Category Archives: Accountability

Social-Emotional Needs First. Standards and Accountability Later.

Last week we connected with a frustrated school leader who has been valiantly trying to put into place a robust distance learning plan aligned with college readiness standards, all while attending to the mental health and social emotional needs of her students and staff. She shared stories of her high school students going to work to financially support their households, students serving as the primary caregivers to younger siblings, and families navigating housing insecurity and homelessness.

With the sobering reality of these basic needs juxtaposed with the virtual learning mandates coming from her district, feelings of anger, frustration, and hopelessness began to set in:

My kids are dealing with way bigger issues here. Focusing on virtual learning and an instructional plan, without paying attention to the human condition, is just plain wrong.

We know that many teachers have been saying the same thing. Across the country, schools are beginning to come to a shared understanding that pushing academic content at the pre-pandemic pace needs to stop. Instead of focusing so intently on standards and accountability, this moment calls for education leaders to reground in common sense and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow’s theory posits that basic needs must be met in order for individuals to have capacity to engage in deep cognitive thought and learning. 

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

We would be remiss not to acknowledge efforts by schools to address food insecurity. But at the same time, we see numerous examples of school systems who desperately continue trying to meet grade level expectations and standards in English Language Arts, Math, and Science at the expense of attending to the social-emotional health and well-being of students.

Many teachers and parents are in a hamster wheel of anxiety about somehow failing their kids if they are “not on pace” — a task the even best of teachers grapple to achieve for all of their students within pre-pandemic circumstances. In a time of stress and anxiety, we are creating more stress and anxiety, which is not conducive to teaching or learning. Continue reading

A Q&A With Five Parents of Color on What Matters When Choosing a School

This post is part of a series of interviews conducted for our Eight Cities project. Read all related posts here.

Policy conversations around school choice often center on “quality,” defined narrowly by academic measures found on school report cards. But families aren’t always drawn to a school because it’s effective at producing a test score or highly rated on a school performance tool. And for parents of color, there can be tough tradeoffs to make in any school decision.

In advance of the 2020 relaunch of our Eight Cities project, we spoke with nearly a dozen parents of color to understand their decisions, frustrations, and victories. We’ve compiled some of their responses here to provide perspectives on what motivates parents when evaluating multiple school options.

These conversations reveal some of the often unspoken factors that drive school choice. The truth is this process is complicated, and policymakers hoping to create more high-quality seats in cities across the country need to better understand what parents value alongside strong academics and student achievement outcomes.

These quotes have been edited for clarity and condensed.

Miguelina Zapata, a parent leader with D.C. Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE), describes why a non-traditional school model was important for her and her children:

“Two of my three children are at [a Montessori charter school] here in D.C. I knew my older daughter wouldn’t thrive in a regular school where she would have to sit down for 30 minutes at a time. My daughter is very active and has always been more advanced than other kids her age. I like the Montessori model because they let kids go at their own pace with their own materials depending on what they want to do. She couldn’t get that kind of freedom in a regular school.

I learned about local Montessori schools at the DC bilingual education fair and the annual public school fair and found [two schools] I really liked. But the waitlist numbers were so high for both schools, there was no way we were going to get in. So I applied through the lottery and found my current school.” Continue reading

How Autonomous Schools Should Be Held Accountable — It’s Complicated

Across the country, many states and local districts are establishing autonomous school policies, which delegate to principals and school leaders significant authority over school operational decisions that are traditionally held by district central offices. This theory reflects part of the charter school theory of action, which relies on granting increased autonomy in exchange for increased accountability. 

However, the accountability side of this bargain is much murkier for autonomous schools and so are the outcomes, raising questions about the extent to which these policies are able to capitalize on lessons learned from successful charter sectors. 

cover of Bellwether report "Staking out the Middle Ground: Policy Design for Autonomous Schools from Feb 2020, features graphic of three school buildings with different but overlapping colors

The strongest charter sectors have pretty clear and consistent approaches to accountability: charters are managed to a performance contract that has specific goals for outcomes. They are subject to periodic renewal based on a data-based assessment of progress on those goals. The consequences for not meeting those goals are clear, often culminating in non-renewal or closure.

Autonomous school policies vary significantly from place to place, and even sometimes within the same city, in ways that create thorny questions about the best structures for holding schools accountable. There tend to be two ways that districts keep autonomous schools accountable to high performance, as we outline in our new report

  1. Autonomous schools are subject to the same accountability structure as every other district-run school
  2. Autonomous schools are subject to possible revocation of autonomy if they fail to meet the expectations outlined in their school plans

Continue reading

Districts Pick Up State Slack on School Report Cards — But Shouldn’t Duplicate Efforts

As my colleagues noted yesterday, Denver leaders are currently hosting conversations about their local school rating system, called the School Performance Framework (SPF), and deciding whether they will abandon this local system in favor of Colorado’s state rating system.

Districts around the country are facing similar choices this year — whether to build, adopt, or abandon a local rating system — as states roll out new report cards. The federal Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed in 2015, requires states to improve the way they rate schools. In response states created report cards with key performance data for every school in their state. But not all communities were satisfied with their state ESSA report card.

Some districts created — and others are currently considering — localized school rating systems to fill in the gaps. These are an enormous opportunity for school districts, but one with many risks if districts do not heed the lessons of the past and pay attention to today’s context. In the case of Denver, it’s clear that local options must be built carefully in order to survive shifting political contexts.

ESSA report cards promised to include more impactful data than required by ESSA’s predecessor No Child Left Behind. Yet the truth is many state report cards are no better than what came before. An April 2019 analysis by the Data Quality Campaign found that many state report cards still lack critical information — including the progress and growth of different student groups and students’ access to high-quality teachers — making it difficult for families and communities to understand if and how schools are serving their kids.

boy walking and balancing on a log with the header for the site "School Performance Frameworks" across

As school districts step in to create local versions of school report cards, the question is: will these local remedies provide a more complete picture of school quality or will they confuse parents and other stakeholders even more?

The answer: it depends. Continue reading

Four Questions Denver Public Schools Should Ask About Their SPF

Denver Public Schools (DPS) has been held up as an urban school district success story, due to a strategy focused on holding a system of diverse, autonomous schools to high performance standards and enabling family choice across the city. The district’s school performance framework (SPF) has long been part of that story, serving as the means by which the central office managed its array of schools and the primary tool for families to understand and compare quality across schools.

Denver, CO skyline

Photo of Denver skyline via Shutterstock

But over time, criticisms of the SPF have grown among community stakeholders and school leaders. Just two weeks ago, a community advisory committee voted to replace the local SPF’s academic components with a rating system created by the state. 

Common criticisms are that the current tool is overly complex, lacks transparency, and costs too much to manage. There is also concern that the SPF as it exists today over-emphasizes test-driven metrics. DPS reportedly invests $900,000 annually in operating its current SPF, a hefty price tag for a troubled system, whereas other Colorado districts use the state’s school rating system. 

While the recent vote is not the end of the process and the committee is still considering ways to modify or adapt the state system, the signal is clear: there’s desire for a top-to-bottom SPF rebuild, not just surface-level revisions. What does this mean, and when the elected school board votes on the SPF later in the spring, what should it consider?

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