Four Dangerous Assumptions of Accountability & School Quality

Accountability is important. We all need to take personal responsibility for our actions, for our work, and for our impact on others. We need to know how children are performing, how we can help and support them in improving their achievement, and opportunities to identify areas where they are gifted and strong and where students need to grow. It’s unfortunate, but the weaponizing of assessment in school reform has led to a number of assumptions about school accountability systems. In this blog, I am going to attempt to outline some of my concerns in this regard.

Assumption 1: Accountability scores are equivalent to school quality.

Far too often, school report card grades or scores are driving home values, community growth, and an assumption that the quality of what is happening in classrooms is far greater in those schools with high accountability scores versus those schools with low accountability scores. Quality and accountability should not be conflated, but seems to be regularly in discussions of school reform and improvement. We cannot assume that the score is a solid indication that quality instruction, quality relationships, and quality decisions are being made in a school with high accountability scores, and that the opposite is true for those schools that don’t perform so well in the accountability system.

Assumption 2: High accountability scores are an indication of high teacher quality.

We know, from scores of research, that our students from higher socio-economic families present an advantage in terms of their performance on achievement tests in comparison to their counterparts. The background knowledge and experiences they bring to school reduce the need for teachers to provide explicit direct instruction around academic vocabulary, to scaffold learning, or fill in content knowledge gaps. Simply put, we can surmise that students perform well on the achievement measures if the accountability scores are high, but we cannot assume that those scores are due to a higher degree of teacher quality in comparison to their low achieving counterparts.

Assumption 3: Schools that fare well in the accountability system are doing something dramatically different from those who do not score as well.

It pains me to hear folks talk about accountability scores in this regard. As educators, many of us have probably been privy to a conversation among our colleagues, where one asks, “What are y’all doing to get those scores?” This question is fatal flaw in school improvement efforts because it often leads to a desire to replicate a practice with no adaptation for the context and deficiencies under which a school’s students and teachers might be operating within. The “Simon Says” approach to school improvement does not work. Every school and its community is unique, and we must be certain to account for context in our efforts. Not doing so, in my opinion, is the equivalent of providing a Band-Aid for an infection rather than an antibiotic, and expecting the same healing the Band-Aid produced for a scrape for a bacterial infection.

Assumption 4: More effective and impactful leaders are in schools with high accountability scores versus those in schools with low or average accountability scores.

This one hits close to home. I’m biased and I know it, and it’s because I led a low-performing school, and did so with the highest degree of effort and instructional leadership. To support our students in the midst of a math teacher vacancy, I taught 8th grade math for two periods each morning, and served as co-principal for the rest of the day. I can attest that the challenges we faced in our school were exacerbated and atypical, but we knew we would still be held to the same accountability measures as more affluent, resourced, and advantaged schools. Let me be clear, I have no problem with a standardized accountability expectation. I just want to be sure that the assumption that high performing schools are an indication of high leadership effectiveness is a dangerous one. It is simply not so. One should not assume that there is a phenomenal school leader in every “Excellent” rated school, and conversely, the assumption that there is a highly ineffective leader in every “Unsatisfactory” rated school should not be made. You have to see the work to know the impact and a report and statistical analysis of achievement data cannot provide us with conclusions about leader quality, teacher quality, or school quality.

What troubles me most is the impact these assumptions have on schools, but also on families. The family that assumes they are moving into a great area with a great school only to find that the culture is toxic, in spite of the achievement scores and accountability performance. Further, that the teacher quality is not exceptionally different than that of the previous school their child attended that had lower accountability scores. When folks lean into these four dangerous assumptions, it perpetuates the false narrative that are public schools are failing and that some schools are exceptionally worse or better than other schools. A deficit mindset sets in, schools and families begin an intense focus on what is wrong, and what is right, losing the balanced mindset that we all need that considers all factors when we think about how well or unwell a school is faring. Instead, we need to view accountability scores for what they are: a statistical analysis of student performance on high stakes assessment-not a report on teacher, leader, or school quality. Keeping accountability in the right perspective and communicating about it in a way that makes sense and is honest and transparent regarding what it is and what it isn’t is critically important in the current public education climate and teacher crisis. We can do better, and we should.

Until next time, be you. Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

One thought on “Four Dangerous Assumptions of Accountability & School Quality”

  1. Wow! Now THIS is the perspective that I’ve been waiting to hear. I agree with every point! Very well said and nicely done Dr. Dixon!

    Like

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