Could Community Based Accountability Get the Federal Government Out of Our Schools

By Anthony Cody on February 12, 2013 4:55 PM

Schools today are seeing an unprecedented expansion of federally-driven accountability practices. In addition to annual high stakes standardized tests, more and more students now take interim assessments for use in teacher evaluations, mandated by NCLB waivers and Race to the Top grants. Soon we will have beginning of the year as well as spring testing so we can precisely measure growth. Common Core national standards will soon deliver standards-aligned curriculum and tests to thousands of schools across the nation. All of this is driven by the need to «hold teachers and schools accountable» for results.

The dictionary defines «accountable» as «subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible; answerable.» There is a relationship implied here. Whomever is held accountable is obliged to report to someone else, who acts as the judge for the performance. No Child Left Behind has, in effect, empowered the federal government as this judge.

Of course teachers and schools should be responsible for doing their work. But is it necessary or wise to have the federal government restructure our entire education system to allow them to exercise this level of supervision?

In the past, I have shared the ideas of former Nebraska Commissioner of Education Doug Christensen, who speaks of the importance of local initiative, and also Yong Zhao, who has written about what he calls «mass localism

Now, Julian Vasquez Heilig, along with a long list of co-authors, has offered a comprehensive framework he calls Community Based Accountability. Dr. Vasquez Heilig works in Texas, which pioneered the use of high stakes accountability, and was the model for No Child Left Behind. However, as he points out, the state has seen little real growth in student learning from this approach.

Here is what how the Executive Summary describes Community Based Accountability (CBA):

CBA involves a process where superintendents, school boards, school staff, parents, students and community stakeholders create a plan based on set short-term and long-term goals based on their local priorities.

  • CBA strategic plan developed at the local level would serve as alternatives to NCLB’s intense focus on a top-down, one-size-fits-all policy. It would enable local communities to focus on the outcomes that really matter in addition to test scores (i.e. career readiness, college readiness, safety).
  • This new form of accountability would allow for communities to drive a locally based approach that focuses on a set of measures of educational quality for their one-year, five-year, and ten-year goals.
  • State and federal government role would be to calculate baselines, growth, and yearly ratings (Recognized, Low-Performing etc.) for a set of goals that communities selected in a democratic process.

What would this process look like? According to the executive summary,

A lead agency (school board, non-profit, etc.) convened by local elected officials will fulfill the accountability mandate of the community via a democratic process. The process can include:

    • Those leading the community process with standing in the community and are viewed as representative leaders.
    • Infrastructure will be developed to convene members of the community to engage in educational discussions.
    • Those involved have the ability and knowledge necessary to make decisions on educational issues for the community or engage experts when necessary.
    • There is a commitment to bring in whatever resources are needed to fulfill the community’s direction and goals.

Members of the community are engaged in and feel represented by the lead agency and the community process.

There are a number of things that are very appealing about this model.

Each community has its own context and particularities. It is important that there be a process whereby community members get involved and determine the goals and priorities that make sense for their schools.

Schools are an integral part of their communities, and rely on their support and involvement. We need our community leaders, parents and students to share in a sense of responsibility for what happens in our schools. Schools should not bear this responsibility alone. A Community-Based Accountability process could build an understanding of these mutual responsibilities and strengthen our public schools.

Our public schools belong to their communities, not to the federal government. They should be accountable to the people they serve, not distant officials.

I wrote recently about the increasing level of skepticism regarding the Common Core standards from across the political spectrum. Texans have lived with this longer than anyone, and have been among those speaking out the loudest. Perhaps a community-based approach to accountability might be something people of varying points of view might be able to support.

This also relates closely to a set of ideas enunciated recently by California Governor Jerry Brown. Brown states:

The laws that are in fashion demand tightly constrained curricula and reams of accountability data. All the better if it requires quiz-bits of information, regurgitated at regular intervals and stored in vast computers. Performance metrics, of course, are invoked like talismans. Distant authorities crack the whip, demanding quantitative measures and a stark, single number to encapsulate the precise achievement level of every child.

This year, as you consider new education laws, I ask you to consider the principle of Subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is the idea that a central authority should only perform those tasks which cannot be performed at a more immediate or local level. In other words, higher or more remote levels of government, like the state, should render assistance to local school districts, but always respect their primary jurisdiction and the dignity and freedom of teachers and students.

Subsidiarity is offended when distant authorities prescribe in minute detail what is taught, how it is taught and how it is to be measured. I would prefer to trust our teachers who are in the classroom each day, doing the real work – lighting fires in young minds

.Brown has proposed a new funding system that provides additional funds for high poverty schools, and gives districts more control of their spending. More details can be found here.

What do you think? Is the Community Based Accountability model worth exploring?

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

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5 comments

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Score: 0

Michael P Goldenberg

5:43 PM on February 12, 2013

Beats the hell out of what’s generally going on right now. But of course there are questions raised by local accountability (I REALLY prefer the word «responsibility»), not unlike those raised by, well, democracy, particularly in schools and classrooms. The most obvious is: what happens if [local decision makers/teachers/administrators/students, etc.] make «bad» choices?

I’m not going to give my take on that just now, but I’m fairly sure that is a conversation that needs to be had and will be, repeatedly. Whether to any meaningful effect is an open question.

Score: 1

Jack Whelan

11:23 PM on February 12, 2013

@Michael P. Goldenberg–

I think a part of the answer to your question about what happens when locals make bad decisions is pointed to in the speech by Jerry Brown when he references the principle of subsidiarity. It defines a conceptual framework for finding the balance between centralization and localization.

Subsidiarity holds that the bias is always toward allowing people who are most directly affected by policy decisions to make their own decisions–as little top down as possible. This is going to work fine in the great majority of cases, especially in most schools which are doing much better than reformers would have us believe. But when a local school or community is overwhelmed, incapable, or incompetent to handle a particular problem, interventions are made from higher levels of government organization.

An analog is when local Emergency workers are hit by a disaster that overwhelms their capability to deal with it, so they call in the state and perhaps the Feds. That’s common sense. It allows local communities to develop their own procedures, but also to get support when they get into trouble.

This should also be the rule for local communities to set their own education policies. But when local communities are incompetent, or worse, abusive of the rights of some citizens, as southern communities were abusive of the rights of African Americans in the fifties, then you send in the troops as Eisenhower did in Little Rock.

This was not big government overreach; it was simply the higher level of organization intevening to fix a problem that the local community was incapable of solving from within its own resources.

Subsidiarity, if it were understood, would be the primary rationale to reject the absurd government overreach that we have come to know in both NCLB and RttT. I think it’s also the chief rationale to argue against the common core. But subsidiarity would justify interventions by higher levels of government when local school communities have proved themselves to be egregious in their failure to provide for the educational needs of their students.

Whether that intervention is wise and effective or stupid and misguided depends on who does the intervening, but at least it would be limited to those schools that were seriously problematic rather than to entire systems.

Score: 2

Django

12:25 PM on February 13, 2013

Thank you for this. When education reformers push for accountability, I would like to ask them «accountable to whom?». I’m afraid it’s not you and me they’re talking about.

What you’ve outlined here institutionalizes real empowerment by informed parents, engaged in a dialog with their locally elected representatives.

Sadly, when education reformers talk about parent empowerment, what they’re offering is a one-time use of parents to «pull the trigger» on their neighborhood school which actually yields them no power and circumvents local control.

Choice is also couched in terms of empowering parents, but in reality, every parent’s first choice is their neighborhood school and if there were community=based accountability, those schools wouldn’t be allowed to decline in the first place.

Scratch any major player on the ed reform field and you’ll find that they are quietly supporting an end to local control. Some, like Reed Hastings, are quite outspoken about their preference for an appointed board, accountable to those that appoint as opposed to those that the school serves or the taxpayers that fund our schools.

As a parent in California, I’m watching with interest to see how this plays out and how we can support each other in marrying our inherent sense of what we want for our schools with the knowledge we need for effective accountability.

Score: 2

Math Guy

4:02 PM on February 13, 2013

My thoughts are running on a parallel track to Mr. Goldenberg’s. One of the things I’ve learned in life is that if you institute a system, someone will game or rig the system. So what happens when a local accountability board sets the accomplishment bar perilously low (as the state of Mississippi did when setting NCLB proficiency levels). Will that decision be reviewed? Or allowed to stand for lack of oversight? Possibly, in line with Mr. Whelan’s comment, the state or feds would review all decisions for this or other reasons; but then, that kind of negates the whole point of a local accountability board.

I would say it’s definitely an idea worth exploring, but a great deal of thought should go into it before implementation.

Score: 0

Doug1943

11:02 AM on March 2, 2013

I think a problem with this approach is in the last statement: «Members of the community are engaged in and feel represented by the lead agency and the community process.»

What if the parents in the local community are indifferent to their children’s education? What if the local culture is one of indifference or even hostility to education? I think the local culture is a HUGE factor in all of this: if everyone had the culture of the Vietnamese or Koreans or Chinese, we wouldn’t be arguing about education reform.


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