New Strategies for Whole System Accountability

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By Joseph P. Bishop and John H. Jackson

schottToday, the small border town of Cotulla, Tex., doesn’t quite feel or look the same way it did when a young Mr. Johnson taught there in 1928. But, its students and schools continue to have a profound influence on education policy debates in 2015, thanks in large part to how they shaped Johnson’s thinking all those decades ago. Johnson would later become known to the American people as President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he never forgot his experience working in a segregated school of mostly Latino students where he saw “children going through a garbage pile, shaking the coffee grounds from the grapefruit rinds and sucking the rinds for the juice that was left.” It was his students’ experience with poverty that drove him to sign the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) into law in 1965, convinced it would help children and families across the country, including those in Cotulla.

Like the region along the Texas border, an “education opportunity desert” exists in our nation between the “haves” and “have-nots,” and there are few examples as glaring as the disparities that exist in our public schools. Yet the dominant education policy thinking continues to focus more on narrow testing and sanctions, such as closing schools in low-income communities, rather than on investing in and improving schools.

That focus might just be starting to change.

Our organization—the Schott Foundation for Public Education—recently released a joint set of principles calling for a whole child, whole school, and whole community approach to assessing and improving schools. It urges policymakers to shift to accountability systems that are based on school-community partnerships and that encourage inspiring learning experiences for students throughout their school careers. The key components of such a system might look like this:

  1. Appropriate and equitable resources that ensure opportunities to learn, responsive to students’ needs
  1. Multiple measures of inputs and outputs for 21st century readiness that support the academic, social, emotional, and physical health of students
  1. Shared responsibility among federal, state, and local governments and districts and schools so that all are held accountable for the investments they must make
  1. Professional competence that includes cohesive systems of educator preparation and ongoing development that ensures educators have the time and supports necessary to be successful
  1. Informative assessments for meaningful 21st century learning, including a system of assessments for documenting both student and school system progress
  1. Transparency so that schools can provide useful, publicly accessible, and actionable school system information for all stakeholders
  1. Responsive parental and family engagement to foster opportunities for meaningful work with all parents and families
  1. Capacity building geared toward continuous improvement of school systems

Many of these ideas aren’t new, and some districts, including Josh Garcia’s in Tacoma, Wash., and 10 districts in California are already beginning to implement an authentic whole system accountability approach. Let us know if you think your district is already supporting these eight elements of school system improvement that are driven by student need.

John Jackson is the president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education. Joseph Bishop is the director of policy for the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, an initiative of the Schott Foundation for Public Education. You can follow them both on Twitter at @joepbishop and @otlcampaign.

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