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. [PDF] 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, accreditation authorities and a ten-district collaborative organization known as CORE.
Before the development of standardized tests, the traditional model of measuring a school was inspection or accreditation. An accreditation report, like an inspection, mainly evaluates “inputs” rather than outcomes. Does the school have the expected number of teachers? (Check!) Is there evidence that the teachers are prepared? (Check!) Do they have teaching materials that match the standards? (Check!) 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 set rules about “inputs” such as the length of the school day or year, the size of classes, and the choice of curriculum materials. The “categorical” funding system was set up to control the inputs and ensure that money went toward specific intended uses. These requirements could be inspected. If school officials did not comply with state and federal 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 themselves 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 not instantaneous. In 2008, the state budget had about 80 different “categorical” funding streams [PDF] for education, each with its own rules. These categorical funds were “rolled up” during the Great Recession and substantially eliminated with the passage of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) in 2013.
Holding someone "accountable" through the application or threat of a penalty is useful if results in a better outcome. But a vital premise of a penalty-based approach is that those penalized know what to do differently, or can easily learn it. Some prominent education experts, including Michael Fullan and Linda Darling-Hammond, argue that more can be accomplished by focusing on the positive work of capacity-building than by focusing on the negative work of identifying and punishing laggards.
Changes in California's accountability system are likely to take form gradually, as state and federal policies change and grow clearer. A small amount of state funding has been committed in this area, and by late 2016 there may be a new state agency involved in the mix: the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (CCEE). Its intended role has been described as to "advise and assist" districts rather than to hold them accountable.
In addition, the Task Force on Accountability and Continuous Improvement, a team of education leaders from throughout the state, is meant to help the Superintendent of Public Instruction provide recommendations to the State Board of Education and the legislature.
Adoption of the LCFF policy provided school districts with new flexibility in their use of funds, theoretically in exchange for improved accountability for results. But which results should count, and who would respond?
The state’s shift away from categorical funding coincided with its adoption of the Common Core Standards. In order to provide breathing room for school leaders and teachers to become comfortable with the new standards, California discontinued (or at least paused) its use of the Academic Performance Index (API) to grade schools.
County Offices of Education must review district LCAP plans.
The Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) is widely cited as a central element of a new system of school accountability in California. School districts are required to produce these reports annually and submit them to the public with review by the County Office of Education. But the county’s obligations and powers in reviewing and acting on these reports is not spelled out. Unlike health and safety inspections, neither the expectations nor the consequences are clear.
Clearly, California’s accountability system for education is unfinished business. In 2014, the Public Policy Institute of California commissioned Paul Warren, a two-decade veteran of the state’s Legislative Analyst Office, to review the situation and make recommendations. If you are interested in understanding the options for accountability in the education system, his report is essential reading: Designing California’s Next School Accountability Program. Linda Darling Hammond and David Plank argue for a "capacity building" approach, guided by the new CCEE, to continuously improve school quality.
The system requires someone to speak up when plans are unequal to the needs. Are you that someone?
Meanwhile, the unclear state of the school accountability system in California means that parents and community members bear a historically unusual level of responsibility. For now, at least, no part of the system is unambiguously charged with the job of ensuring that your school is adequate. You, as an active participant in the school community, are responsible for understanding what is happening in schools and speaking up when something isn’t working as it should.
The education system produces a steady diet of reports, all of them public and most of them rarely read. In addition to the district-level LCAP report, districts are required to develop a Single 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. Try 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 the LCAP, which seems likely to play a central role in the accountability system as it becomes clearer.
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