Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Interesting take on school choice and accountability

In today's EduWonk.com, guest blogger Jal Mehta wonders if the school choice debate in the United States is focused on the wrong thing:

"[T]here is another side to the choice debate that is under-appreciated, which is the way that choice can afford greater school-level autonomy by providing an accountability metric that is less centered on tests and more on parents." (emphasis added - ed.)

Now before you log off, dear reader, thinking that that has nothing to do with JIS, consider this: every family with a child at JIS is here by choice. We are, in many ways, like a charter school. JIS isn't beholden to any state or federal bureaucracy. It doesn't have to jump through the hoops required by well-intentioned-but-ponderous regulation like the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. JIS truly is the master of its own destiny. Unlike public schools, JIS (and other schools like it) can accept sole credit for its successes -- and sole blame for any shortcomings.

Mehta explains how the "bottom-up" accountability that exists when parents actively choose (and are partners in) their school is so much more appealing than the top-down accountability of the public, non-choice system:

"If teachers' main complaint is that they are over-regulated from above, then choice can provide an opportunity to establish an educational identity at the school level, as teachers are accountable to parents rather than the state as a whole. It also provides for greater educational pluralism, which should be attractive to students, parents and teachers alike. This is the genius of charters, and it is frustrating that it has not been more widely embraced by exactly the people--teachers, principals, and the unions that represent them--who could benefit from the increased autonomy and discretion it could potentially afford."

Of course Mehta's concept of parents holding their schools accountable assumes several things:
  • Schools must clearly communicate student performance data on both internal and external assessments to parents -- and the information should include both specific results for the family's child, and aggregate data for individual grades and the school as a whole.
  • Schools have to give parents comparable data from other "like schools." This is how parents can make judgements on the effectiveness of their school's educational program. Raw data from one school isn't enough; parents need something to help them make relative sense of the numbers.
  • Schools have to communicate the other ways -- outside of testing -- that it's monitoring its own success. Parents want to understand the bigger picture of the education program, but that understanding won't happen in an information vacuum.
  • Schools and parents must be true partners in the educational enterprise, not just superficial acquaintances.
JIS is on the road to making "bottom-up" accountability a reality. Let's hope that process grows and flourishes. Here's a golden chestnut article that explains how it might look (from theMarch/April 2002 edition of the Harvard Education Letter): "Accountability-based Reforms Should Lead to Better Teaching and Learning -- Period," by Douglas B. Reeves, chairman and founder of the Center for Performance Assessment and the International Center for Educational Accountability. It's good stuff.


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