Accountability in Education

Published 3.16.2017
Thursdays are the day for considering education in the arena.

Accountability is hard to argue against in education, but implementing it in a reasonable manner is harder than most think. Test scores are a blunt, and I would argue, ultimately limited way to keep schools accountable. As the nation's experience with No Child left Untested (Behind), adopting high stakes testing invokes regrettable actions in schools.

Kids are not widgets, but teachers are employees, who

I don’t have a problem with the idea that state funded colleges should be judged by graduation rates. Institutions that take public money are subject to the rules the donors make. Or they shouldn’t take the money.

At least 33 states now use performance-based funding, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, meaning they divvy up appropriations in part by looking at outcomes that might include graduation rates, debt loads or graduates in high-demand fields like engineering. Funds tied to such outcomes range from a few percent in Washington state to nearly the entire pool in Tennessee.

Historically, states have doled out funds based on enrollment figures, or reissued dollars just by looking at the prior year’s allotment—which some call the inertia model. Now, the focus is on getting students to graduate and land jobs, not just getting them into school.

There needs to be safeguards to prevent cherry picking better (which really translates into richer) students, but it's hard to argue that the source of the funding (the state) should have no right to judge how well that money is being used.

Principals are important, but the most important change was this:

Jones’s first priority when he arrived at Kenwood was academics. The school buys almost no outside curriculum guides, instead letting teachers write their own. Using methods developed by the University of Chicago, the school also tries to help students almost as soon as they fall off the track to graduation. Last year, 94 percent of freshmen ended the year on track, up from 70 percent in 2011.

I added the bolding but that, IMHSO is salient feature. Stop handing teaches a script to follow, let them teach. If Betsy DeVos would come out and advocate that for all schools, I’d be a supporter. All schools includes public, charter or private.

I watched in the Florida elementary school my kids then attended as teaches were forced to adopt new, administration (meaning the principal) mandated curriculum designed to teach to the newly adopted assessment test. It was an unmitigated disaster, both for the teachers who hated using it and kids who were forced to endure it. What had been a vibrant school became a facility bent on maximizing test scores, a transformation that figured in our decision to begin homeschooling my youngest.

Accounting for DeVos

Rolling Stone profiles the new US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. DeVos is a conservative Christian who has not been shy about opening her wallet to support causes. She is also a strong supporter of school choices and voucher systems. She married into the Amway fortune.My exposure to Amway is limited. I was actually recruited once to join, but I didn’t like the idea of having to use friends and family as business associates (which is how multi-level marketing works). I also was extremely unimpressed with the products being pushed. All in all, I found the whole experience distasteful. Your mileage may vary.

DeVos’s efforts to change schools are described as “stealth” and perhaps that’s how they began, but once those stealth methods started having success— opponents have none but themselves for not paying attention. Conservatives who get on school boards can be and have been defeated in subsequent elections, but isn’t that how it’s supposed to work? Now, if the candidates are elected by hiding their true thoughts that’s one thing, but DeVos is upfront with her beliefs. That those beliefs offend some is beside the point. Answer her (their) arguments and make a better case. I also don’t think it’s all that nefarious to want to convince people one to one to get involved as opposed to doing everything publicly in a huge way. Is it transparent? No, but they were private individuals. Now that she’s in government, the rules are different and transparency should be demanded.

The problem for the left is that parents like the idea of school choice. I think parents also like the idea of public schools, but it’s no secret that some public schools are in terrible shape or do a terrible job. The inability to confront this reality in poorer neighborhoods is part of the problem. Another part of the problem is allowed charters to deny access to difficult cases.

The downside of this, as became clear in public-school systems across the country, is charter schools and voucher programs entice parents with the promise of more "options," while weeding out the children that neither charters nor private schools have the capacity to educate. Many parents have opted for "choice," only to be turned away. This is particularly acute with regard to kids with behavioral issues like attention-deficit disorder. "The words are 'Your child may be better served elsewhere,' " says one Michigan legislator.

As a result, public schools become dumping grounds for the most challenging cases. "Public schools have to educate them," says Charles Hekman, a teacher in the Grand Rapids school system. "So we're left with schools that have just so many needy children." He tells me of entire classrooms full of kids struggling with various issues, one of the most significant being poverty, which is where "partnering" with churches comes in. "One church bought every child at my school a winter coat, a hat and gloves," he says. "Now, I am an atheist. I don't think the churches belong in the schools." At the same time, he admits, "We can't educate kids that are starving or don't have clothes."

This is the reason Senator Tim Kaine’s question during her confirmation was more important (though less controversial) than Senator Al Franken’s. I can support school choice— so long as all options have to play be the same rules. I’d include homeschooling families in that as well— IF they take federal money. If you’re using my tax dollars to fund your operation, than you should be subject to the same rules and regulations as public schools.

The Atlantic also profiled DeVos and covers much of the same territory, but without the apocalyptic tones of Rolling Stone. People of all political persuasions in Michigan don’t recognize the caricature of DeVos that has been created.

Granted she did herself no favors in her confirmation by seeming clueless on too many issues, but most of the opposition can be boiled down too, this was a democratic electoral bloodbath, and huge changes are going to occur. Not just in education, of course, but education is the focus here.

Of course, the DeVos’s have bought themselves the respect they have in Michigan from both sides by spending liberally in the community, and not just on schools.

Here in Grand Rapids, DeVos focused much of her attention on the Potter’s House, an ethnically diverse K-12 Christian school, where DeVos and her husband have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless volunteer hours. About five miles southwest of downtown Grand Rapids in a suburb that has seen an increase in Latino residents in the last couple of decades, the high-school building is nestled between a quiet neighborhood of modest houses on one side and a busy avenue dotted with gas stations and appliance shops on the other. The high school’s 200 or so teenagers all have access to Chromebooks and classrooms full of new swiveling chairs and standing desks and good teachers, thanks in part to DeVos.

In its zeal to overturn all things Obama, the Republican Congress nixed the rules to implement last year’s update to the No Child Left Behind Law, known as Every Student Succeeds Act.

The vote was narrow, 50 to 49. To be clear, Congress is not scrapping or even changing the law itself. When it comes to school accountability, ESSA still requires that states flag schools where groups of students are "consistently underperforming." And it requires that the measurement of school performance include not just test scores and graduation rates but also some other indicator of school quality, including absenteeism or access to AP courses.

This change is said to be due to security concerns.

First, the website that provides help to families of students with disabilities went down last month with little explanation. Now, it's the IRS' Data Retrieval Tool. If those words, "Data Retrieval Tool," put you to sleep, it means you're not a high school senior rushing to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

More likely it is incompetence. The site will be down for the duration of the prime time for students to apply for aid. Here are the rules that Congress nixed.


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