Which school do you want to support?
So far in this chapter we’ve talked about who does what within the system. That’s fine, but who’s in control? What if the system isn’t working well? Who is supposed to notice, and how does it get better?
We enjoy a safe water supply and healthy food in our stores and restaurants because the government regularly monitors their quality. If water or food is tainted, inspectors can command quick action and levy penalties. Inspections are a normal function of government.
Inspections are a normal function of government.
Almost from their beginnings, school systems have grappled for ways to "inspect" schools and hold their leaders accountable. Historically, school accountability officers throughout the British Commonwealth were known as school inspectors. The inspection process was often confrontational, intimidating, and could be inconsistent, as documented in a lovely personal historical account of The Rise and Demise of the Inspector of Schools in Queensland, Australia. School inspection, a mixed exercise in data collection and evaluation, evolved dramatically over a century’s time. Inspectors were often feared: evaluation was personal, and a poor evaluation could cost a school leader or teacher his or her job. Headmasters and teachers usually hoped to be ignored.
The United Kingdom still has a system of school inspections, designed to provide evaluative and constructive feedback about school systems, under the much-studied Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted). The role of inspections in the U.K. has changed a great deal with the advent of standardized tests, but school leaders remain nervous about the potential for a negative evaluation from Ofsted.
There is no national school inspectorate in the United States. Evaluating schools is a responsibility awkwardly shared by the federal government and the states. In California the responsibility is further complicated by the mixed roles of districts, counties, and accreditation authorities.
Before the development of standardized tests, the traditional model of measuring a school was accreditation. An accreditation report, like an inspection, mainly evaluates "inputs" rather than outcomes:
Accreditation is voluntary for schools in California, but about a third of them go through the process. High schools, in particular, seek accreditation in order to ensure that colleges accept their transcripts.
An accreditation report, like an inspection, mainly evaluates "inputs" rather than outcomes. Accreditation is optional.
Since at least the 1960’s, the state has played a central role in setting rules about “inputs” such as the length of the school day or year, the size of classes, and the choice of curriculum materials. Prior to Local Control funding, a “categorical” funding system governed the inputs, requiring that money went toward specific intended uses. These requirements could be inspected. If school officials did not comply with regulations about these inputs they could lose funding.
The adoption of state standards and universal testing, starting in about 1998 in California and accelerated by passage of the No Child Left Behind act in 2001, challenged this input-based model. Rather than holding school districts accountable for the “stuff” they provide to schools, wouldn’t it be better if schools could be accountable for “outcomes” instead, allowing for more flexible use of resources? The main expected outcome was learning, and that could be measured by rising test scores. Schools that fell short of the mark could be identified, and districts or states could take action in the form of interventions.
The shift away from an input model was precipitated by crisis. In 2008, the state budget had about 80 different “categorical” funding streams [PDF] for education, each with its own rules. When the Great Recession arrived, deep cuts were necessary. This created a moment of "useful" crisis. Rather than cut the categorical funds one by one, they were “rolled up” as part of the bittersweet passage of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) in 2013. School districts received a smaller amount of money in total, but at least they had more control over how to use it.
Holding someone "accountable" for results through the threat of a penalty can be useful if it can motivate a better outcome. But what if motivation isn't the issue? For a penalty-based approach to work, those penalized have to know what to do differently. Some prominent education experts, including Michael Fullan and Linda Darling-Hammond, argue that more can be accomplished by focusing on the positive work of building "capacity".
In California, the transition toward a capacity-building approach began in earnest in about 2014, when the state eliminated the Academic Performance Index (API) system for grading school performance. In tandem with the adoption of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), school districts were required to create plans for improvement and explain them publicly through a document known as the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). In 2017 the state rolled out the California School Dashboard to support these local discussions of local results. County offices of education were given the new responsibility of supporting those discussions and identifying what to do when districts need extra help. A new state agency, the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (CCEE), was created to support counties and districts in this work.
The system requires someone to speak up when plans are unequal to the needs. Are you that someone?
This capacity-building emphasis is not without risks. Under the new capacity-building approach, parents and community members bear a historically unusual level of responsibility for acting as whistle-blowers when things aren't going right. For now, at least, no part of the system is unambiguously charged with the job of ensuring that your school is adequate, or that it is investing resources in the students that need the most support. School districts have a lot of discretion about how to respond to problems, including low test scores. You, as an active participant in the school community, are responsible for understanding what is happening and speaking up when something isn’t working as it should.
School districts have a lot of discretion about how to respond to problems, including low test scores.
Clues about problems may lurk between the lines of public documents. The education system produces a steady diet of public reports, most of them rarely read. In addition to the district-level LCAP report, districts are required to develop a School Plan for Student Achievement for every school, often for review by the school's English Learning Advisory Committee. Districts are also to report results at each school, as well as specific information about expenditures, through an annual School Accountability Report Card (SARC). Schools are to make these reports public, but the law doesn't specify how they should do so. No mechanism exists to pull data out of a SARC report to evaluate its presence, completeness or accuracy. You may be able to find your school's current SARC document at SARCOnline.org.
The system requires someone to speak up and ask for action when plans are unequal to the needs. As a reader of Ed100, we hope that you will be one of the people who chooses to read these reports, ask questions and blow whistles when necessary. The next lesson delves more specifically into how the system is designed to provide support in a crisis.
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