Analysis: Media misfires on Cal vs feds accountability

Analysis: Media misfires on Cal vs feds accountability

(Calif.) There is the perception drifting through the mainstream media that the state’s new system for measuring school success is so out of step with federal law that it risks an invitation  back the confusion of a decade ago when parents and taxpayers had to sort out two different accountability programs.

But the footing for such a scenario fails under scrutiny and, perhaps more importantly, it distracts from the far more significant question as to whether the new evaluation system will actually benefit students.

News reports and editorials in a number of papers in recent weeks along with brief summaries broadcast over the airways have all carried the feds vs. California showdown without digging in too deeply to the question. It is a concern that has been raised by a loose coalition of advocacy groups including Children Now and Education Trust West, and thus, would seem legitimate on its face.

But the role and the authority of the U.S. Secretary of Education has been greatly diminished under the Every Student Succeeds Act. A bipartisan majority in Congress– angered by the many ways the Obama administration bypassed the legislative process during their eight years in office–imposed clear restrictions on what the Department of Education could and could not do in dictating education policy to states.

Gone under ESSA are almost all vestiges of the federal infrastructure for measuring school success and imposing sanctions. Further, ESSA provides no vehicle for the department to communicate with parents and taxpayers about the status of a specific school district.

Under ESSA, states are required to develop a plan to meet national goals largely defined as improving student test scores, closing the achievement gap and helping English learners. The Secretary of Education reviews the plans but has limited power to call for changes– most of the authority for that remains with the states.

Thus, the notion of dueling accountability system, like the confusion of the early 2000s, is sophistry.

To be fair, the California system does run counter to federal policy when it comes to assigning a single rating articulating performance. Regulations proposed by the U.S. Department of Education which are set to become final later this year direct states to have such a rating. The California system will not, and instead, will rely on multiple measures to communicate performance.

Here, too, there’s little evidence to suggest this could devolve into a major dispute.

For one, a new president takes office in January, and that means a new set of executives at the Department of Education. It would not be too surprising that many of the ESSA regulations proposed by Obama are simply replaced with new ones regardless of which candidate wins in November.

Even if it does survive, Gov. Jerry Brown has been consistent in his support of the concept of multiple measures, and has shown in the past to be unflinching in confronting federal regulators when he believes he is right. And under ESSA, the Department of Education will have few options in enforcing compliance.

What is more important is the question of whether California’s new accountability system will help students, and some critics have raised important questions.

Samantha Tran, senior managing director of education issues for Children Now, points out that, currently, each of the performance indicators that cover such things as school climate, parent engagement and facility upkeep are weighted the same as academic measures. They shouldn’t be, she said.

“The way we are setting our standards isn’t adequately addressing deferential improvement,” she said. “Improvement standards should really be focused on faster growth for students who are furthest behind. That’s not embedded in the approach that the board has just adopted.”

The system is also weak in its ability to distinguish how well individual schools are performing.

“We want the ability to see where our highest priority schools are so that we can ensure they are getting the resources that they need,” she said. more