Saturday, September 4, 2010

Teaching quality beats out accountability

Recently, I made a list of central K-12 education reform issues that began like this:

  • Standards
  • Assessment
  • Teaching Quality
  • Funding
And then I stopped and puzzled. 

Accountability used to be my third item.  For most of two decades, when I've put words on paper about Kentucky education reform, I've always started with standards showing what students need to know and be able to do, assessments showing whether students were moving fast enough toward the standards, and accountability as a way to ensure that student performance moves upward.

My reasoning was that accountability would be a powerful lever.  At one end of the lever, the state would press for results, and at the other end, schools would be moved to find and implement the teacher methods that worked best to strengthen student performance.  

Last year, the McKinsey & Company report on How the World's Best Performing School Systems Come Out on Top convinced me that the accountability leverage is not enough.  Teaching quality also needs direct attention.  State policy has to work directly on the ways that leadership, culture, collaboration, professional development, and evaluations contribute to teachers becoming increasingly skilled at their chosen craft.

Accountability systems still strike me as important.  Especially when a school's assessment results show that it is not pulling together quickly enough to strengthen its teachers and thereby strengthen its students,  something substantial needs to happen to turn that around.

Still, I'm now thinking of teaching quality as the thing we most need to build, and of accountability systems as mainly a tool to be used in the building effort.  

My understanding really has changed.

1 comment:

  1. We are all trying to deal with Kentucky's loss in the Race to the Top.

    Kentucky placed dead-last among the finalists in round two of RTT. It's a difficult pill to swallow, but swallow it we must. We did not place dead-last because we lacked a rushed charter law, we placed dead-last because we did not convince the feds that we would effectively use educational data to improve student learning. The solution is not to retreat from using educational outcome data. The solution is to learn how to use it effectively.

    I agree that "accountability leverage is not enough", I disagree that focus on the intermediate measure, teacher quality, is the missing ingredient. Instead, what we lack is a proper focus on evaluation as a discipline.

    Measuring student progress and achievement accurately, and in a way that is fair to teachers, is possible, but it requires evaluation by people who know how to evaluate. To date we have increased the complexity of data gathering while neglecting the complexity of statistical analysis. We try to collect too many kinds of data, design convoluted "measures", but use primitive statistical techniques to analyze and interpret our data.

    Accountability IS STILL the ultimate outcome measure we are aiming for. If perceived teacher quality is "great", but students don't learn and progress, then what is the use of perceived teacher quality? Or put another way, if student outcomes are not the ultimate measure of quality then just what are we trying to accomplish?

    Teacher quality, even, as an intermediate measure, has limited utility. If, and only if, certain practices can be definitively linked to positive learning outcomes, these practices can be taught. They make sense as intermediate measures only when direct measures of student learning are unavailable. Worse, a focus on intermediate outcomes can lead to micromanagement, and because it does not take into account cultural competence, can lead to suboptimal student outcomes

    For example, one challenge, when focusing on student outcomes as the measure of teacher quality, is to account and adjust for the fact that the starting point is lower for some students, and factors outside of school (home environment, neighborhood, poverty, drugs, etc.) affect starting point and progress. If we don't take population differences into account then we end up with truly bizarre outcomes, like punishing teachers/schools who successfully raise poor populations' scores because poor students' scores begin and end lower. Unfortunately, this is not at all unusual for our "accountability" systems!


Updates and data on Kentucky education!