Accountability – Taking the time to get it right

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Stephen Pruitt

There’s a popular saying that it takes a village to raise a child. I think that it takes an entire state to educate a child.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

In December 2015, the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act was signed into law. The law reauthorized the 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which has become the nation’s biggest statement about and commitment to providing an equitable education for every student.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, also known as ESSA, provides some big challenges and even bigger opportunities for states. One of the biggest of which is giving states broad leeway to revamp their accountability systems. 

Prior versions of the law – as well as requirements for some federal grants – pointed toward more and more federal involvement in how states designed accountability systems to evaluate whether schools were providing a solid education for all students. Take, for example, the previous version of this act, the No Child Left Behind.

While No Child finally made the country take a hard look at how all students were doing – regardless of race, income or native language – it set unrealistic goals that were impossible for schools and states to achieve. In the end, almost every state had a waiver from the federal government to keep its schools from suffering the most severe punishments laid out in No Child for not being able to meet the act’s ultimate goal of 100 percent proficiency.

In the end, No Child Left Behind didn’t work as well as it should have due to unrealistic goals and little buy-in from the states. In fact, I would say that No Child also gave us a false perception of what accountability should be about … students. ESSA is an about-face in education policy. It gives states the power to establish their own accountability systems – which must go beyond just test scores – and provides broad leeway on how to define and improve low-performing schools.

But this new leeway doesn’t mean Kentucky can walk away from testing or accountability. Both are still required and are critically important to ensuring Kentucky’s students are ready to face the rapidly changing world in which they will live their lives. We can and must ensure that Kentucky’s accountability system adequately captures what it means for a school to be successful and how we can realistically and fairly evaluate that success. At the same time, we also should be able to celebrate the good things that are going on in our schools and districts.

But just as states bristled against the lack of control or input on No Child Left Behind, I know that Kentucky’s next accountability system must not come just from Frankfort. All of the Commonwealth’s residents must play a part in its development.

We need your input. We want your opinions as to the best way to gauge how Kentucky’s children are being served by their schools. How do we, as a state, want to define what makes a school successful? I will be holding town hall meetings across the state in the coming weeks to gather your suggestions and input on what our new accountability model should look like. This is your first chance to be heard and help shape the future of Kentucky’s public schools.

But just because we have the opportunity to create something new, I think there are some parts of accountability that must not change. We cannot back away from transparency and disaggregating the data to ensure all students, including our at-risk and struggling students as well as our gifted and talented students, are getting a quality education. This cannot only be just in mathematics and reading.

Another non-negotiable for me is that the system must not narrow the curriculum in a way that does not support the whole child or a student pursuing his or her interest. If our goal is to ensure that every student has the opportunity to choose his or her own direction after high school, we must provide them with all the opportunities we can, including the arts, career-technical education, science and social studies, just to name a few.

Finally, while I think it is critical that we create a system that holds districts and schools accountable, it also should be one that celebrates schools that are innovative and are finding creative ways to meeting their students’ needs.

The new accountability system must be in place by the start of the 2017-18 school year. That gives us 17 months to meet, discuss and debate the best path for Kentucky and its students going forward. This is not something that will be rushed. I intend for us to take every minute of those 17 months to make sure we have it right. By working together, we as a Commonwealth can ensure that we have an accountability system that is second to none and ensures the best outcomes for our students and our state.

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