waiver policy had the potential to spur imaginative state-level thinking. But thanks to a combination of NCLB’s legal strictures, the administration’s fixation on particular policy conditions, and state leaders who just wanted to get out from under AYP ASAP, the new state systems look a whole lot like the old ones. (In fairness, some states have smartly experimented with A–F systems and “super subgroups.”)

Despite this arrested development, I think two important events provide the outlines for a new approach to state-level accountability.

First, under the auspices of CRPE and TBFI, a group of experienced policymakers and thought leaders have penned an “Open Letter on Accountability To State Superintendents and Governors.” It explains and defends K–12 accountability, concedes problems with current systems, and offers eight smart principles for next-generation systems. The group doesn’t get into specifics; instead, it hopes to get people thinking about what’s possible (though within certain guidelines).

This...

Kevin Mahnken

Among opponents of the Common Core, one of the more popular targets of vitriol is the standards’ focus on improving literacy by introducing higher levels of textual complexity into the instructional mix. The move to challenge students with more knotty, grade-level reading material represents a shift away from decades of general adherence to so-called “instructional level theory,” which encourages children to read texts pitched at or slightly above the student’s individual reading level. New York public school principal Carol Burris, an outspoken standards critic and defender of leveled reading, recently published an anti-Common Core missive on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog that was fairly typical of the form. Where, she wondered, “is the research to support: close reading, increased Lexile levels, the use of informational texts, and other questionable practices in the primary grades?”

The blog post, which has already been intelligently critiqued by Ann Whalen at Education Post, expanded on remarks delivered by Burris earlier this month at an Intelligence Squared U.S. debate with Fordham president Michael Petrilli and former assistant secretary of education Carmel Martin. There, too, she demanded evidence of literacy improvements arising...

Every child should be in a school where he or she can learn effectively. That’s not a controversial goal in itself, but the methods meant to accomplish it can become hot buttons. That was the case with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which made the goal a national policy. It’s also becoming the case with the Common Core, under which states commit to educate children to rigorous standards.

Actions taken in pursuit of the goal are controversial because they are inevitably difficult and complicated. There is a lot of work of many kinds to be done: improving teacher training, experimenting with more effective methods, and continuously enhancing learning opportunities for children. Moreover, none of these tasks are enough by themselves. What ties them together is accountability—the use of standards, measures, judgments, and remedies to ensure that students are making significant progress over time and, if some are not, to ensure that they have access to better opportunities.  

Accountability is where the rubber meets the road. And, thanks to NCLB, we have unprecedented data about schools, students, and teachers. We have a sharper focus on students who are failing...

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