Empowering the best, testing the rest

How can we “create an accountability system that empowers excellent educators to create top-notch schools while ensuring a basic level of quality for everyone?” asks Fordham’s Mike Petrilli on Ed Week‘s Bridging Differences.

Petrilli once believed that “educator autonomy, plus parental choice, would lead us to the Promised Land.”  At Fordham, which embraced “let a thousand flowers bloom,” he helped plant a few charters in Dayton, Ohio. The “flowers that turned out to be, err, more like skunk cabbage.”

Empowering educators was necessary, but not sufficient, he concluded.

You can’t just empower anyone—you have to empower a team of people who actually know what they are doing. And these people, collectively, must have the capacity to run a great school. They need to have a coherent pedagogical vision, know how to build a curriculum, know how to create a positive school culture, know how to build and follow a sensible budget, know how to put reasonable “internal controls” in place, know how to recruit a great staff, and on and on. These people, it turns out, are scarcer than I had realized at age 22.

And then you have to hold these schools accountable for getting strong results with kids.

The charter movement started with the idea that each school would commit to the results it would achieve, customizing the metrics to the school’s goals, writes Petrilli. In response to No Child Left Behind, charter leaders agreed to take the same exams and be judged by test scores like other public schools.

Petrilli suggests keeping testing and accountability as the default system, but with better standards and tests.

Students are tested annually; schools are held accountable for making solid progress from September to June, with greater progress expected for students who are further behind. States and districts give these schools lots of assistance—with curriculum development, teacher training, and the like. Such a default system won’t lead to widespread excellence, but it will continue to raise the floor so that the “typical” school in America becomes better than it is today.

All public schools—district and charter—could opt out by proposing a different set of accountability measures that might reflect the long-term success of their graduates or the willingness to face school “inspections.”

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