Are We Moving to a New Accountability System? Has the “New” Administration Already Begun?

The Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations have been masterful at “controlling the message,” commissioners and deputy mayors rarely stand on a podium, except alongside the mayor. Can you name any commissioners or deputy mayors except for Police Commissioner Kelly or Chancellor Walcott?

Any request to a principal or a department staffer are shunted to the communication folk, any Freedom of Information Act (FOIL) slowly, very slowly perks through the system for months, sometimes a year or more.

It is fascinating that a high ranking official, the # 2 in the Department of Education would post on a widely read blog.

Shael Suransky, is the Chief Academic Officer, runs the day-to-day operation at the department within the confines of the core beliefs of his thrice removed boss, Joel Klein.

The Flypaper blog is part of the Fordham Institute, a right- of-center education policy think tank. Mike Petrilli hosts the blog, exchanges with Debbie Meier on the Education Week “Bridging Differences” blog, Andy Smerick and Kathleen Porter-Macgee on urban school systems and last week Shael Suransky writing on “Next Steps on Accountability.”

After summarizing the current accountability system, characterized by the A – F grading system which results in the closing of schools – creating “winners” and “loser” primarily based on zip code Suransky outlines a pilot accountability project,

I believe it is possible to further strengthen our system by continuing to build on our core principles while addressing the aforementioned challenges. That’s why we are launching a pilot program this school year with a few of our top-performing school support networks and at least one charter-management organization. Similar to the ideas that Mike Petrilli outlined last spring, the pilot is designed to create flexibility for networks to introduce new measures based on their schools’ shared instructional goals that more accurately represent schools’ contributions to student learning and development. These measures will be based on research we’ve been doing over the past year in the following areas:

• Measures of the quality of student classwork (e.g., research papers, extended essays, art, and science projects);

• Measures that are based on other student outcomes, including student course outcomes, especially at the elementary and middle school level;

• Measures that quantify elements of our school Quality Reviews (e.g., the quality of classroom instruction, student engagement, supports for teachers and families); and

• Measures of student academic behaviors and mindsets that are associated with college and career readiness (e.g., persistence, ability to work in teams, effective communication, and organizational skills).

As is our common practice, we’ll test the ideas that emerge through this pilot to see if they should be applied more broadly. At the end of the day, this conversation on accountability is about how well our schools are supporting student learning and—most importantly—understanding how we can help them to do this even better. Similar to the evolution of state standards and assessments, our accountability system needs to grow and evolve as we grapple with the instructional shifts required by the Common Core.

Remember the Autonomy Zone (AZ)? After the department abandoned Regions and moved to Learning Support Organization they created a group of 25 schools in the first year, doubling the second year. The schools had wide latitude in the delivery of instruction. I attended a few AZ professional development sessions run by classroom teachers on topics selected by classroom teachers. Unfortunately the department moved to Children First 3,0, Empowerment, and Children First 4.0, Networks.

Currently 85% of the School Progress Grade in elementary and middle schools are based on growth and performance on state standardized test scores. (See detailed explanation of Progress Report metrics here). The scores in each category are numerical; the schools receive an overall numerical score which the department converts into a letter grade. Typically schools in higher wealth districts (for example District 25/26 in Queens) receive scores of “A” and “B” while schools in high poverty districts (for example District 19/23 in Brooklyn) receive grades of “C,” “D,” and “F.”

Schools that have closed are commonly located in high poverty neighborhoods.

The pilot will begin to explore the behaviors that Paul Tough writes about in “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (2012)” (Review here) and Nobel Prize winner James Heckman examines in detail (Read the Heckman Equation here), i.e., persistence, ability to work in teams, effective communication, and organizational skills.

How the department create these “measures’ is crucial. Up to now “accountability” means results: grades on standardized tests, credit accumulation and regents exam scores. It would appear that the department is moving toward “measuring,” whatever that means, what goes on in the classroom, focusing on actual instruction as well as the non-cognitive outcomes of instruction.

I would hope that the department partners with a research institution; too often in the past every new initiative was “doomed to success,” regardless of the data produced. As an example: rising graduation rates were hailed, and critics assailed the results due to unregulated credit recovery and teachers marking their own student Regents papers, with the most common grade: 65, the minimum passing grade. Both practices have been curtailed. The rising graduation rates, rightly or wrongly, are looked upon with suspicion.

Why would a major new initiative be rolled out on a think tank blog?

Is the department signaling that with the clock ticking on the life span of the Bloomberg/Klein regency they are beginning to nibble away at the “core beliefs”?

Or, maybe the current guys have made a deal with the soon to be new guys to move in a new direction?

Or, as Sigmund Freud may have said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

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3 responses to “Are We Moving to a New Accountability System? Has the “New” Administration Already Begun?

  1. Grading schools on the basis of the grades kids get; yeah that should work about as well as credit accumulation has worked in HS.
    It’s clear that these guys are impervious to learning from experience.

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  2. Marc S. Korashan

    Measurement is by definition the act of reducing something to a number. When we look at metrics, like reading levels, in a rigorous way in psychometric courses it is clear that they are not on an interval scale (think number line) where the distance between any two points is fixed. Just think about the difference in moving from a reading level of 2 to 3 versus moving from 11 to 12. The former is clearly a much bigger leap. Not being equal intervals means that we can’t do basic math, i.e. adding or subtracting grade levels, and get meaningful answers. This is only one of the problems with the growth measures the DOE has been using.

    More importantly, we can’t reduce the multiple complexities of teaching and learning to a number. The old joke is the math problem, “what do you have when you have two apples, three oranges and a pear? (Answer: fruit salad)
    The same can be said for any attempt to reduce the disparate outcomes that Shael wants to measure, reduce to a number, and then average. Again, since it is unlikely these outcomes will be measured using an interval scale, basic arithmetic to get an average will be meaningless.

    These criticisms are not meant to take away from Leonie’s point. In a high stakes environment, the incentive to cheat will always be there and some will do it.

    Until we recognize that a high stakes, competitive, numbers game is antithetical to the goals we are really trying to achieve, we can’t begin to improve education. That improvement happens in individual classrooms as a result of good coaching of teachers and constant experimenting to meet the needs of the individual students in that classroom.

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  3. Does charter-management system mean a charter school?
    If so, the teachers are not unionized; therefore they can not work with UFT teachers, work in a UFT school, or attend any UFT function. So, they will have to become members of the UFT for any so-called collaboration.

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