Because ESSA offers states flexibility without imposing set structures, absent deliberate and intentional action, it is entirely possible that we may wind up where we began—with the same kinds of NCLB-era accountability systems that do nothing to create sustainable change and institutional improvement in our nation’s classrooms, schools or districts. 

Section 3 of 10.

Expedience should not lead us to recreate what we had or choose indicators based on what is easiest to measure. We need to create a system that gathers information about all aspects of what schools do (from teaching and learning to resource allocation to governance), reveals root causes of underperformance, and reflects the relationships between the strategies or actions that are implemented and the results they achieve. By developing information systems and feedback structures that identify strengths and weaknesses within schools and districts across these areas, states can set the stage not only for identifying what is working but also for changing educator practice where it matters most—at the classroom level.

Broadening accountability systems in this way is the practical means by which states can raise expectations for student learning beyond the basic reading and math skills existing achievement tests emphasize. But without rethinking the overall purpose for such a system, even better, richer assessments and data collection will leave many important questions unanswered. State monitoring of academic scores and measures are merely illusory indicators that are too easily manipulated to create a false image of success. An accountability system designed to have sustained impact must look at the factors that lead to success or are impeding the improvement efforts so that successful strategies may be further scaled and failing approaches may be modified or abandoned.

For example, how engaged are students in their learning? What is the informal culture and climate of the school, and how does it affect student learning and engagement? What are school leaders doing to build the morale of students, teachers, and staff? What kinds of activities are students asked to do in the classroom, and how well do those activities align with the intended curriculum? How well are school initiatives being implemented? What does the school do to support its lowest-performing students and keep all students engaged? Is there over-representation of any student group in the most advanced courses or in remedial courses? How are teachers hired, given their teaching assignments, and supported in their early years? What does the school do to ensure that teachers have meaningful opportunities for ongoing professional development?  How are textbooks and other classroom materials selected? How wisely does a given school or district allocate its resources? Are system resources equitably distributed? How active are parents in school governance? What is the school’s reputation in the larger community?

Such questions are not addressed by achievement tests or answered by looking at graduation rates. However, they speak volumes about a school’s performance and its capacity to empower and engage the entire school community, and they invite the analysis and discussion that is absolutely critical to the success of any school improvement effort. No state, and very few schools or districts, have the capacity to follow up on such questions, find answers, and share the implications with local educators. Looking to the continuous improvement movement that has become prevalent in a wide range of fields provides a potential road map for states seeking to deepen their accountability systems.