The Intersection

Looking Forward: School Accountability Under ESSA – Part I

October 4, 2016


“You are going to do enough wrong trying to do right, don’t do wrong on purpose.”

During my first year as a teacher, this assertion was repeated regularly by my charismatic principal in faculty meetings. I loved it for its humility, its focus on the difference between intentions and consequences and its plain-spoken charge to try to do the right thing for the 700 students in our high school.

I thought of this (undeniably true, albeit clunky) axiom from years ago as I was digging into the language and requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) for The Hunt Institute’s newly released publication, School Accountability and the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The logic behind school accountability systems is compelling: measure and report important student outcomes and use the results to reward, sanction and intervene in schools. Be transparent about the performance of students in schools – especially for parents. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) – the predecessor of ESSA – highlighted the unacceptable and persistent opportunity and achievement gaps between low-income and minority students and their wealthier peers. That was a big positive step.

More generally, it’s easy to imagine a coherent accountability system doing a lot of good for students, which probably explains its favored status as an education policy reform. Accountability seems here to stay, in one form or another, and that has the potential to be a real good benefit.

Yet, school accountability systems are very complicated and the consequences of accountability policies have been both positive and negative in important ways. Agreeing on what to measure and how to measure it is difficult. The time we can reasonably devote to testing students in school and the cost of the tests often limit the amount of the information we get from the test results and their usefulness. And the unintended consequences of school accountability have been messy – some of them we might be able to avoid going forward (cheap, low-quality tests not worth focusing instruction on), but some are likely to remain challenging (neglect of non-tested subjects).

One way to think about of school accountability in public education thus far is as a big list of pros and a big list of cons. We’ve done some right. We’ve also done some wrong trying to do right. Both at the federal level and at the state level. And what is absolutely true (noble intentions notwithstanding): we did not achieve the 100 percent proficiency for all students in 2014 that NCLB aspired to. Far from it. The data are grim: poverty and race still predict learning and many students are unprepared for college and career.

Enter ESSA. As the Wall Street Journal put it, ESSA represents, “the largest devolution of federal control to the states in a quarter-century.” What with ESSA and Brexit, I’ve never had so much exposure to the word “devolve.” In short, ESSA replaces NCLB and returns a lot decision-making to the states, and it might be easy to imagine some of the challenges of accountability dissolving now that NCLB is gone and states have more policy control.

But, in my estimation, the accountability requirements for ESSA are more like NCLB than like the pre-NCLB federal policy. Requiring accountability based – in some large part – on test scores is a chief commonality. ESSA opens up the options for a wider set of measures beyond test scores and those will be exciting uncharted waters for states to work in. But student learning outcomes are still central.

Because of this, some of the truly vexing problems of school accountability are likely to persist absent thoughtful strategic action on the part of states in designing their systems. In my next blog, Part II, Legacy and Looking Forward: School Accountability Under ESSA, I’ll discuss a few of the school accountability issues that are likely to remain challenging as well as the issues states will want to consider as they put together their ESSA plans.

Share This