Showdown at the CA Corral


First came posturing and threats:  Sept. 9, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that California’s plan to suspend most accountability testing for one year while transitioning to the new Common Core standards “is not something we could approve in good conscience.” 

Then backtracking and broad compliments: “We want to be flexible, we want to be thoughtful,” Duncan said. “We don’t want to be stuck. There are lots of different things happening across the country. I don’t want to be too hard and fast on any one of these things because I have not gone through every detail, every permutation.”

“I give the governor tremendous credit,” Duncan said. “He’s worked really, really hard” in moving to new and rigorous learning goals. “He’s put real resources behind that.”

Meanwhile, pontificators  find plenty of blame on both sides.

But while there is no clear resolution to the impasse between Secretary Duncan and Governor Brown, and no real rationale for insisting that California toe the line on outdated accountability measures, I think it’s high time that we begin thinking more broadly about how to develop accountability measures that might actually work.

One thing that seems to have mostly escaped notice is that LAUSD (and 6 other districts’) recently obtained a waiver from NCLB sanctions for a plan to make 40% of their accountability system based on non-cognitive outcomes.

Somehow, these districts will apparently be trying to figure out how to accurately measure these other outcomes.  Which ones?  Attendance, perhaps.  That should be simple.  But this also raises interesting questions about what we actually want our schools to accomplish.  What doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get done…  Should we try to measure how well our kids are doing in other outcomes that we actually care about, say empathy? Cooperation? Courage? Mental health?

There is interesting work being done on how to measure some of these outcomes: The Flourishing Children Project has developed indicators of constructs such as empathy, gratitude, altruism, and reliability.   And a group of private schools has developed an assessment to measure whether they are fulfilling their missions in terms of creative thinking, intellectual curiosity, collaboration, resilience, ethics, and time management. 

So, it appears quite possible for us to expand our view of accountability to include a much broader vision of what schools should be accomplishing.  And, as I read it, the evidence seems to suggest that our society’s overall need to improve these types of outcomes is at least as great as our need to improve academic outcomes.

As far as academics, there’s been lots of pressure lately to improve, and we seem bent on acquiring more and more information, but the weight of the evidence seems to be that schools are doing a slightly better job on these outcomes – national scores are generally up, and it seems pretty clear that the challenges schools are facing are greater than ever – inequality is widening , child poverty is increasing , one out of every nine African American children grows up with a parent incarcerated – these are the kinds of challenges that you’d think would lead to lower test scores – yet scores are (slowly) inching up.

For non-cognitive outcomes, however, the picture doesn’t look so pretty, nor is it anywhere near filled in.  More people now die from suicide than from car accidents, obesity rates are skyrocketing, and a 2010 U-M study found that empathy among teens is much worse than it was in 1970.  Other trends seem more promising – tolerance for LGBT youth and adults has definitely grown.  But these are just tiny peep-holes into the state of our children’s mental and emotional health outcomes.

If we’re so serious about holding schools accountable that we can’t “in good conscience” go one year without high-stakes testing, then perhaps we ought to be serious about measuring a reasonable range of student outcomes.  And perhaps it’s high time we started some serious experiments to figure out which outcomes those ought to be, how well we can accurately measure them, what goals we ought to aim for, etc.,

– Kevin


One thought on “Showdown at the CA Corral

  1. Another measurable positive outcome might be student discipline. Many are familiar with Walter Mischel so-called “Marshmallow Experiment” investigating kids and delayed gratification. When offered a choice between one marshmallow now or two marshmallows at future time, children who are able to wait longer for the larger reward tend to have better life outcomes, such as higher SAT scores and college attendance. Follow-up studies have shown a child’s self control is influenced just as much by the environment as innate ability. Thus, beyond simply raising test scores, perhaps teachers’ ability to instill discipline and good study habits could also be considered.

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