To Whom Are Schools Most Accountable?

By Rebecca Holmes and Elliott Asp  |  June 26, 2018

Writing about the opportunities for innovation in Colorado’s school accountability system has led to a number of fascinating conversations, many of which we never predicted six months ago. As former school and system leaders, we are compelled by the consequences, intended and unintended, that we have experienced firsthand. We are equally compelled by the stories we are hearing from Colorado’s most innovative teachers and leaders about ways that the current system disincentives innovation and displaces continuous improvement. One of the design challenges in school accountability is a lack of consensus about to whom a school is most accountable in a society that believes education to be a necessary public good. The state? Local taxpayers? The district? Kids and their parents?

We can’t help but approach this work at least in part as parents, one of us having completed the navigation of our own kids through public schools and one just beginning that journey. Selecting a school for your own children is daunting, even if you have financial means, an understanding of the system, English as your first language, and all the statistical odds on your side. In writing our final paper in this series, we wanted to give voice to parents who are navigating the education system in Colorado right now and whose kids represent those who have historically been most underserved. We spoke with people many tend to speak for: low-income families, nearly all with English as a second language, whose schools – in many cases – are those our accountability system was most designed to fix. CEI believes in the power of user-centered design for its potential to ground our solutions in empathy and to disrupt a habit in education of assuming we know what others want or need. Here’s what we heard when community organizations throughout Colorado helped us ask parents what most matters to them in a school.

Community and Parent Engagement Matters

Schools may be carrying more burden than ever, but parents want their involvement invited and welcomed. Families seek school communities where they feel authentically welcome and can be active and involved in schools. “I know a community is strong when teachers and parents have relationships and teachers, students, and parents all expect to work together in the school.” Currently, a school can achieve an outstanding rating and pay little or no attention to family and community engagement. This feels deeply dissatisfying to the parents we heard from, who knew that in more affluent and enfranchised communities, schools are held to a different standard. One parent declared “the school is a source of community for the whole family. Hasn’t it always been?”

There is No Substitute for Teacher Beliefs Manifested in Actions

Teachers must truly live the Stockdale Paradox – confronting brutal facts with deep and unwavering optimism about the potential of every child. “My son was told in front of me that a particular assessment would be too challenging to be worth it for him. That is a message I’m not going to stand for.” Similarly, “my child blossomed and grew significantly in her reading level when she had a teacher who believed in her and built her confidence.” Beliefs only mean something when they translate in to actions. High expectations for students are conveyed by what teachers do in classrooms, how students are treated in the school culture, and the interactions between parents and school personnel. Teachers’ actions always convey a message to students and families, regardless of whether they intend to do so.

Data matters to parents but a teacher being only informed by, rather than intimidated or limited by, the snapshot of a single test matters even more. Parents, regardless of their own education or income levels, appreciate the nonlinear and complicated business of human development that takes place in a classroom and are decidedly articulate about ways that education policy has lost sight of this. As Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher remind us in the opening lines of Neuroteach, “Teachers are brain changers.” Our accountability system should incorporate measures of school culture that tap the degree that students and parents believe the staff/school holds high expectations for academic achievement and social-emotional learning for every student.

Parents Value – and Deeply Understand the Limitations of – State Test Data

Parents routinely told us that data and ratings mattered because they expected a school to help their child advance academically. Parents routinely agree, however, that what happens day to day in a school is not sufficiently captured by state test data and that there “must be better measurements of a school.” As a frustrated mom explained, “I want my child to learn and advance toward college and I also believe my child is more than her test score; why wouldn’t I also believe a school is more than its score?” Another parent explained that while they understood that the current school accountability system valued growth, she felt that the growth of all students was not supported by classrooms with wide variation in student performance level. “Teachers end up teaching to the middle,” she said, beginning to articulate one of the most challenging and persistent design elements of a cohort-based, factory model of school.

Families described wanting robust activities and an approach to whole-child development and struggled with these being characterized as trade-offs for higher academic focus or progress. Parents also correlated a low rating with a feeling of emotional instability in a school, something many parents explained as a culture they saw often and were quite worried about. Low-income parents are often described by others as having a baseline desire for “school safety” that we found was often much more sophisticatedly described as emotional safety and consistency, both prerequisites for learning. That same mother named a tension many of us have wrestled with. “The school is rated in a way that closure is supposedly a real possibility. But I know there’s nowhere else for the kids to go and “they” will not displace the kids.”

Acknowledge Who your Community is – and is Becoming

By 2020, 50% of kids in Colorado schools will identify as students of color. Rapid gentrification in our urban centers is leading to significant demographic shifts in schools and districts statewide. It is critical that schools and districts see increasing diversity as an asset and be ready to engage families in a way that leads to equitable access and outcomes. To do so, schools will need leadership at all levels – classroom, school, and district (including elected board members) and they will be need to be ready to engage with empathy and without assumption. Our accountability system should incentivize schools to embrace diversity, acknowledge the assets that every student brings and ensure that all families feel that they are an important part of the school community. Our current system instead helps feed conversations like one we heard last month at a gathering of more affluent parents. “I want my kids to experience diversity and I really do want the school to look more like the world, but if those kids come here, our rating will drop and our school will no longer be allowed to do the things that make it strong.”

What’s Next?

Our primary goal in writing this series of papers was to encourage a state-wide discussion around accountability, leading to the development of a learning agenda that could inform the redesign of Colorado’s system. We are starting to see some momentum building towards that end and hope that pilots will be created within the next year to field test various approaches to accountability. From our conversations with parents, it is clear that some of the most important voices were largely absent when the current system was designed. Parents and students, particularly those most impacted, have much to say about the shortcomings of our accountability system and how it can be improved. With a growing consciousness around user-centered design in education and in policy, we see opportunity to reimagine the system together. Stay tuned this summer for some opportunities to get involved in this conversation alongside CEI and our partners.

Since January, CEI has engaged the education community in an ongoing dialogue about Colorado’s accountability system. We believe there is an exciting opportunity at hand to revisit our priorities and examine the limitations of our current system with an innovator’s mindset. Each month, we have published an EdPaper that takes a deeper look at the subject of school accountability. We invite you to be part of the conversation and share your thoughts with us via email at accountability@coloradoedinitiative.org.

JANUARY EdPaper: The Nature of Accountability is Ready for Change

FEBRUARY EdPaper: S-CAP (Student-Centered Accountability Project) and its Implications for Local Measures

MARCH EdPaper: High School Accountability

APRIL EdPaper: Accountability in a Competency-Based System

JUNE EdPaper: School Accountability learnings and takeaways

We invite you to be part of the dialogue. Email your thoughts to join the conversation!

Download a PDF version of this EdPaper