December 10, 2015 — By Christopher Shearer and Barbara Chow
Today, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaces the controversial No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The bipartisan passage of ESSA propels the nation into a significant pendulum swing that will shift us away from what some characterized as the long arm of the flawed NCLB accountability system over to what others fear might become a Wild West of state control. Perhaps the most seismic result of the new law will be state revisions of their accountability systems. And, given the demands of the global economy and modern civic life, getting accountability innovation right is a major, and timely, issue—states must seize the chance to ensure all kids get beyond the “3 Rs” to acquire the more robust knowledge, skills, and learning mindsets they’ll need to succeed.
Accountability and innovation are two words that sound like polar opposites. Accountability has a sort of weightiness; it is a word that, at its best, conveys responsibility but, at its worst, conveys rote compliance and guilt. Innovation, in contrast, seems unchecked by convention, buoyant—but also risks encouraging “anything goes” for the sake of experimentation. Pairing these words—and the messages they invoke—in the context of education policy might be surprising. But this is precisely what we at the Hewlett Foundation are striving for as we look to the future under ESSA.
States that have felt constrained by federal policy will now be able to experiment to sort out for themselves what they want their education systems to produce. Some folks fear that we return to an era without an agreed-upon “floor” of expectations for outcomes and progress—or that we’ll allow backsliding to a time when achievement for all students was not an important-enough part of the discussion. The challenge—and opportunity—facing state leaders at this juncture is how to combine the best of what we mean by “accountability” with the best of what we mean by “innovation” to create new systems and supports that more successfully reinforce and act on what they value.
Much can be learned through such a merger, particularly about how an education system can support innovation while holding itself accountable for even better, more equitable outcomes—shifting from a static compliance model toward capacity building and continuous improvement. In this moment of change, we are hopeful states will lead towards a vision of schooling that supports all of the things we know about what children need to succeed. This vision should include rigorous academic achievement but also vital interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies: what we refer to together as the “deeper learning” outcomes that students must master to be successful in the global economy and today’s civic life.
How can newly-empowered leaders unite innovation and accountability as the pendulum swings their way? Inspired by our nonprofit partners—from state education agencies and policy design experts to researchers and educators—we offer the following specific actions that states can take:
Align Accountability Goals with College, Career, and Civic Readiness—Including Deeper Learning Outcomes: As states advance real student readiness as the goal of their education systems, they should take the step to define “readiness” as deeper learning and make this the “north star” goal for their accountability systems, including a full range of knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Setting clearly-articulated and overarching definitions of student success now is important to guide where states set the bar for school accountability—both in terms of student performance on the current crop of new assessments and on those indicators that will develop over time as we improve the achievement measures for such hard-to-test areas as collaboration and social and emotional learning.
Include Multiple Measures for Accountability: If states stipulate that they care about a range of outcomes, they should take this opportunity to adopt multiple measures of student learning. High-quality summative assessments of student learning—like those PARCC and Smarter Balanced have created—remain an essential component. But they need to be complemented with measures that reflect the full breadth and depth of whether students are ready for college, career, and citizenship—providing information on a range of cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal knowledge and skills including rigorous academic content, critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration and teamwork, expert written and oral communication, learning how to learn, and development of an academic/learning mindset. Notably, states should include performance assessments that better measure and advance student application of knowledge and higher-order skills. States could also get beyond lip service to local capacity by making room for local assessments.
Report a Data Dashboard to Drive Improvement: States should use a dashboard system—a limited number of important indicator metrics and “warning lights” for critical aspects of accountability—to report and interpret progress on these multiple measures rather than only collapsing them into a single score or performance index. As a part of this disaggregated information on student outcomes, states could further empower ongoing action for school improvement by considering inclusion of equitable resources, information on opportunities to learn, and data on the climate for learning, among others.
These three reform areas will only succeed in practice if states pursue them through a policy of continuous improvement, committing fully to equity, to evaluating their success or failure, and intentionally fostering local innovation with an eye toward fairly scaling up effective improvements. States must ensure that revised designs do not simply shift state and local systems from one static “box” of accountability to another unadaptable box—especially as new measures of currently “hard to measure” student outcomes are developed. They should embrace ongoing innovation tied to clearly-articulated goals rather than to innovation for its own sake. Finally, new accountability systems should be connected to a real, statewide system of supports designed to help all schools improve—with a particular focus on mechanisms to enhance the professional capacity and learning of educators themselves.
Passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act will kick off a time of momentous change. As state leaders combine accountability and innovation, they must remember that schooling serves all students and provides a public good. Indeed, accountability systems were first developed precisely to ensure that the most at-risk children receive the supports they need and that their achievement is transparently reported. We must not lose this goal. As states implement improved accountability models, which make new room for a richer and more demanding array of student outcomes, we can and should keep equity top of mind in both design and implementation.
We believe that these key reforms—basing accountability on a clearer definition of desired outcomes, adopting multiple measures of student achievement on these outcomes, and using dashboard reporting—are critical to success in this transitional moment. States can and should combine innovation and accountability by advancing the deeper learning competencies necessary for all students to be successful in college, career, and life.
Forty is the new 30. Orange is the new black. Coffee is the new wine.
It seems that snowclones like these are everywhere nowadays. They pop up as unavoidable YouTube and Facebook memes. Indeed, in our Internet-driven lives, memes are the new clichés. One is tempted to come up with a “what is the new what” phrase for education reform. Okay, let’s be honest, you are probably not tempted to do so; but I am. So, here goes.
When our nation was entering the Industrial Age from its agrarian past, education needed to change pretty dramatically. Instead of just a few elites getting Reading , ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmatic, a growing workforce—a majority of Americans—now needed the literacy and numeracy required by an emerging, rapidly-changing industrial job market. Further, the assembly model of industry shaped the classroom itself: sit in rows, copy from a known body of knowledge, test for accuracy and repetition.
This method did a good job for a long time (especially if you could live with glossing over the fact that “a majority of Americans” meant male and white). Our economy boomed. The middle class thrived. The US ascended to economic leadership. And along with that momentum came a cliché all its own: teach kids the “hard” skills.
This back-to-basics mentality stresses the common sense notion that you only really learn by learning about something. You gotta memorize your multiplication tables. You can either spell or you can’t. You need to know a Shakespeare reference when you see one. These things matter to getting a job, getting ahead, and getting along. I agree, as far as it goes.
The problem is that it’s been clear for some time now that we’re moving from our industrial past to a new Information Age—and that education needs to change pretty dramatically all over again. Instead of just a few elites getting the skills to think critically and collaborate with others to innovate, a growing workforce—a new, multi-ethnic majority of Americans—now needs the “deeper learning” required by a rapidly-changing global job market. Researchers tell us that such learning comprises a mix of content knowledge, learning skills, and academic mindsets. Further, the knowledge-based model of the information economy should reshape classrooms: work in groups, leverage past knowledge to solve new problems, test for deep understanding and analysis.
This has also been made into a cliché: referred to somewhat condescendingly as the “soft skills.” But, increasingly these skills define who gets, and keeps, a job. Routine work—car assembly— is now done by robots. Even complex jobs based on knowable rules—tax preparation—are now automated and done by computers. On top of it all, the global economy can find talent anywhere—and does through outsourcing. These forces privilege an elite education that values full inclusion of soft skills. Yet, most kids today are being driven to memorize just the “hard” basics and spit them back out on multiple choice tests. This isn’t preparing them to get a college degree, to get a good job, and to enter the middle class as far too many recent news reports have been telling us. As one of the Foundation’s grantees, the Alliance for Excellent Education, points out in a persuasive report, in the new economy, both individuals and the nation as a whole are suffering when we don’t provide a quality education for all students.
So how do Americans get back on top? By acknowledging that—while, in fact, you do need the Three Rs—you now also need a robust set of skills that let you apply your knowledge to solve problems, to persist in the face of challenges, to reinvent your own job, and to learn how to learn across a lifetime. Add to this America’s get-up-and-go and you’ve got a winning formula for meeting the fast-paced challenges of the global economy and revitalizing citizenship here at home.
Turns out you need skills, man. Sometimes a cliché is a cliché for a reason.
I recently read a piece on the state of US high schools in the education leadership magazine Phi Delta Kappan by Maria Ferguson, who is a grantee of the Foundation’s Education Program. Maria leads the Center on Education Policy—an independent research and watchdog outfit housed at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development. Her commentary, "High Schools: Grow Up," makes the case that American high schools are stuck in their own version of a sophomore slump. Yes, they are graduating ever more seniors, but they are not fully addressing the challenges posed by a global economy and the demands of the Information Age.
Reading the article was a case of serendipity for me. I had just seen the digitally-restored teen classic, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” on the silver screen again the week before. Watching it in full nostalgia mode connected me to Maria’s animating observation: that while today's students—and schools—are much the same, their world has changed an awful lot.
The PDK commentary is what Fast Times' Jeff Spicoli would have deemed "excellent." Maria’s message about the importance of high school reform is quite timely, especially as the spotlight of national discussion turns more toward what US policy can do to improve the bookends of K-12 schooling—early childhood readiness beforehand and college access and success afterward.
As I read Maria's commentary, though, I wondered: if the American high school itself can be seen as a struggling youngster, who can help it grow up? High schools, like the wayward, pizza-ordering Spicoli, need a mentor, their Mr. Hand. I would argue that the very institutions that are most sharpening and clarifying the need for high school reform can do a better job of signaling to and supporting it: higher education and business.
The postsecondary sector could be a "mentor" to high schools to help them achieve needed reforms by better signaling the “deeper learning” competencies that kids need today—critical thinking, teamwork, academic persistence, and the like. Even as high school graduation rates climb nationally, we see college remedial education rates growing in tandem since many of these newly minted grads are not really prepared for the more rigorous intellectual demands of higher education. It would help, for example, if universities would agree on a "cut score"—a minimum score on the Partnership for Assessing Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced assessments of the Common Core Standards—that qualifies students for placement into credit-bearing college coursework. Universities, too, could more aggressively pursue partnerships with high schools, such as early college high schools and their ilk.
The business sector could also be a good mentor to our well-meaning but struggling high schools. Employer surveys and labor economic research have long revealed that seniors—whether bound for more schooling or for the workplace—need higher-order thinking skills and advanced competencies in order to even get hired, much less succeed in a career. The number of open—but unfilled—jobs in the US today amounts to a standing recession atop the Great Recession. Business can help high schools design relevant, real world work, partnering with schools on internships—just as the Linked Learning movement promotes—and lending their gravitas to champion high school reforms such as upgrading educational goals and improving student testing.
This, then, is hidden, wonkish education policy reform message you never dreamed to find in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”: even as they change, the times are getting much faster. Thank goodness the feathered hair of the ’80s is gone, but in the face of intense technological revolutions, automation, and the global economy, so too is the guarantee of an easy job. Our high schoolers no longer get to enjoy that iconic, lazy summer after graduation—they need to be ready to compete. Likewise, our teachers no longer get to aim just for getting Mr. Spicoli a high school diploma—they need to be getting him ready to achieve a post-secondary credential, whether via industry or university.
As Maria notes, everyone needs to grow up a bit. Employers and college leaders can help.