Inclusiveness, Simplicity, Flexibility Are Key to Next-Generation Accountability
One theme that emerged in our discussions on the next generation of school accountability is that tensions inherently arise when developing accountability systems that need to serve multiple interests and stakeholders.
As the sole authorizer of public charter schools in Washington, D.C., the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board has been wrestling with these tensions for years. To be an effective authorizer, we must have accountability systems that work for us, allowing us to identify models of success and schools that need to close. These systems also need to work for school leaders and teachers, giving them enough data to improve their performance every year, and the flexibility to adapt and refine their approaches based on accountability feedback. And they must work for parents, with data that is clear and useful when choosing their child’s school.
Our solution is to use accountability frameworks that involve common, easy-to-understand metrics. School performance is summarized in a single score that drives student improvement and helps families make informed choices.
Since we introduced our first performance frameworks in 2011, average proficiency rates on the state assessment have climbed 5 percent, we’ve closed 12 schools or campuses (10 percent of charter schools), and we’ve seen thousands of students move from our lowest- to our highest-rated charter schools.
Developing our accountability frameworks took time. Furthermore—and this was an important point in the discussions around the accountability principles we signed on to—establishing a workable framework is a job that’s never finished. We continue to tweak the frameworks to meet current needs and prepare for new requirements. Throughout, we stick to three guiding principles:
1. be inclusive
2. keep it simple
3. make it flexible
The single most important factor in developing strong accountability frameworks is to make decisions in partnership with the schools we oversee. We’ve developed an inclusive process that ensures the final outcome is one everyone understands and respects. A typical framework could take two or three years to develop and involve multiple hours of meetings with schools. Once a draft framework is developed, it’s released for public comment and any feedback is addressed.
When done right, this quasi-democratic process does not lead to weak or watered-down accountability. Real rigor and positive outcomes for students guide the entire process. We also make sure respected subject matter experts and data analysts participate in the meetings to ground the discussion in sound analysis.
We believe that by focusing on essential outcomes that are common to all schools, students will improve academically. Therefore, our frameworks are narrow in scope, allowing for creativity in implementation and freedom to add specialty programs. They’re built on the belief that all schools have an obligation to teach students how to read and write and do math, which is fundamental to success in all other subjects, in college, and in most careers.
By not focusing on “how” learning occurs, our frameworks give schools the freedom to explore ways of capturing their students’ attention and motivating them to learn. We leave the teaching and day-to-day decisions to those who do that best: teachers and school-based administrators. And we keep the accountability focused only on student outcomes.
Education is dynamic—new research, new theory, and new assessments may be introduced at any time. Accountability frameworks must be flexible enough to respond to changes. For instance, since we initially introduced our high school framework, we’ve seen many changes in the way graduation and attendance rates are calculated, as well as a new emphasis on career and technical education to accompany our focus on college preparation. Because of the flexibility built into the framework, adapting to the changes was relatively easy, so that earning our highest “Tier 1” rating means the same thing—to teachers, administrators, and parents—each year.
The question of where accountability goes from here is something we’re grappling with right now as we shift to a new state assessment, PARCC. We’re confident that by sticking with our core approaches of inclusiveness, simplicity, and flexibility, along with continuing our commitment to high standards, we can make the transition a success for students, parents, teachers, and school leaders. We also look forward to learning from the discussion ignited by the statement’s principles, sharing what we’ve learned in our accountability practices, and learning from the best work of others.
Scott Pearson is the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, and Naomi Rubin DeVeaux is deputy director. This post is part of a blog series prompted by our recent paper and statement of principles on redesigning school accountability systems.