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Improving school accountability in North Carolina

In their recent Behavioral Science & Policy article, “Reimagining Accountability in K–12 Education,” researchers Brian Gill, Jennifer Lerner, and Paul Meosky argue that “the time is ripe for policymakers to consider extensive behavioral science literature that shows outcome-based accountability is only one of multiple forms of accountability.” According to the authors, other types of accountability – rule-based, market-based, and professional accountability – could be used to supplement test score, graduation rate, and other widely-used forms of outcome-based accountability data.

Rule-based accountability is simply rules, policies, and regulations that establish parameters for an activity. The authors point out that all school districts and state, local, and federal governments maintain multiple forms of rule-based forms of accountability, including textbook assignment, teacher contract rules, class size mandates, spending regulations, and curriculum alignment. Gill and his colleagues are skeptical of robust rule-based accountability systems, specifically those that require teachers to use common lessons and assessments, because such approaches tend to produce counterproductive behaviors and stifle creativity.

As the name implies, market-based accountability is the use of school choice and competition as an accountability mechanism. The authors contend that “the concept holds promise” and find little evidence that school choice programs drain funds from public schools, undermine the schooling of those who choose to remain in the district system, or harm those who choose a magnet, charter, or nonpublic school.

Gill, Lerner, and Meosky lay out two common concerns with market-based accountability. First, they argue that educating the citizenry, one of the original justifications for establishing systems of schools funded and operated by government, may be compromised by allowing families to opt-out of the system. Evidence suggests, however, that most schools of choice promote civic values as well as, or better than, their government school counterparts.

The authors also point out that market-based accountability is often constrained by rule-based and outcome-based accountability systems, such as seat-time laws or requirements that charter schools participate in standardized testing programs. The latter concern is a legitimate one, but there are no obvious solutions to it. Indeed, it is often difficult to strike a balance between rule- and market-based accountability, given that most elected bodies will not establish school choice without some form of regulation or oversight.

Finally, professional accountability employs formal and informal evaluations, collaboration, mentoring, and the like to assess job performance. Gill, Lerner, and Meosky warn that some existing forms of professional accountability are ineffectual. Master’s degrees in education, professional development, weak evaluation systems, and tenure do little ensure that school personnel are delivering sound instruction. On the other hand, the establishment of high licensing standards, rigorous teacher evaluation systems, and school quality reviews may provide the framework for a sound system of professional accountability.

The Republican leadership in the North Carolina General Assembly recognized that master’s degrees and tenure rarely increase the quality of public schools, and thus, legislators discontinued state supplements for master’s degrees and reformed the teacher tenure system. But the state evaluation system developed by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction does little to meaningfully differentiate good teachers from bad. In fact, during the 2014-15 school year, a majority of teachers occupy the top two ratings, “accomplished” and “distinguished,” on four of the five standards used to evaluate teachers, while fewer than three percent earned the bottom two ratings, “not demonstrated” and “developing.”

Gill, Lerner, and Meosky briefly address specific changes to outcome-based accountability.  Nevertheless, I believe that the state should adopt more student-centered approaches to supplement North Carolina’s existing outcome-based system.

For example, student engagement is a necessary condition for learning. As such, measures of student engagement, including chronic absenteeism and assignment completion, may allow educators to determine whether their existing educational arrangement is appropriate, requires a temporary intervention, or necessitates a long-term alternative.

The state should also consider multiple measures of academic growth. Currently, North Carolina’s Education Value Added Assessment System (EVAAS) tracks students’ year-to-year academic growth by establishing predetermined expectations. The state should measure student growth compared to the performance of comparable North Carolina students.

Greater detail about student scores would be a necessary reform to the outcome-based system. This would include disaggregating student test scores and graduation data based on the number of years they attended their current school or resided in the district. Families are more mobile and have more educational options than ever before. We should recognize that students need time to acclimate themselves to their new environment (and schools need time to learn about and address the needs of new students). This is particularly apropos for states that have a significant number of military families and transient populations, such as North Carolina.

In the end, Gill, Lerner, and Meosky conclude that school systems should employ multiple, complementary accountability measures, with a particular focus on raising the rigor of professional accountability.  In addition, they recommend that schools increase the transparency of processes and outcomes used to measure the professional accountability. While both suggestions are good ones, I would add that a focus on student-centered accountability is critical to ensuring that North Carolina provides families and taxpayers the most comprehensive and accurate assessment of student achievement possible.

Dr. Terry Stoops

Dr. Terry Stoops is Director of Research and Education Studies for the John Locke Foundation.