Strengthening School and District Accountability
Parents want to know how their schools are performing, and communities demand that we improve our state’s lowest performing schools. Yet our current state accountability system offers confusing information on school performance and schools face few consequences for persistent failure to improve.
Most troubling is the fact that the state’s expectations for progress are far too low. For instance, the High Priority Schools Grant Program, targeted at the lowest 10 percent of all schools statewide, required that schools demonstrate growth of just a single API point each year in exchange for significant funding.
And in 2010, we found that 70 percent of the California schools targeted for federal School Improvement Grants, a turnaround program for the state’s lowest 5 percent of schools, had already received substantial state funds for improvement in the preceding years, but had failed to improve.
California should set clear college and career-ready expectations for our schools, take decisive action when those expectations are not met—especially in the lowest performing schools, and offer tailored supports to all schools needing help reaching their targets.
State leaders should do the following:
1. USE SEVERAL VALID, RELIABLE MEASURES OF SCHOOL PERFORMANCE TIED TO COLLEGE AND CAREER READINESS.
When making accountability determinations, the state should use a mix of valid, reliable measures that parents and community members can easily find and understand. To identify both high-performing and persistently underperforming schools, California should expand its accountability system to include other metrics in addition to absolute student performance. These could include individual student growth rates, graduation rates, and A-G graduation rates. All indicators used to make high-stakes decisions should conform to robust data-quality standards and protocols. The state must therefore have processes for validating all data used to make accountability determinations.
2. SET MORE AMBITIOUS LONG-TERM GOALS AND INTERIM TARGETS.
Goals that are meaningful, challenging, and achievable will guide the work of schools and districts and inspire educators to aim high. State leaders should set goals to increase achievement for all students and close gaps between groups of students. The current statewide goal, 800 on the Academic Performance Index (API), has not been revised since its inception in 1999, and schools can achieve 800 even if a substantial percentage of their students are not at grade level. A more ambitious goal, such as an API of 875, would ensure that more students are achieving proficiency. Further, the state’s current expectations for the annual growth of schools and their student subgroups are far too low. These annual targets should be accelerated.
3. BUILD A DIFFERENTIATED SYSTEM OF REWARDS, SUPPORTS, AND CONSEQUENCES.
California leaders should reward schools and districts that consistently meet or exceed their goals with resources, recognition, and autonomy. As part of this, the state should arrange for others to learn from schools and districts that demonstrate sustained high performance and improvements. Meanwhile, those that struggle to meet their goals should receive differentiated interventions and supports and face meaningful consequences, including complete school redesign, if they consistently fail to improve.
4. SUPPORT DISTRICTS IN SUPPORTING THEIR SCHOOLS.
The state should target school improvement efforts at the lowest performing schools. Yet in most cases, districts can serve as a first-line of support for schools that need extra help in meeting their targets. District leaders, in partnership with the school community, can diagnose and address a school’s unique challenges. However, district administrators cannot make significant improvements if their hands are tied on key personnel or curriculum choices. Therefore, the state should require districts engaged in school improvement efforts to do the following:
a. Let principals in high-need schools staff their sites as they see fit. Specifically, the state should require that such school leaders be allowed to select their staffs, decline forced teacher placements, and protect their staff from layoffs during budget cuts.
b. Give principals leeway to make decisions about curricula, instructional strategies, and the use of time, such as a redesign or extension of the school day or year.
5. AGGRESSIVELY TURN AROUND ITS MOST STRUGGLING SCHOOLS.
For persistently low-performing and slowly improving schools, and their districts, the state must take decisive action, implementing comprehensive, systematic, and effective approaches to school improvement, coupled with strong accountability for meeting aggressive targets. These improvement efforts should start by staffing those schools with strong school leaders empowered to make important staffing and instructional decisions.
Publications on Accountability: