Lesson #4 about Public Education: No Accountability Measures Work
Idaho's education system is a sponge that absorbs resources without ever delivering better results.
Advocates for public education promise that increased funding will lead to better results. The public has increased the funding. Everyone wants to “hold schools accountable” for giving better results. But all efforts to hold public schools accountable have been miserable failures because the education system itself ultimately controls that accountability mechanism.
This has been happening since the early 1980s. In 1983, the U.S. Department of Education issued the Nation At Risk report, detailing the educational failures of America’s system. Near the beginning of the report, the sixteen committee members bemoaned the state of America’s education system: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” The committee called for increased funding and more accountability. It got the increases in funding, without more accountability. Rinse, Repeat!
Since 1983, authorities have developed different programs and policies to measure school effectiveness and teacher excellence. At the center of accountability systems has been standardized tests. Some tried to measure student knowledge gains and relate them to individual teachers, with the idea of firing or retraining teachers that did not improve student achievement. Instead, what happened is that the tests became data that could be used but never to hold any teacher to account.
Some relied on the existence of testing to raise student achievement. In fact, few continue to believe that standardized tests are an appropriate accountability mechanism. This was the hope that the FACT of the test would make teachers teach better.
Neither of these plans worked. Tests matter, but they may be pretty blunt measures. They are always subject to legitimate criticisms.
On one hand, giving the same standardized test over time measures something and gives valuable information about the system. Tests have their limits, obviously. But those limits are constant over time. Of course, student achievement is affected by family support, the broader culture, and countless other factors. Test scores might go down because kids are distracted more by phones now than in the past. Giving the same test every year means that all of those factors are always taken into consideration. Annual tests are valuable because they tell us something about the whole range of factors that make for a better education.
On the other hand, as conservative scholar Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute writes, testing has real shortcomings as a mechanism for improving education:
State tests aren’t designed to improve instruction. The results don’t come back for months, and parents don’t get any actionable feedback from them. Parents are right to wonder if any of this is helping their kid. Now, at a time when the pandemic has lent a new urgency to concerns about transparency, state testing has been an iffy, hit-or-miss proposition. It raises serious questions about how useful this whole testing enterprise really is.
Teachers don’t like the tests, often for good reasons. Administrators can game the tests. Parents look at the school as something for their children, not something affecting the whole. Politicians want to be loved. There is no interest in testing as a mechanism for accountability.
In any event, the consensus behind testing, a feature of American politics from the 1990s through the Obama Administration, no longer exists. Brad Little just increased spending for education $410 million without even asking for any accountability measures. Reclaim Idaho's initial proposal to raise funds also included no accountability measures. The era of tests and accountability is over!
This problem is not unique to Idaho. No measure works. If school funding is dependent on graduation rates, schools just graduate everyone. If teacher pay is connected to "results" somehow, nearly every teacher will be judged to be "above average" to get the higher pay.
As a result, Idaho's school system absorbs its annual increases in spending, while never changing or improving. The system is, as one old education secretary said, “a blob.” Every new program is a reason to hire a slew of administrators and more specialists. Every problem is solved with more money, without ever solving the problem. Or at least without ever knowing whether the problem is solved.
Every education funding program at the national level until the most recent has had accountability mechanisms. To pick just one, the Obama Administration's Race to the Top program required "evaluation systems for teachers and principals that. . .differentiate effectiveness using multiple categories that take into account data on student growth." The result across the country was that more than 98% of teachers were "accomplished" or "proficient." Even Pres. Obama, temporarily, expressed frustration that the system was being gamed by the teacher unions and school districts.
Then Pres. Obama helped pass the Every Child Succeeds Act in December 2015. Under this act, states were no longer required to use testing for evaluating teachers.
Accountability is simply dead. No one even tries anymore.
The public school system generally might be important for a sense of community in many parts of the state. Action Idaho is sympathetic to that concern. But we are four generations into the public school system in America: like most institutions that are old, it is filled with time-servers who aim to perpetuate the system. It is not a place of dynamism or purpose. It is a blob. Expecting more of the education system is expecting too much.
Education without accountability is bound to be lackluster. No accountability mechanism works in public schools. Therefore public education is bound to be lackluster. What you see now is what you are going to get.