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HALASKA & SNYDER: Confused over ‘accountability’ and ‘flexibility’

Schools that soften their standards do a disservice to their students

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Ac countability. Everyone is for it. It's by far the most popular word used in refer- ence to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) reauthorization discussions this week and state efforts this month to get federal waivers to avoid NCLB sanctions for missing proficiency targets in reading and math.

As Inigo Montoya, a character in the endearing book and movie "The Princess Bride," counsels his friend Vizzini, who keeps blurting "inconceivable": "You keep repeating that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Merriam Webster defines "accountability" as an "obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one's actions."

Even with its limitations, NCLB raised expectations for what every child could learn and held adults responsible for each child's achievement - no excuses. For the first time in our history, we refused to mask shameful achievement gaps with aggregate student performance data. Instead, student progress was monitored according to race, income, special needs and English-language learners. It was a profound shift that focused America's responsibility to educate every child no matter what his background. That is accountability.

The law set clear targets, which translate into numbers of children who are being educated adequately. School districts organized staffing, curriculum and support systems to meet the targets. School leaders, teachers, parents and the public are made aware when a school fails to meet them. This is accountability and should lead to productive discussions about why and what can be done to improve learning.

Through the implementation of NCLB, we've learned much about what works and what doesn't. For example, not all schools that "need improvement" are the same, and those schools do not benefit from the same interventions. A more discerning approach is needed and can be guided by the unprecedented level of performance information NCLB provides. These are lessons that can improve accountability.

Proposals to reauthorize NCLB approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the Department of Education's plan to give waivers from current law introduce another favorite word in education land: "flexibility." It's useful to ask whether accountability and flexibility can and should coexist. It's even more useful to ask who is being served by flexibility and accountability proposals - systems or students?

Congressional proposals and waivers are designed to allow states more flexibility in turning around low-performing schools. However, in today's tough budget climate, are states and the federal government up to the task of developing and monitoring what amounts to 52 separate new accountability systems? We're already two years into the federal Race to the Top (RTTT) program, which supports innovative efforts to improve student and teacher performance. Yet none of the 12 RTTT federal grant winners is meeting the deadlines established in those grants. More than 40 states adopted Common Core standards to help ensure that students are learning relevant, challenging material that prepares them for success. But only about half of the states are making any kind of meaningful progress in implementing the standards.

With so many schools and states struggling to meet current standards, new requirements would send them scrambling to set new targets all over again. Recent developments in states provide a cautionary tale about the importance of having a clear understanding of student performance and holding schools accountable for how well they are educating all of their students.

While New York recently increased its college-ready standard, a study revealed that too few graduates are prepared for college. The state's graduation rate improved to 73.4 percent, but the college-ready rate, determined by those who graduate and achieve a certain score on the state's Regents exam, is just 37 percent. Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch had it right when she said, "High school graduation should mean more than high school completion." While New York clearly has some work to do, at least it has the courage to measure honestly how students are doing. Now the state is in a far better position to help students prepare for success in college and beyond. That is accountability in service of students.

In California, Gov. Jerry Brown inexplicably vetoed legislation designed to expand the state's accountability system to include multiple indicators of student achievement with just 40 percent of the score based on test results. Other measures would have included dropout rates and a demonstration of a school's ability to provide a college-ready curriculum. This is neither accountability nor flexibility.

Setting high expectations and holding our students and schools to them is vital to ensuring the kind of education our young people deserve and our economy demands. To do that, we must know how well all of our students are performing and which teachers are doing a good job and which ones are not. We must provide the right balance of flexibility and support for schools that need help but also have consequences for those that aren't getting the job done. Then we will be truly accountable in meeting our obligation to educate all of America's students.

Terrell Halaska is a founding partner of HCM Strategists and former assistant secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration. Martha Snyder, former associate director of the White House Domestic Policy Council in the Bush administration, is an associate at HCM.

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