Giving an Account

Two rock-star educational policy researchers, Mike McShane and Paul DiPerna, have a new report out at EdChoice on the thorny problem of accountability in schools.  They convened two rounds of focus groups, which included four affinity groups within each – practitioners, researchers, engaged outsiders, and policy advocates.

Despite their general dissatisfaction with current practice, the groups’ consensus was hard to distinguish from the status quo.

McShane published a summary of the findings in Forbes, noting:

As part of the event, we ran a simulation where focus group participants played the role of advisors to a fictional Midwestern governor. They were given broad license to design a new accountability system for the state that better addressed the concerns they had with existing school accountability systems.

What struck me about the exercise was how similar these new systems looked to existing ones. Participants wanted to add new data (in the report we highlight the dozens of potential new metrics that participants surfaced) and maybe wanted to tweak how they were used here and there. But if the house of accountability was being redecorated, no walls were coming down. It was new paint and new furniture.

Parents, as they point out in the full study, tend to give less weight to a school’s average test scores than to other factors.

Because they were members of a homeschooling umbrella group, Mom and Dad had access to Stanford Achievement Tests, which were required of all public schools in Florida until 2009.

As they remember it, it was a gray area as to whether they were legally required to do the testing.  But the way they thought about it was simple:  it was their responsibility to provide a good education to their kids.  The tests were simply information that would help them see whether they were on the right track with us or not, whether we had specific areas of weakness or strength to work on.  It was a way to remain above reproach with respect to the county school board, yes, but more importantly, it was a tool in their toolbox.

Stanford 3-27-86

In McShane and DiPerna’s report, they capture the difficulty of defining exactly what we mean by accountability, especially as it pertains to education.  They boil it down to the Merriam-Webster definition: “subject to giving an account, answerable.”

Of course, as they point out, that doesn’t answer the crucial questions of what to give an account of, to whom an account is owed, and by which criteria to judge an account.  They go on to point out that there is serious disagreement in the education reform community over whether it is better to allow parents to be the “deciders” as to a school’s quality via choice, or whether accountability ought to be imposed by experts at the state and national level.

I think the way my parents understood accountability was far more rigorous than could ever have been imposed by human authorities.  They believed that they were accountable to their Creator for the correct education of their kids.  I don’t think it’s necessary to be religious to have an uncompromising belief in this serious responsibility of parenthood, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

My parents opted to have us tested because it was one of the ways they held themselves accountable for our educational progress.  It was not the only one, of course.  Mom looked a our test scores, yes, but she also kept track of the books we were reading (until that eventually became our responsibility), how fast we could do our multiplication tables (it was always a game), and a million other little things that only they would notice.

2nd Grade Books read 1

Homeschooling for them was a year-by-year decision.  Their school was subject to being “closed” if their students were not thriving in all dimensions, not just academic.  I know that it’s easy to say that they were not typical.  But I do really believe that if we trusted more parents with the ability to choose, we’d see many, if not most, rise to the occasion.


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