Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Creating State Accountability Systems That Help Schools Improve: The Learning Process for Every School, like Every Child, Is a Personalized Journey of Continuous Improvement

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Creating State Accountability Systems That Help Schools Improve: The Learning Process for Every School, like Every Child, Is a Personalized Journey of Continuous Improvement

Article excerpt

The nation can establish a system of educational accountability that helps lift the performance of every learner, teacher, leader, and community. But this will only happen if states choose to shed approaches common to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era that created a compliance culture of blame and an inequitable system of winners and losers.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides an unprecedented opportunity for states to create a new framework for accountability that has continuous improvement at its core and local context as its foundation. Unlike NCLB, ESSA focuses more on improvement than punishment. It empowers policy makers to look critically at all aspects of school that influence learning. ESSA requires reporting to the public on outcomes and opportunities to learn for all students, including per-pupil expenditures, access to rigorous coursework, and measures of school climate. The law returns power to the states to determine what accountability should look like. Each state must establish its own statewide accountability system and related school support and improvement activities by the 2017-18 school year. Because ESSA offers states flexibility without imposing set structures, absent deliberate and intentional action, we still could wind up where we began: overemphasizing test scores and choosing indicators based on what is easiest to measure.

This country needs an accountability system that examines all aspects of what schools do, reveals root causes of underperformance, and reflects the relationships between the strategies or actions that are implemented and the results they achieve (or fail to achieve). By developing information systems and feedback structures that identify strengths and weaknesses within schools and districts, states can set the stage not only for identifying what is working but also for changing educator practice where it matters most --at the school and classroom levels. These goals are at the heart of the continuous improvement approach.

Accountability for continuous improvement

Organizational leaders from nearly every sector have been using continuous improvement models and improvement science for years to improve products, services, and processes. These efforts gain power -and greater efficiencies and improved performance--through the ongoing and continuous examination of performance, problem identification, design change, and ongoing review that are all key components of the continuous improvement cycle.

Though continuous improvement processes are not new in education, they are relatively new in the state policy arena. In the past, federal and state requirements drove state-level strategies for improving educational outcomes at the school and system levels centered largely on developing one or more annual "improvement plans" to chart action and investment. Statewide systems of school improvement and support were focused largely on compliance and sanctions based on bald, end-of-year data that provided little evidence of how results were achieved; moreover, they were not useful to school and system leaders charged with making decisions. Plans were typically long documents with a focus on compliance and a goal structure with unrealistically short timelines.

In a continuous improvement system, educators use data, test scores, and outcomes as evidence of performance but not as goals for the system or the main drivers of accountability. That is because the information is not actionable as it does not provide adequate evidence required to make improvements. Moreover, when benchmarks become goals, states can too easily either change the targets or cut scores for success and then declare victory without any meaningful change in the system.

Such a system changes reporting from a compliance activity to a process that enables positive change at a local level. All districts and schools should receive comprehensive feedback, which lets them act on what they learn. …

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