There is no place for shaming if we want to improve outcomes for kids. We know human beings shut down when they experience shame, making it nearly impossible to reflect, connect and grow — the very skillset that is essential to foster effective teaching and learning in classrooms, in schools and in the systems that serve public education. But promoting equity and shining a light on the achievement of all students is not mutually exclusive with that vision.
The Local Control Funding Formula, or LCFF, has been the right direction for the state to go — shifting decision-making authority to the local level and allocating resources to more accurately match needs. But, the success of these shifts hinges on the state’s role to provide an accessible accountability system and fiscal transparency so that local stakeholders have the information that they need to actively engage in the local decision-making process.
What the state does next is critical. Is it possible to be both fundamentally transparent about where students, schools and local education agencies are struggling, while simultaneously providing real support that is not grounded in shame and blame? This is not an easy task, but there are meaningful steps we can take, including building an effective system of support and bringing it to scale across the state.
At the same time, we can’t shy away from the hard realities students face and where the system is struggling. On Wednesday, the State Board of Education is meeting to approve California’s final plan to the federal government under the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. My organization has several concerns about the draft plan, as we noted in a letter to the State Board. In particular, there are three changes to the plan that shouldn’t be hard to make from a technical standpoint and that would promote transparency. California has the ability to make the data clear now. It just requires political will.
1. Clearly identify if gaps in achievement are closing or are stagnant.
If we are going to successfully combat historic inequities, educators, students, parents and the public need to know, not just whether outcomes are improving, but if they are improving at a rate that could actually close the gap. While the state has set appropriate long-term goals, it doesn’t plan to measure or report the “interim progress” toward those goals (as required by ESSA). This information is essential to allow the public to see, in a clear way, if achievement gaps are actually closing or not.
2. Set assessment standards so that the system doesn’t mask low performance
The California School Dashboard is based on a five-color rating system that combines a school’s performance and the recent change in performance. Red indicates the lowest level of performance and improvement and blue indicates the highest. Both red and orange ratings are used in determining state and local accountability actions. Schools performing “low” and with no change (“maintained”) on the state assessments receive a yellow rating. That means a school can have its average student scoring 3 grade levels behind in math or English and is maintaining that level of performance overtime. It is imperative that these outcomes aren’t buried in the yellow category and that they are appropriately highlighted for local and state action.
3. Ensure alternative education students are counted and visible in the dashboard for Local Education Agencies.
Alternative education schools serve mostly high-risk high school students that range from students who habitually miss school or have credit deficiencies to incarcerated youth. Approximately 1 in every 5 seniors is in an alternative school. Many of these students ultimately drop out, with the statewide graduation rate for alternative schools around 37 percent. While school districts run many of these schools, those students are not currently included in the Dashboard. By not counting these students as part of the district, the district outcomes that are used to determine color ratings in the Dashboard are artificially inflated. For example, in one large district, the Dashboard reports a graduation rate of 80 percent; however, if the district’s alternative education students’ outcomes were included, the actual graduation rate for the district would only be 72 percent.
It is tempting to make our results look better than they are — by glossing over whether gaps in achievement are closing, giving schools a yellow rating instead of orange, and excluding alternative student outcomes from a district’s results — but doing so doesn’t serve the kids who need it the most and runs the serious risk of breeding distrust in our fledgling system of accountability.
It is imperative that transparency, as well as support, are core values in California’s approach and in California’s ESSA plan. It is not one or the other. It has to be both.
Samantha Tran is senior managing director of education policy at Children Now.