Two alums reflect on school accountability
President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a new waiver system in September, the latest attempt to alleviate the burden felt by the 20 percent of schools labeled "failing" under No Child Left Behind, the largest education reform of the decade.
First passed in 2001, NCLB is changing how our nation thinks about school accountability. It's also forcing us to reconsider "how we measure what it means to be a good school," says 2002 Frey Foundation Fellow Alexa Shore (MPP '04), deputy director for the Office of Accountability at the New York City Department of Education.
"The bottom line is we haven't gotten as far as we thought we would get with No Child Left Behind, and now the issue is what to do about it," says Charlie Toulmin (MPP '90), director of policy at the influential Nellie Mae Education Foundation, which promotes student-centered learning approaches in New England schools.
"What to do" is exactly what Toulmin and Shore are attempting to figure out.
When Shore first joined the New York City Department of Education in 2006, the city had already decided that NCLB alone wasn't enough to accurately evaluate the performance of its roughly 1,600 schools and 1 million students. Shore helped reformulate the system to examine not simply the static achievement of students (i.e., standardized test scores) but also to measure the growth students demonstrated during their education.
"[New York City] has a lot of high-achieving schools where students were scoring in the 99th percentile on state tests, but those scores were primarily measuring what students bring to school already, not what schools contribute to students," Shore said. "Then there are some schools that have been doing amazing things but weren't recognized for them because their students were unable to get above some proficiency bar, despite making significant progress."
The results of the new accountability reports stunned school administrators, parents, and community groups. Schools previously considered high-achieving received low marks; schools once deemed failing received A's. Shore called it, "a really big culture shift—a major mind-shift about what it means to be a good school."
Shore is currently focused on reforming teacher and principal evaluations, a topic she says is "exciting and very important." Shore and her department developed a four-point scale that would give teachers more meaningful feedback by providing multiple evaluations during the year. Teachers then have the chance to implement suggestions, rather than receiving an annual grade.
"We used to have a system where teachers were rated either satisfactory or unsatisfactory, and the vast majority of our teachers were rated satisfactory," she said. New York City implemented the new teacher evaluation process in about 110 schools this year on a trial basis, with the potential to go citywide.
Toulmin expects innovative states like New York to drive the nation's education system toward two key goals: setting realistic targets for student achievement and finding ways to properly gauge progress by lower performing schools and students. Reframing school accountability requires "bringing meaning back to the school achievement labels," he says.
Ford School professor Brian Jacob has evaluated the impact of NCLB on student achievement. Read the report and watch Brian talk about his research here: fordschool.umich.edu/nclb.
Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Winter 2012 State & Hill here.