Better ways to measure school success are worth a try
May 18, 2016
By: Jay Mathews
It’s hard to like the new, loosey-goosey Every Student Succeeds Act, the latest federal attempt to make schools better. Its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, had problems, too, but at least it did not let our 50 states and the District — a mostly weak-willed bunch — decide how much our children should learn.
Even the American Federation of Teachers, which strongly supports the new act, admits that when they acquire control over “accountability, resources, interventions and teacher evaluation systems” in 2017, “some states will mess up.” Most of them probably will. Setting firm, challenging guidelines for teaching and learning is always politically perilous, as any resulting low scores make the state and its leaders look bad.
But there is no dependable way to instill courage in governors, legislators and state school-board members.
My wife calls me the “Pollyanna From Hell,” and I choose again to be optimistic. The new law has added an intriguing dimension to reporting school results. Each state must have at least one measure of its own choosing that is not tied to academic performance, such as safety, learning climate,or student and teacher engagement.
Those are subjective concepts, and they are vulnerable to states’ insatiable appetite for false positives. Under No Child Left Behind, state school boards often set a low bar for passing exams so that their proficiency rates would be high. Whoever has to assess vague factors such as school climate under the new law will be under pressure to be too kind.
But new measuring devices can inspire good ideas. Education officials in Maryland, Virginia and the District seem eager to try, though they have not gotten too far as they await more federal guidance.
Virginia Education Department spokesman Charles B. Pyle said the state Board of Education is reviewing its accountability system and “is in the process of improving the online report cards Virginia publishes for schools, districts and the state as a whole.”
Maryland Education Department spokesman William Reinhard said the state is looking at all new accountability ideas. “Nothing is off the table at this point,” he said. “We have about a year to make a decision.”
Michelle Lerner, spokewoman for D.C. Public Schools, said her district has several uncommon measures that I think may satisfy the new law, such as student-satisfaction surveys, regular assessment of suspension and expulsion rates, and tracking Advanced Placement and elective course participation to see that students get more than just core classes.
The D.C. Public Charter School Board already uses an unusual performance-management framework to rate its schools, including attendance and re-enrollment rates in all schools as well as the percentage of ninth-graders completing enough credits to be on track to graduate in four years.
I think we should try measuring extracurricular activity, but I distrust the new passion for grit, because almost no one knows how to teach it. Send your favorite ideas for assessing schools to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Which states will be the most creative? That is difficult to predict. Good things happen in very different places. We have states such as Massachusetts, Maryland and California with relatively strong teachers unions that have produced innovative programs and student success in low-income neighborhoods, and states such as Texas, Virginia and Florida with weak teachers unions that have done the same.
It is usually not legislation that produces good schools; rather, it’s teachers and administrators who understand learning and unite to make it happen. They craft intelligent assessment systems, support strong principals and teachers, embrace the power of school teamwork, and open the door for well-motivated charters.
Good schools come from good teaching cultures. They often pop up where they are not expected. I have no idea why, and the research fails to tell me. But the Every Student Succeeds Act’s demand for better ways to measure success is worth a try. Our best educators have ideas that everyone may learn and benefit from.