NEPC recently released a report entitled Democracy Left Behind: How Recent Education Reforms Undermine Local School Governance and Democratic Education. The press release states:
“Local control” has been a bedrock principle of public schooling in America since its earliest days, but a new report concludes the concept “has all but disappeared” in discussions of education policy.
The report, Democracy Left Behind: How Recent Education Reforms Undermine Local School Governance and Democratic Education, by Kenneth Howe and David Meens of the University of Colorado Boulder, examines the impact on democratic ideals of vanishing local control over education. The report examines the making of education policy as well as the decisions about what schools teach and how they teach it.
The authors also warn that current reform approaches are marginalizing community involvement. “Democratic reform should involve local stakeholders, especially marginalized members of society, because inclusion is a democratic value that increases not only the likelihood that policies will be just, but also the likelihood that reform will succeed,” Howe and Meens write. “Such inclusion also helps create the conditions in which all students can attain the democratic threshold.”
This report inspired me to release a portion of an upcoming chapter in an Urban Education Handbook. In the vein of local control, its a new approach to accountability. (Ever noticed that the Texas legislature hasn’t come up with a new idea for education policy in 20 years?) I am calling this reform Community Based-Accountability.
New Idea: Community-Based Accountability
What is a viable alternative to the current conception of accountability and high-stakes testing? A community empowered to be accountable to themselves and the nation. Educational policy where communities can democratically set the achievement and outcome goals that they desire. For some communities, maybe high-stakes test scores derived by the Pearson test score development business is the goal, or maybe a community might choose to focus on a new and more valuable set of outcomes.
In the current era, most states have reams of data that can be disaggregated in ways previously unthinkable. We can follow students from pre-kindergarten to any number of outcomes such as higher education, workforce and incarceration. Thus, community-based accountability could involve a process where superintendents, school boards, school staff, parents, students and community stakeholders set short-term and long-term goals based on their priorities. Maybe those goals are higher ACT and SAT scores. Or a community may choose to focus on a increasing the percentage of students enrolled and completing higher education. Perhaps the local priorities are employment and salary goals for their students. Each of these goals statements would serve as alternatives to the current intense focus on state-sponsored test scores. This new form of accountability would allow for a district to drive a locally based approach that focuses on the process of education for its one-year, five-year, and ten-year goals.
One example of the focus on the process of education instead of high-stakes testing outcomes is San Antonio’s Café College resource centers. Mayor Julian Castro funded these college-knowledge information centers because the community made higher education enrollment and graduation a priority. As a result, the city has placed its resources and will behind that goal. This focus on process rather than outcomes is a stark contrast to the current approaches observed in urban Texas high schools focused on high-stakes testing. Due to the current testing regime, high schools are spending their resources on double-blocking students in test-prep courses to focus on multiple choice worksheets for high-stakes exit exams instead of the arts, band, PE and other important courses that build 21st Century skills (Vasquez Heilig, 2011; Vasquez Heilig, Cole & Aguilar, 2010).
Notably, community-based accountability should appeal to political conservatives that espouse the ideals of local control. The state and federal government role would be relegated to calculating baselines for a set of 10-15 goals that communities set in a democratic process relative to the current levels of those particular outcomes. This accountability goal-setting would seek to influence the process of schooling choices in each community and would then motivate policymakers from communities to lobby state and federal governments for the resources to achieve its accountability goals rather than focusing on high-stakes testing results year to year. This turn of events in the frame of accountability would be novel because politicians (local, state and federal) would also be held accountable— they could be shamed and sanctioned— if resources to meet the community goals do not materialize. Accountability would become a two-way street.
Community-based accountability may also usher in a turn in community involvement in schools. In the US, our communities, our parents, our educators must see themselves as the solution rather than the problem. In conjunction with the aforementioned structural reforms that our nation continues to avoid with Band-Aids (such as vouchers, charters schools and Teach For America) this return to a community-based schooling approach would foment a multiple measures approach to community education outcomes derived by the community and driven by their desire to see their children succeed, rather than a continuing focus failed high-stakes testing and accountability policies persistently promoted in state capitols and Washington D.C.