The autonomy-for-accountability bargain at the heart of the charter movement rests, crucially, on the effectiveness of the entities — known as authorizers — that have the ability to approve charter schools and the responsibility for holding them accountable. If authorizers are lax in their responsibilities — approving weak applications, failing to effectively monitor or assess school performance, or refusing to close low-performing schools — the accountability part of the bargain isn’t held up. But if they overstep their bounds, by limiting the kinds of schools they will approve, being overly prescriptive about requirements for school approval, or trying to micromanage schools they oversee, the autonomy part of the bargain goes missing. Getting the right balance between holding schools accountable and protecting their autonomy is a crucial question, both for authorizers and the charter movement as a whole, and since the start of the charter movement, it’s been the subject of heated debate — one that has intensified in recent years.
Note: Several candidates are missing from this chart. The states represented by Rand Paul (KY) and Bernie Sanders (VT) do not currently have charter laws. The states represented by Martin O’Malley (MD), Lindsey Graham (SC), Jim Gilmore (VA), Jim Webb (VA), and Scott Walker (WI) were not included in the 2013 CREDO study.
Charter schools are growing. The number of charter students has grown from 1.2 million to 2.9 million in less than a decade. Within two decades, a third of public education’s students – or more – could be educated in charter schools. That’s why the next president’s perspective and record on charters matters. But what can we tell about the candidates based on how their states do with charter schooling?
I’m thankful Sara took the time to take issue with my response to PCSB’s position on chartering in the nation’s capital. But to be honest, I get nervous anytime Sara disagrees with me, because that generally means I’m wrong.
And I have to admit Sara produced a compelling defense of one of the positions in my virtual debate with Pearson and McKoy.
The only problem is that it’s a defense of my view, not the one expressed by her PCSB colleagues. In fact, I would associate myself with much of Sara’s articulation of the board’s goals. But that explanation belies what Pearson and McKoy actually wrote.
Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Rep. John Kline (R-MN), the incoming leaders of the Senate and House education committees, both say they are open to an ESEA rewrite that kills the requirement for states to test students annually. Or as I called it, the peel off the party wings approach to reauthorization. This bipartisan coalition bonds over their hatred of statewide annual testing, but not much else. And any bill they produce would be, in essence, a giant finger to the policies of Arne Duncan and Barack Obama–and Margaret Spellings and George W. Bush before them.
Like Mike Petrilli in this Flypaper post, I hope Alexander’s and Kline’s annual testing one-eighty is all just a bluff to try and get Democrats to give in on requiring states to develop teacher evaluations. And I hope they come to their senses and reveal a more centrist reauthorization proposal–with annual statewide testing, and data reporting, and school accountability requirements with teeth.
Because getting rid of annual testing is a dumb idea. I acknowledge (readily) that there are very real problems with today’s tests, accountability systems, teacher evaluations, NCLB waivers, and so on. And these problems are often most acute for those most affected by them–students, families, and teachers, rather than the policymakers that wrote the law and are now responsible for updating it.
But this particular reaction–ending statewide, comparable, annual testing–is an overreaction that creates more problems than it solves. It feeds into the false narrative that testing is only able to punish, rather than inform, support, and motivate. It makes it okay that we haven’t invested nearly enough in building educator capacity to support the students that tests identify as struggling, including significant commitments to overhauling both professional development and teacher preparation. It shies away from, rather than confronts, the hard truths that tests reveal about our education system–the disparate outcomes, and disparate expectations of what students from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and socio-economic conditions can learn.
Still, given the public beating standardized tests have taken over the last decade, and the negative narrative around testing that’s solidified as a result, it remains exceedingly important for those of us that still believe in annual, statewide standardized testing to articulate–again, and again, and again–why it matters. So if the problems above weren’t sufficient to sway you, here are the top five things we lose by giving up on annual testing:
In “The Road to Redemption: 10 Policy Recommendations for Ohio’s Charter School Sector,” my colleagues and I show why authorizers must be accountable for the schools they oversee. Without adequate accountability in place, authorizers may have weak incentives to implement high-quality authorizing practices. This can result in too many schools opening that lack the elements necessary for success, and too many low-performing schools remaining open long after they should be shut down.
Ohio offers a case study in the importance of holding authorizers accountable. Nearly 70 entities sponsor (authorize) charter schools, including state universities, regional education service centers, education-focused nonprofit organizations, local school districts, and the state department of education. On the whole, the schools these entities sponsor are struggling, and far too many low-potential schools are approved to open (many of which subsequently close partway through their first year). Yet only one sponsor has ever faced any real consequences.
Until recently, there has been little incentive for sponsors to make significant changes to the way they screen schools or hold them accountable for their performance. But this will soon change, as the state has put in place two promising policies to hold sponsors accountable.
The first is a new, rigorous application process for any new entity wishing to become an authorizer. This application will evaluate entities on their commitment and ability to execute NACSA’s principles and standards for quality authorizing.
The second is a new authorizer accountability framework that the state will begin implementing in January 2015. This framework will hold existing sponsors accountable for their policies and school portfolios, based on three measures: 1) the academic performance of the students enrolled in the schools they have authorized; 2) adherence to “quality practices” outlined by ODE and aligned to NACSA’s standards; and 3) compliance with applicable laws regarding sponsorship. Sponsors will be rated annually as exemplary, effective, or ineffective. Any sponsor ranked ineffective through this process will be prohibited from sponsoring additional schools. ODE can also revoke authorizing authority from any ineffective sponsor with which it has a contract (although this currently applies to only 13 sponsors).
On paper these two policies are huge steps in the right direction. However, their ultimate success relies on the fidelity with which they are implemented. Further, Ohio policymakers must make some important legislative changes so that all sponsors (not just the 13 with which ODE has a contract) are held to high standards and real consequences.
Ultimately, charter schools in Ohio and elsewhere will only be truly held accountable if the entities that oversee them are called to account. Michael Armstrong, author of several books on human capital and performance management, is quoted as saying, “The ancient Romans had a tradition: whenever one of their engineers constructed an arch, as the capstone was hoisted into place, the engineer assumed accountability for his work in the most profound way possible: he stood under the arch.” While I can’t speak to the veracity of this ancient Roman practice, it offers a vivid illustration of accountability. Authorizers must be accountable for their decisions about schools they open and allow to continue operating. They must be willing to stand under the arch.