Earlier this week, Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced the latest hopeful sign for D.C.'s public schools - a spike in citywide student reading and math scores. "We're thrilled at the progress we've made this year," said Rhee. "We still have an incredibly long way to go."
I'm grateful for the early improvements in the D.C. schools - and I share Chancellor Rhee's caution. We all know standardized test scores offer just one window into the health of a school system. Any business school student also knows it's foolish to judge an organization's overall health based on a single measure of success. And yet the United States is the only nation with an accountability system based solely on standardized test scores.
We can do better. That's why local leaders like Michelle Rhee, and national leaders like Arne Duncan, should lead the charge in demanding a better accountability system for our schools.
Here are four things we could do that would make a difference:
1. Restore the Proper Balance Between Federal and State Authority
The federal government has a few vital roles to play in public education - and holding local schools accountable for student achievement isn't one of them. Instead, the primary role of the feds should be to build the capacity of schools to ensure a high-quality public education for every child.
This can be achieved by limiting the federal role to doing a few things well: ensuring every state has adequate resources to provide to its schools; holding states accountable to providing equal opportunities to learn for all children; collecting comparative information on the performance of schools across states; and supporting the research and innovation needed to support the growth of stronger, more engaging schools.
2. Use the Old NAEP as The New National Report Card
In its early years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was designed to assess any goal area for which schools devoted 15-20% of their time. That meant students were asked questions about not just math and science, but also art, citizenship, career and occupational development, health, physical fitness, literature and writing. The exam was administered in such a way that no one student finished the same exam, and results were reported based on a complex sampling methodology that resulted in valuable information for state and large district leaders about what their students, on average, did or did not know.
By restoring the old NAEP, we'd stop using test scores to hold individual schools accountable, and start providing state lawmakers and education officials with valuable information about what in their school systems was working, what wasn't, and what areas of improvement would need to be given top priority.
3. Make School Accreditation Mandatory
Approximately one-fifth of the nation's elementary and secondary schools are accredited. The process is administered by six different regional agencies, which coordinate extensive peer review processes. Schools tend to set their own goals for improvement, and the focus tends to be on the quality of school programs, not student achievement.
In some parts of the country, this system results in strong accountability, quality feedback, and genuine school improvement. In others, it is little more than excessive paperwork, accreditation fees, and a symbolic feather in the cap. So taking the current system and simply making it mandatory is not a viable solution.
However, most other countries in the world have mandatory accreditation systems and rely on trained professionals to conduct in-depth peer review processes that give educators feedback on how to improve learning conditions. England relies on a network of professional inspectors - usually retired or active principals and teachers - who are retrained annually and certified prior to employment. Each inspection results in a report that is immediately posted online for all to see. If a school fails inspection, local government assumes control.
A similar system already exists here in the U.S. - in the private schools, via the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). Let's learn from countries like England and organizations like NAIS by retooling our accreditation system, making it mandatory, and providing another vehicle for ensuring system-wide quality control.
4. Develop a Balanced Scorecard for Schools
The balanced scorecard, a well-known private sector innovation, would be an invaluable tool for the public school system.
The rationale for it was simple - net income, viewed by itself, doesn't reveal enough about the overall health of a company. If profits go up, but customer satisfaction and staff morale go down, your company may not be as healthy as you think.
For a fuller picture, executives need to monitor different metrics across a number of interrelated aspects of a business's overall health. With the scorecard, financial benchmarks remain vital, but it becomes equally important to monitor other indicators, such as customer feedback, internal communications processes, and investments in new skills for employees.
Why not do something similar for public schools? We'd immediately stop looking exclusively at test scores, and start evaluating achievement data in tandem with other indicators of a school's health, such as faculty absenteeism rates, student attendance, resource equity, incidents of violence, even student aspirations.
With the shared structure of the scorecard in place, individual schools could even experiment with different combinations of metrics and see which ones result in the best feedback to support student learning and achievement.
The feds could trumpet the most promising insights and combinations.
The public could hold state officials and local schools accountable to their performance on the scorecards.
And I'd know where to send my son to school.