Fixing School Accountability to Drive Equity

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The systems we have created to judge schools are now one of the prime drivers of increasing inequality.  Anyone who has worked in schools can see this.  Right now we judge schools mostly by the percentage of students who reach a pretty high proficiency bar.  We don’t really measure or value growth.  And we particularly don’t measure it for our most vulnerable populations.

This creates at least a couple of distortions.  First, schools have an incentive to attract existing high achievers and shed low achievers (if they can).  Second as testing time comes around, the most energy goes towards those students on the cusp of proficiency.  So many schools put all their energy into making small gains with students that were almost proficient—while ignoring those students who were far behind and highly unlikely to reach the bar.

In both cases the system itself drives schools towards inequality, to focus on relatively high achievers—while giving up on, or in some cases, pushing out the students with the highest needs.  And indeed in some of the more publicized cases of charter school “creaming”, offenders cited this set of accountability incentives in their emails trying to dismiss students.  That the school leader, “couldn’t turn the school around if these students remained”.

California is revising its accountability system as we speak, and similarly as Oakland finalizes its school performance framework, we need to move away from aggregate proficiency rates, and towards individual growth and particularly growth of our most challenged students.  So far I haven’t seen this individual tracking in CA or Oakland.

And don’t tell me it can’t be done—we did it with 1.1 million students in NYC.  Every student has a unique tracking number and every student’s year to year progress is tracked, and school accountability is based partially on the growth of all students, and also the most challenged kids.  Over 1200 schools, all the district and all the charters are in this system—it is complicated, but obviously doable.

And while not every school is looking steely eyed at the bottom line, as I have described previously, many are, and consider how a less ethical school leader will respond to the different systems.

Where aggregate proficiency is the goal and we don’t pay attention to growth or attrition- I can increase my rates by recruiting high achievers and removing low achievers.  If I have a couple of chronic truants and I discharge them—my truancy rates go down.  The incentive is not necessarily to try to help the most challenged students, but to shunt them off, as someone else’s problem.

If we were looking at individual student growth, and weighed attrition data and emphasized progress among more challenged students, the school would get credit for helping every student progress, for working with more challenged students and for taking the kids that show up at the door, and understanding and serving them.

These are our policy choices, we make them, why not do better going forward?

What do you think?

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