- Cooper shares progressives’ “top-down” view of accountability.
- State tests and standards often fail to provide good measures of success.
- Opportunity Scholarships give parents a more effective way to make schools responsible for results.
In Part I of this two-part series we explained how Gov. Roy Cooper’s opposition to the Opportunity Scholarship Program is rooted in his progressive ideals about accountability. It’s hard to overestimate the imprint of progressives on state government and the public schools in North Carolina. Cooper and other Democratic governors have embraced progressive ideals for decades. Accountability is a large part of those ideals. The progressive view of accountability however is a top-down view that has failed.
All sides of the school reform debate embrace accountability. It’s a necessary value. The question becomes: whose accountability and what form should accountability take? That’s the question we’ll address in Part II.
The economist Thomas Sowell once famously said, “It’s hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.” Unfortunately, that’s exactly how our public schools are run.
When schools fail, do administrators, teachers or school board members lose their jobs? When schools fail there’s much finger-pointing, but little accountability. The people who pay the price for failing schools are not those who make the decisions but students and parents, precisely those individuals who have the most invested in our educational system. Is this accountability? If success has many fathers, the converse has also been proven true – over and over.
To enhance accountability in the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), Cooper has argued that schools that receive OSP funds should take the same tests as the public schools. OSP critics have also suggested that teachers in voucher schools should be certified.
Is this accountability? It’s certainly an attempt to further regulate education.
Requiring OSP schools to have certified teachers and to take state tests is an effort to make private schools look more like public schools. But requiring schools to have certified teachers or take the same tests does not make a school more accountable. It merely limits who can teach at a school and what tests it gives.
Accountability has to do with being responsible for results. Requiring a private school teacher to be state-certified or requiring a school to administer state tests doesn’t have anything to do with being responsible for results. Such thinking is a vestige of the progressive vision of education in which the state controls who teaches, what is taught and how it is evaluated. Implicit in such thinking is the belief that all schools should be the same. If there are differing requirements, something must be wrong.
Our current system of accountability is comprised largely of state tests to make sure students are making academic progress and to identify and weed out failing schools. Such a system is rife with problems for several reasons.
First, the requirements of federal education legislation have forced an undue emphasis on reading and math testing, at the exclusion or other disciplines. In so doing, our emphasis on testing and the accompanying regimen have had the unintended effect of narrowing the curriculum. Talk to any teacher of science or the humanities and they will tell you of how practices and incentives have shifted. As Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow at the Fordham Foundation insightfully points out,
. . .School accountability regimes may be intended to weed out only the “truly dismal” [schools] but they force all schools to demonstrate they aren’t one of those dismal schools. So, they can begin to behave in ways they otherwise wouldn’t – including adopting instructional practices and school culture habits we might not want. … Please don’t blame the teachers or school administrators. They were responding appropriately and sensibly to “societal expectations regarding results. [i]
A second problem with the current test-based accountability system is that it falsely assumes a link between test scores and success later in life. Many education reform initiatives are premised on the belief that excellent scores on math and reading and short-term improvements in these scores are strong predictors of success later in life.
This is, however, a myth Professor Jay Greene has forcefully debunked for the last couple of years. Greene shows that there is surprisingly little evidence linking test scores to outcomes we care about later in life. In fact, Greene goes so far as to suggest that there is a growing body of research that suggests a disconnect between improving test scores and improving later life outcomes. [ii]
These shortcomings argue for different forms of accountability, with different indicators.
Of course, all systems that receive public dollars should be able to demonstrate good stewardship. Fortunately, a variety of accountability mechanisms are already in place.
OSP schools that receive $300,00 or more in funds for the school year are required to conduct an independent audit and a copy must be submitted to the state. If an audit identifies problem areas, the state can withhold funding. In addition, students enrolled in the OSP program must take a standardized test. If a school enrolls 25 or more OSP students, test scores must be reported annually.
In addition, many OSP schools are privately accredited. As such, they are subject to a variety of institutional and academic standards and reporting requirements. OSP schools are also subject to the same safety, discrimination and harassment requirements as traditional public schools.
There are also compelling reasons for moving away from a top-down accountability model and allow OSP schools to adopt broader measures of accountability with regard to academic achievement and progress.
For a start, curricula in many private schools often are different and are often meant to reflect the individual values and priorities of a given institution. It’s a mistake to think private schools should take the same test as public schools. The curriculum is not the same and the validity of testing may be jeopardized. Independent standardized tests can help address questions in these areas and their results should be an acceptable marker.
Anyone familiar with the literature on why students switch schools quickly learns that parents often move students to a different school for reasons other than academics. A school may be a better “fit” for the child. It may provide the opportunity to play sports ; or the parents may feel more aligned with the school’s values. This is to say that parents are often driven by nonacademic factors when choosing a school. These realities point to a very real disconnect between how state government determines educational success and how many parents define it.
For these reasons our accountability systems need to be broadened and localized to update and include these preferences. Parents need other indicators that will capture measures of academic progress. Indicators should measure levels of parental satisfaction, educational success and school effectiveness. Such indicators should also be localized and, most importantly, protect institutional autonomy.
So, does school choice in North Carolina need more accountability? Jason Bedrick of EdChoice.org, has said, “School choice is accountability.” The action of parents moving a child to another school is accountability. It holds schools accountable for their actions. Under the current system, a principal, superintendent, school board member or teacher pays little or no price for a failing school. In fact, in many cases, failing schools are rewarded with additional staff and resources. It’s wrong when those most impacted by the decision do not have the ability to impact an outcome. School choice corrects this shortcoming. It provides the ultimate accountability.[iii]
The measures to expand accountability outlined reflect ambitious efforts. They are motivated out of the need to improve our understanding of true accountability, via the use of multiple measures and indicators. Most of these measures run counter to Cooper’s vision of accountability. But there are compelling reasons for abandoning a top-down system of accountability ; a system that centralizes authority in state government, presumes a solution to every problem; falsely assumes a free flow of perfect knowledge in an expansive state generated bad results and proven to offer little or no accountability at all.
Parents prove on a daily basis that the most effective accountability decisions are local and that voting with your feet can be a powerful weapon.
Roy Cooper’s comments about the need to hold the Opportunity Scholarship Program are rooted in his progressive ideals and an apparatus that exacts no price from those most responsible for failing schools. That fact fuels this discussion. Expanding the metrics of accountability and school quality are positive steps. We owe it to parents, children and our schools to complete the job. .
[i] [i] Unintended Consequences of Test-Based Accountability, Robert Pondiscio, Education Next, February 9, 2017. Article available online at: http://educationnext.org/unintended-consequences-of-test-based-accountability/
[ii] For a more thorough discussion of this topic see: The Weak Predictive Power of Test Scores, Jay Greene, Education Next, May 2, 2016. Available online at: http://educationnext.org/the-weak-predictive-power-of-test-scores/ and Evidence for the Disconnect Between Changing Test Scores and Changing Later Life Outcomes, Jay Greene, Education Next, November 7, 2016. Available online at: http://educationnext.org/evidence-for-the-disconnect-between-changing-test-scores-and-changing-later-life-outcomes/
[iii] School Choice Means Accountability to Parents, Jason Bedrick, op-ed in Austin American-Statesman, August 17,  2016