Getting Accountability Right


July 23, 2015

By Marianne Lombardo

Disagreements over accountability nearly brought down ESEA reauthorization. It also nearly took down the Ohio Department of Education. In both situations, public officials should remember that their obligation is to protect the public trust – not politics. Most importantly, what shouldn’t get lost in the politics is a needed discussion about accountability, and how to get it right.

accountability cartoon


On Capitol Hill, for example, in a “strange alliance” between Republicans and the NEA and AFT, both the House and Senate passed ESEA reauthorization bills removing federal accountability provisions that required proficiency goals for all students and student subgroups as well as interventions for the lowest-performing schools.

Related: NEA, Civil Rights, and Declarations of Independence

Likewise, during this past weekend in Ohio, the State Director of School Choice resigned over fallout from his decision to throw out the failing grades of several online charter schools from charter oversight agency evaluations. In Ohio, 40,000 of the state’s 122,000 charter school students (a third of all charter students) are enrolled in online schools, with the six largest – all run by for-profit management companies – serving 90 percent of those students.

While online learning can be a good option for self-directed learners, the 51 percent “churn” rate at Ohio Virtual Academy – the rate of students that enroll but don’t finish the year – indicates that many students find learning in this format more difficult than anticipated. This difficulty is also reflected in student progress scores, where all six of the largest online schools received “F”s in both 2013 (depicted below) and in 2014.

failing ohio cyber charters

Source: Cyber schools flunk, but tax money keeps flowing, Politico, 9/25/13.

The controversy is clearly one borne of politics. The Director turns out to be the husband of Gov. John Kasich’s chief of staff and campaign manager – the governor who coincidentally just announced his presidential candidacy this week. The Director justified his actions by explaining that scores were being evaluated and there was a plan to phase them in, but if used as they were, they would have “masked” otherwise stronger charter performance and prevented deserving schools in a sponsor’s portfolio from accessing facilities funding. Critics charged that he violated state law for political interests.

The crucial question that now confronts both legislators on the Hill as they face conference negotiations for ESEA and Ohio public officials as they overcome this latest turmoil is how to construct appropriate accountability measures for all school providers that hold high expectations for all kids, and are fair to schools and to the public.

In our mind, a good accountability system:

  • Fairly recognizes that schools serve students with varying levels of challenges, but, at the same time, doesn’t lower expectations.
  • Considers the level of performance students entered the school with, and how successful the school has been in progressing students forward.
  • Is based on comparative evidence from similar schools with similar students
  • Assures that aggregate results don’t mask performance of subgroups of students, and
  • Has clear and enforced consequences.

What we should all agree on is 1) clear, honest public reporting of rich and valid information about student progress and school quality for all types of schools that receive public funding, 2) consensus on what the data means, and 3) clear expectations and consequences for not meeting them. At the national level, this simply isn’t going to happen with large number of opt-outs and varied assessment systems among and within states. And at the state level, particularly in Ohio, this simply isn’t going to happen with weak enforcement across all sectors.

Luckily, at least on Capitol Hill, we have a coalition of civil rights groups and a number of brave Democrats —  Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Chris Coons (D-DE) — who have fought for accountability and to keep it being debated on during reconciliation.

Related: Murphy-Booker ESEA Accountability Amendment: An Important Step Toward Educational Opportunity for All

But it’s time now for all our leaders to recognize that strong, effective accountability isn’t about the adults, it’s about the responsibility and critical work of preparing students for a quality life. It’s time to get accountability right and not let it get lost in the politics.