Blog: The Educated Reporter

Rethinking Accountability in the ESSA Era

Lauren Camera (far left) of US News & World Report moderates the ESSA panel discussion in Boston on May 2, 2016. (Jeffrey Solochek for EWA)

When President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act in December, he shifted significant power over educational accountability back to states and school districts.

They still face federal requirements on testing, identifying and assisting the lowest performing schools, and related matters. Money remains the carrot.

But in a pushback against what some have called overly prescriptive mandates on things like school turnarounds, Congress left much of the detail up to the states. That includes the types of tests they use and the many definitions and consequences that go into their accountability models.

And that means work for education journalists.

“It’s an opportunity for states to shape their accountability systems as they would like them to be shaped,” U.S. News & World Report national education reporter Lauren Camera told a packed room at the Education Writers Association’s 69th annual seminar in Boston. “Your to-do list just pretty much exploded.”

With so much unresolved, reporters will have to dig deep, suggested the four panelists who joined Camera, the moderator, for the EWA panel on accountability.

Former U.S. Rep. George Miller, a chief architect of the No Child Left Behind Act, ESSA’s precursor, advised journalists to keep an eye on whether state leaders try to reinvent the wheel. The issue of educational accountability has been around for years, Miller said, and although NCLB outlived its usefulness, some positive strides had been made.

“The only thing I worry about is the states will act like these are all new questions and we have to develop new answers,” said Miller, a Democrat who represented California in the U.S. House for four decades and eventually chaired the education committee. “It will be interesting to see how this pollinates across the states.”

‘Rebalancing’ Roles

Massachusetts education commissioner Mitchell Chester, whose state like many won an NCLB waiver to pursue its own accountability initiatives, said he appreciated the federal government’s “rebalancing” of the federal and state roles in this important area of education.

The new law “allows us to continue to operate that system which we grew in-state without asking for a waiver,” Chester said. “It will be interesting in the next administration to see the degree to which [the U.S. Department of Education] scrutinizes those plans.”

While those accountability plans are being drafted, reporters should keep a close eye on the process to keep state leaders accountable themselves for the effort, said Michael Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a former education official in the George W. Bush administration. Things to watch include:

  • Whether states include academic gains and growth in their formulas for determining school success. “It’s crazy — crazy – to measure school quality on the percentage of kids passing the tests,” Petrilli opined.
  • How states define indicators of student success that aren’t based on testing. Creating them isn’t easy, Petrilli said, because they must be valid, reliable, statewide and open to disaggregation by subgroups. “You’ve got to tread carefully.”
  • What consequences follow if a state’s schools are identified as in the lowest-performing 5 percent, and how federal grant money for these schools is allocated. Miller suggested that Congress did not adequately fund the programs that will be needed.
  • Whether schools with low numbers of English language learners are treated differently than schools with high numbers, when states set rules the performance of this population..
  • Who is involved in the state effort.

Collaboration of all affected groups at the front end is key, said National Education Association vice president Becky Pringle. Teacher and parent organizations long have complained about lacking a real voice in many states’ accountability efforts.

‘A Place at the Table’

“The expectation going forward is that there is a place at the table” for parents, teachers, students and others who are impacted by educational accountability, the union leader said. “Unless we all step up to this responsibility, we’re not going to get the students what they need.”

More people can lead to more wrangling, though. So timing is key.

Pringle urged a deliberate approach to make sure the new systems can accomplish the goal set forth of ensuring an adequate education for all children.

Miller and Chester argued that taking too much time to write new accountability plans is not fair to those children, though.

“The nightmare,” Miller said, “is there’s a child starting here in kindergarten and they’re moving along while we’re talking.”

Pringle countered that rushing can be the enemy of creating good systems.

“We’ve already had 13 years of a disaster,” she said. “Yes, there is a sense of urgency. … But if we do not take the time to do it right … then we will be looking back 12 years from now at this as a failed law, too.”

Once the rules and laws are written, reporters should track how the new information is presented to the public, Miller said.

“The question is, are you going to develop the system and are you going to explain it to parents?” he said. “Are you trying to hide the ball, or show people what you are doing?”

Petrilli told reporters to hold policymakers accountable for transparency, and to help make the issues understandable to the general public by focusing on how the new rules would affect individual schools.

“Be specific,” he said, adding that many advocacy groups will be examining the systems and willingly help reporters who ask.