As I talk, teach, and provide resources related to continuous school improvement, I often find myself spending time unpacking the emotional burden that teachers and leaders carry when it comes to school improvement and its connections to federal school accountability. School accountability is the hottest of topics across the United States as advocates from all sides come together to debate issues related to standardized testing, school quality metrics, and systems of “meaningful differentiation” as it is called in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
My message to these educators is simple: Worry less, improve more!
Accountability is a tough topic, and understandably so. It carries both real and perceived consequences, shapes the community’s opinions of its school system, and has been used by political leaders to denigrate hard-working educators across the country. This post isn’t about advocating one way or another on accountability. As a policy wonk, I am pretty sure that some form of accountability will always be a part of the education system in the United States and I am equally sure that no matter what accountability looks like, a loud and vocal chorus of practitioners will say it is unfair and unpleasant. So, in my view, worrying about accountability outcomes is simply not a good use of time and energy.
I have said before on this blog that I believe that school improvement is for everyone. It is how we make good schools great and great schools even better. We must work to actively detach the efforts of school improvement from the efforts tied to school accountability. Educators and leaders who focus on continuous improvement simply don’t have to worry about accountability outcomes.
If the United States is going to compete in an increasingly global economy, we must prepare students who are always working to improve themselves and the environment and systems that surround them. We can only do that if we intentionally focus on improving the environment and systems that run our schools. Education leaders at every level must worry less about test scores and proficiency benchmarks and instead focus on creating a school where outcomes next year will be better than this year – and nothing else is even close to acceptable.
When school leaders focus too heavily on accountability, they are limiting the potential of their students to succeed. Think about it for a moment. Where does “proficiency” come from? In most states, proficiency is determined when a group of educators (hopefully diverse in both personal and professional experiences) comes together and draws a line; called a cut-score. This is an important process and a process that serves many policy functions – a topic for another post. However, the proficiency score is an arbitrary goal. It’s a political benchmark. It’s not the floor, or the ceiling; it is simply a guidepost to help educators understand where the community thinks kids should be performing at a given time.
In my view, we spend far too much time worried about getting students to proficiency. Our national obsession with this benchmark has caused school systems to focus more on test-taking strategies than on quality instruction. It has driven leaders to punish teachers for innovations that do not immediately yield fruit. It has driven quality teachers out of the profession and into the private sector where their creative spirit is rewarded by big businesses who manipulate the profession into buying their high priced silver bullets that don’t work.
As a political structure, accountability systems are in a constant state of flux. As Presidents, Governors, Legislatures, and Boards of Education change hands and party allegiances, so too do accountability systems. A school or system leader can go mad trying to track the ever evolving systems and adjusting their workflows to meet an ever changing range of targets. As Alice says during her adventures in Wonderland, "I don’t want to go around mad people". There must be a better way.
Educators and leaders who focus on continuous improvement simply don’t have to worry about accountability outcomes. When the system is focused on improving outcomes unit after unit, year after year, the accountability system will take care of itself. Quality teaching is quality teaching regardless of how it is measured. If your kids can do great things, they will be able to demonstrate their greatness whether it is measured by a test, a portfolio, or a performance committee review.
While simply not worrying about accountability is easier said than done, there are those who have already arrived at that end point without knowing it. One common retort centers around the federal government’s insistence that the lowest performing five percent of schools be identified as “low performing” and receive some sort of label and subsequent support for improvement. “There will always be a bottom five percent,” they say, “what happens when all students are above proficiency?”
What an exciting policy problem to have to solve! Imagine a world where every school and every educator is so focused on improvement and greatness that proficiency benchmarks become the floor instead of the goal and our continually improving systems push students to greater and greater outcomes. We can get there! The path towards this future is not led by hand-wringing about accountability, but by leaders committed to nurturing systems of continuous improvement in every school.
So – where do we begin? Here are three suggestions for school leaders seeking to transition their minds from a focus on accountability outcomes towards a focus on continuous improvement.
Stop making excuses for low performance. We must address low student performance with a curious mind. We must ask ourselves what systems, policies, or processes led that student to a point of low performance and design innovative solutions to overcome those barriers. For inspiration, check out the work of William H. Parrett and Kathleen M. Budge and their book “Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools”.
Adopt a continuous improvement planning model. Work with your team to clarify your mission, vision, and values. Then, perform an intensive needs assessment and set both realistic and idealistic goals for the future. Finally, implement established continuous improvement procedures, such as the plan-do-study-act, action research, or 30-60-90 day planning models to design, implement, and monitor your improvement over time. You can learn more about these tools by participating in my free e-course entitled “Tools that Drive Continuous Improvement.”
Improve your research fluency and focus on the implementation of evidence-based practices. While every student is unique, every school is not. The problems of practice you face every day have been faced, and solved, by other schools already. By learning to use research to inform your problem solving you can attack your issues head on and expedite your improvement processes.
I hope that this post has inspired you to think differently about accountability and school improvement. Next time you sit down with your team to reflect on your school’s accountability labels – don’t! Instead, focus on your student outcomes and make a concrete plan to improve them year over year. Stop worrying about what the political structures say about your school and focus instead on high quality teaching, rich learning experiences, and data and research informed decision making. Good luck on your journey friends and let me know how I can help!