Educators move toward a new accountability

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AFT President Randi Weingarten

Accountability needs a makeover. To that end, educators, parents, academics, policymakers, union leaders, community partners and advocates working at the intersection of education policy and civil rights, including AFT President Randi Weingarten, gathered at a June 11 conference, "Rethinking Accountability: Putting Students and Learning First," in Washington, D.C. Together, they turned away from relentless standardized testing and toward a new way of accomplishing, and then assessing, student success.

"This is the start of a conversation that I hope we will continue," said Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University and faculty director of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, which organized the event.

The conference began by considering why accountability needs to change. In a creative twist that illustrated how crucial outside-the-box thinking can be, Lego Education North America President Emeritus Stephan Turnipseed instructed everyone to craft ducks from the Lego pieces he distributed, demonstrating that "creativity and innovation can't be tested." Performance-based assessments, however, could reach far beyond bubble tests.

Participants explored the three legs of the accountability stool, as Weingarten describes them: meaningful learning (and its definition), professional capacity (so all students have enough well-prepared teachers) and resource accountability. Because these essentials are distributed so inequitably, participants drew a distinct connection between accountability in education and civil rights.

Wade Henderson, President and CEO, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

"Six decades after Brown [the Supreme Court desegregation ruling], millions of black and brown young people have been offered a school system that is separate and inadequate to meet the needs of the 21st century," said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund. Henderson blasted school districts for placing the most inexperienced teachers in the neediest schools, and protested the low percentage of minority students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). "We must examine what systemic changes are necessary to ensure that STEM learning is engaging and equally accessible so that all our children have the tools to adequately prepare" for good jobs in these fields. Henderson also called the Common Core State Standards "the single most significant change to our education system" since desegregation. "The Common Core, if implemented properly and cautiously, can start us on a path of truly meeting the promise of Brown."

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) highlighted the link between education and equity. "We have to move toward equity and excellence, and I would argue you can't have one without the other," he said, as he described the legislation he introduced June 12, the Core Opportunity Resources for Equity and Excellence Act. "We've got 1 in 5 children living in poverty. We can't afford to tolerate this. We have to make sure there are opportunities for these young people who are literally our future. We have to hold ourselves accountable for results."

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.)

Increased per pupil spending is one effective way to improve outcomes for all children, said Reed. "Public education should be about investing enough in every child and laying the foundation for a successful productive life," he said. "Resources matter."

Some places are beginning to shift to a more effective accountability system, Darling-Hammond said, and learning from their examples will help move the needle forward.

On a panel outlining next steps toward a new accountability, Weingarten defined a four-pronged mission: "Standards are important if they are helping us get to what kids need to know … to be prepared for life, citizenship, career and college," she said. Expectations should move away from "you are your demography," she added. The question becomes how to give all children the teachers they need, and how to invest in those teachers. Moving away from "test and punish" to "improve and support," she said, is a big part of the answer.

Next April marks the 50th year since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was established "to address civil rights issues and to make sure kids who had gotten the least got more," said Weingarten. "It's incumbent upon us to define what it is that we want kids to be able to know and do, and [to establish] an accountability system that gives us the leaders to accomplish that."

Noting that the AFT will consider "a new accountability paradigm" at its convention in July, she said, "We have to move it like a movement and a campaign to make sure that it actually happens this time." [Virginia Myers/Photos Michael Campbell]

June 12, 2014