America must be courageous and create a system of accountability that is not punitive but instead is learner centric and focused on continuous improvement. In this system, failure is an opportunity for learning and collaboration. Outside forces do not dictate action. Local improvement measures (about school culture, talent, execution and knowledge) suggest what needs to be done. Implementation of improvements leads to further knowledge, increases capacity building and peer learning, and improves the capability of the school to execute its plans.
Encouraging and supporting districts and schools to own the evidence for their success creates an opportunity for states to create a self-innovating system that helps schools become what we aspire for them to be—dynamic learning centers that help all talent rise regardless of where learners start. These schools, in the words of former Scarsdale, New York, superintendent Michael McGill, a professor at Bank Street College, become places where everyone in the community is part of what he calls a “collective commitment to quality.”
According to McGill, “Community, parents, motivated students, and professionals have a common sense of purpose and a belief in the value of the schools. Each is an essential part of a self-perpetuating cycle of achievement. The culture is what leads a Scarsdale freshman to say, ‘It’s cool to be smart here.’ ”
The self-perpetuating cycle is possible, McGill notes, because leaders do the right thing for students and “high expectations [are] grounded in teachers’ own scholarship, the demands of a rich curriculum, assessments that get at ‘un-measurables’ like critical thinking, and a high international standard of performance.”
For the American education system and its schools to ensure that continual improvement can flourish, the role of the SEA must change. As the SEA builds out an informative feedback system that helps educators and local leaders act on what they learn to improve their schools, the SEA’s role in working with districts will no longer be to serve as good or bad cop (and parole officer), but to become true agents for improvement, providing needed technical assistance, coaching, and monitoring.
Just as parents must give more autonomy to children as they mature, SEAs can loosen the reins on schools. The SEA’s most important role is to empower local systems to make improvements. Thus, the accountability framework must be shaped in partnership with local educators and communities who are empowered to address their unique challenges.
While ESSA now gives greater authority to states, it will only lead to improvement if states yield some of their power to districts and schools to make needed changes in their buildings. The change begins with loosening the grip that single measures have on our education systems. Just as we encourage students to provide multiple points of evidence to back up their conclusions, we need to ensure that schools have access to multiple sources of relevant data needed to make and sustain progress. States can help by providing a consistent way of measuring success that provides the ability to cross-reference and cross-validate evidence to draw a realistic picture—a 360 degree view or CAT scan to operate on the system. With that information it becomes clear what needs to happen to obtain goals.
"An Accountability model with continuous improvement at its core has the potential to revolutionalize education in our country. This type of system levels the playing field for all schools and districts, sets clear targets for improvement, and holds everyone accountable to demonstrate continuous improvement."
Dr. David Matthis, Superintendent, Saluda County Public Schools, South Carolina
With this approach, qualitative information can be as useful as quantitative data. We have learned that quantitative measures alone can be easily manipulated. It is too easy for states to change their targets after a few years. At times, an excess focus on quantitative measures also has encouraged cheating and gaming the system. Raw test scores may be intuitive to economists, but educators need additional qualitative information to understand how well they are doing and where they need to go. If SEAs set up the system correctly, alignment between qualitative and quantitative data will provide the true picture of what is happening—including shining a light into areas where no one is currently looking and where nobody has truly wanted to look.
The potential for cost savings is significant. If states increase school performance across the board, they will no longer have to pay millions of dollars to hire takeover specialists or search for the rare principal who can perform miracles with the lowest-performing schools.
Partner organizations and experts can help. School improvement and research organizations are devising new performance indicators for states and are helping implement comprehensive approaches to track school performance. Scholars are studying what constitutes effective systems for equity and improvement. There is a growing knowledge and technical assistance base that makes the transition to a new type of accountability less a risk and more of a reward.
We return to a point made at the beginning of this whitepaper: if we are serious about achieving success for every child, we must create systems that are responsive to the personal journey every child endures to achieve such success.
For more than 15 years, America has tried rigid systems of high-stakes testing to encourage and demand improvements in school quality, teacher effectiveness and student learning. Such systems have fallen woefully short of achieving desired improvements in these areas. If we are committed to every child’s success, we must create accountability systems that guide, support and ensure continuous improvement. The learning process for every school, like every child, is a personalized journey of continuous improvement.
 McGill, M.V. (April 9, 2015). Guiding principles for a more enlightened U.S. education policy system, appearing in The Answer Sheet blog, Washington Post online. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/04/09/guiding-principles-for-a-more-enlightened-u-s-education-policy/