Let’s Embrace the Opportunities in Differentiated Accountability

Later this week, Iowa’s Department of Education will be releasing its first set of attendance center rankings.  The first iteration of these rankings will include only a subset of three of the nine healthy school indicators that will ultimately be used to rank schools and education agencies.  The first three indicators in this subset are academic proficiency, academic growth, and closing the achievement gap for students with disabilities.  These, initially, will be based on annual, standardized measures and may, therefore, seem to be just an extension of the old NCLB system of sanctions based on standardized data.

I would argue, though, that we are on the cusp of an encouraging opportunity in Iowa education.  I say that because we are looking at a new accountability system in Iowa that needs to be viewed in its entirety.  Yes, there will be an annual release of rankings and those of us in education know that you can’t shame educational organizations into improvement.  No one expects a list of all of Iowa’s schools and agencies ranked by a set of nine criteria to revolutionize practice or improve educational quality in the state.  The rankings may raise the level of urgency within some corners of the educational community, but research is pretty clear that such an activity never has done (and likely never will do) anything to raise the performance of an entire system.  The encouraging development in Iowa’s new accountability system, however, is that it goes well beyond the practice of merely ranking schools to a system of tiered supports that are intended to offer differentiated assistance where it is needed most.  Districts in lesser need of improving healthy indicators will receive more autonomy and fewer supports. This concept of tiered support and earned autonomy for districts may finally move Iowa beyond its time-honored tradition of keeping things fair by treating everyone the same.

In Iowa we have long taken pride in the perceived quality and equity associated with our state’s education system.  We attach a virtually identical amount to every pupil in our state and fund schools based on enrollment, a practice that for many years seemed the “fair” thing to do.  The accountability system that I see on the horizon in Iowa, however, may finally be recognizing that nothing is more unfair than treating everyone the same.  Iowa has many excellent schools and school districts, but our landscape is changing and, with very few exceptions, we will soon be seeing a list of school rankings in Iowa that will closely mirror a list that would have been compiled had the sole ranking criterion been the percent of students in poverty.  I recognize that there are some high poverty/high achieving schools out there, but they are very few and far between.  We know that students in poverty come to school less ready to learn, attend preschool at lower rates, and lose learning during the summer months at a higher rate.  I have referred to research by Joseph Murphy of Vanderbilt University many times which shows clearly that students in poverty need not only better instruction, but more instruction than there non-impoverished peers to keep up with those peers.  For that reason, I am encouraged by the concept of “tiered support” that is a major part of Iowa’s new system.  It gives increased autonomy to schools that show healthy school indicators and increased support to schools that show greater need.  The question will be, “What will this support look like?”

I think it’s important that we not view support as punishment.  If our goal is improvement, we should be welcoming any extra support that we can get which will help us improve outcomes for kids.  Let’s recognize our weaknesses where they exist and embrace any opportunities we may encounter to improve our practices.  I also think it important, though, that especially those of us in impoverished areas continue to advocate for a broader definition of support that includes not only technical assistance, but the additional resources required to take advantage of that assistance.  One place we can start is with lobbying for the appropriation that would tie some type of additional funding or in kind contribution to the highest needs schools.  High needs schools legislation in HF 215 passed last year but without an appropriation.  We should also advocate for changes in the foundation formula that factor in poverty and transportation costs associated with rural sparsity (Higher percentages of rural Iowans now live in poverty than do urban Iowans and that inequity is compounded by unequal transportation cost per pupil).  We also need to continue to advocate for the resources necessary to implement high quality, Summer reading programs for those students not proficient in reading by third grade.  We already have the legislation that requires these programs, but we don’t have anything specifically appropriated to account for the difference in need for these programs based on poverty.

This isn’t an exhaustive list that would show our seriousness about improving our system and closing our achievement gap (which is really an opportunity gap) but it’s a good start.  So….let’s embrace this new differentiated accountability system, while we continue to advocate for the resources we need to take advantage of the support that comes our way.

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