How should we hold schools accountable?
"Accountability" is not a four-lettered word, "bash" is
Let's be clear about one thing: Everyone wants better and more accountable schools. But true accountability in public education will never be achieved if we succumb to the temptation to bash teachers and administrators at the same time that we strive for improvement. Therefore, it's imperative to focus on the ways we can achieve the goals of reform while continuing to recognize and laud the hard work and sacrifices of educators.
The first thing is that we-and I mean parents, educators, reformers, and everyone else-all should agree that "accountability" is not a four-letter word, but "bash" certainly is. Beyond that, I would like to outline four other fundamental principles I think everyone can embrace for introducing greater accountability into a school system in need of repair.
Consider the MEAP test as one-but only one-important accountability measure. A lot of attention is focused on MEAP scores as a way to measure the success or failure of certain schools or districts, but we should not be blind to other, equally important measures of accountability. No one would want to suggest holding baseball players accountable for their performance by measuring batting averages, but ignoring other measures such as home runs, strikeouts, runs batted in, and so on. By the same token, if we exclude graduation rates in our evaluation of districts' educational performance, we run the risk of creating a different problem: districts that feel pressure to improve test scores only may not see the value of reducing dropout rates.
Use the new Standard & Poor's analysis of Michigan school districts' performance to spur improvement. The state of Michigan recently contracted with the bond-rating firm Standard & Poor's to track a wide range of information about Michigan school district performance. Perhaps the most useful data for reformers is S&P's "peer analysis," which provides a powerful tool for comparing the academic performances of districts similar in terms of size, per-pupil spending, percentage of student body receiving "free lunch" funding, or other factors. When I was a local superintendent I would have given anything for such a tool to help me motivate the staff to improve our schools, relative to our sister districts.
Expand choices within the public school system. Districts can be held accountable for higher student achievement if students have more choices within their district-choices that provide kids who aren't reaching their potential in a traditional setting with other environments in which to thrive. I've co-founded eight charter schools, ranging from the Henry Ford Academy at Greenfield Village to one in a juvenile detention facility. My experience with charter schools taught me the best lesson of my professional life: that all kids can make it somewhere.
Hold the community and its families accountable for kids coming to kindergarten prepared to learn. Parents are children's first friends and teachers, and if kids have never been read to and hugged, the best schools will never be able to overcome the deficit. Unfortunately, some children do not receive the early attention they need. That's why many police chiefs recently rallied for early childhood programs in Lansing. Of course, parents are the best source of emotional and intellectual stimulation for children. The next best source is the community.
Some people in the education debate are most concerned about how to keep their "public" status quo jobs, even when it is obvious changes must be made. Others are more concerned about how to create "private" jobs for themselves in for-profit schools. But I know the overwhelming majority are just great Americans who care about our kids and the future of this country. All we need to do is to come together and do what's right to fix our schools.
This is the best place to live in the world because of our strong commitment to education: It's why our democracy and economy have blossomed and become the envy of the world. But it's all in jeopardy. And our future-whether we continue to foster a culture of education and leadership, or whether we abandon our children and our future to mediocrity-will be decided one way or the other in the next few years, on our watch. So let's stop the bashing, accept responsibility, and begin building the best possible future we can for our children.
Mike Flanagan is executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators and the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators. He served as superintendent of the Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency and was one of the first public educators to embrace charter schools, authorizing eight public school academies.