October 19, 2016

From a snapshot to the big picture: Why accountability matters

Anthony Hernandez

As a teacher who is part of Minnesota’s working group for how the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will be implemented, it’s disappointing that many teachers are not part of the conversation about the big changes underway with ESSA. This new law will impact schools in many ways, but new accountability systems developed in each state will undoubtedly impact every classroom.

I think about a third grader named Salma who made multiple years of growth in my classroom but fell just short of the “Partially Meets” label, meaning she was technically labeled as “Does Not Meet.” The official designations were so blunt and missed a lot of the successes and nuances of Salma’s learning. This experience, along with others, drove me to be a part of the process to develop Minnesota’s ESSA plan, in order to make sure that a statewide accountability system encourages nuance and captures student growth.

The opportunity before states — and in front of us

As with ESSA overall, the ball is in states’ courts to set up an accountability system. Gone are the days of Annual Yearly Progress (AYP). States now have almost full authority to create their systems. Under ESSA, states must do the following when creating their accountability plans:

  • Define and identify the lowest 5 percent of schools that receive federal funds;
  • Define what “underperforming” means;
  • Determine whether all schools should be held accountable or just schools receiving Title I funds;
  • Include reading and math state assessments, English language proficiency, graduation rates, along with a buzzed about “fifth indicator” that must be non-academic in nature;
  • Determine who should be held accountable and how;
  • Decide whether accountability also includes celebrating success.

As a member of Minnesota’s accountability working groups, I am part of a collection of stakeholders tasked with defining what our state’s accountability system should look like. Having the chance to define an accountability system is an exciting opportunity if your state is willing to innovate, but it could also be potentially disheartening and detrimental if your state is only inclined to do the minimum required by law.

What does accountability mean, and what do we value?

A common tension I’ve observed in our discussions is the uncertainty around what we mean when we talk about school “accountability.” To me, accountability implies action - not simply publicly reporting data, but using it to better support students and teachers in the schools that need the most help. When students aren’t learning, how do we hold adults accountable for changing their trajectory?

In the coming months, states will determine the actions they will take to hold their education systems accountable. These different types of interventions will reflect differing values. Will they be punitive in nature? Community driven? Supportive? Long-lasting or quick fixes? As teachers, many of us have seen poorly conceived or implemented, top-down interventions tried and failed. Few have seen the true school turn-arounds these measures were intended to catalyze. These perspectives must be heard as states move to create their new plans so that we can make real progress for students and avoid repeating past mistakes.

You: your voice and your classroom

Our subcommittee will eventually submit a plan to the U.S. Department of Education in the spring of 2017, but between now and then, teachers like me have a chance to influence what this plan will look like. There’s a reason why the policy making process is often described as sausage making: it takes a certain type of person to stick around and participate in a dirty, messy, (maybe tedious? I’ve never made sausage) process.

But I argue that sticking around to help make the sausage may just be worth it, because whatever ends up in our state plan will likely define the next 10 years or longer. That means that your state’s ESSA plan could impact an entire generation of students and a teacher’s entire career.

No Child Left Behind didn’t mandate that states gather input from teachers, but ESSA in fact does technically mandate teacher input. Accountability measures impact our classrooms, evaluations, and — most importantly — our students. This is why, if we teachers want ESSA to be helpful for our classrooms, we need to speak up as these accountability systems are taking shape.

Click here to learn more about what your state is planning around accountability for ESSA and how to ensure your voice is heard.

Anthony Hernandez