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Saturday, September 10, 2011

A School Accountability Policy Grounded in Reality

In just three school years, all schools must get all of their students to pass their state's accountability test. I am all for holding districts (i.e. superintendents), schools (i.e. principals), and teachers accountable for student learning. Accountability gives us goals to reach for and creates a sense of urgency among educators. As a result, most educators continue to collaborate and network with their peers to ensure they continue to learn as professionals to offer the best learning opportunities to their students. NCLB in its current iteration, however, neglects to consider the challenges that exist across student demographic groups to getting all students to pass a standardized test. In short, our current accountability policy ignores decades of educational achievement/outcomes research.

All educators know that student learning is not a black and white issue. If it was, then educators wouldn't need to differentiate instruction or modify lessons in attempts to get all of their students to learn. If student learning was black and white, then most of us would be working in schools that were getting great results as measured by state standardized tests. Yet in its current form, NCLB categorizes many U.S. schools as not making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Some great schools haven't met AYP at some point in time, including schools that have earned the National Blue Ribbon. How can this be? Something is surely amiss, but I wonder if the members of Congress will ever get around to reauthorizing NCLB. If they do, I wonder if Arne will help the politicians better understand relevant, rigorous research to develop an accountability system that is grounded in reality.

The reality I'm talking about is this...let's stop punishing schools that have diverse student enrollments. Those schools with ethnic diversity, large special education populations, ever increasing numbers of economically disadvantage students, and students who are English Language Learners. Let's urge Congress to develop a school accountability policy that considers the challenges these students face by giving schools flexibility in meeting student achievement benchmarks. I'm not suggesting that we leave any child behind, nor would any educator with an ounce of self-pride, but I am suggesting that it's time for NCLB to include a system of accountability that gives schools with heterogeneous student populations the flexibility to demonstrate student growth and improvement.

We've known since Coleman and colleagues' landmark study in the 1960's that student socioeconomic status is one of the strongest predictors of student achievement, yet scholars have identified just a handful of variables that might overcome its influence. It's time Congress considers this type of relevant, rigorous research to develop a school accountability policy grounded in reality.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Reality is Not an Excuse

Some school leaders have embraced the "Make No Excuses" mantra for administering schools and for student learning/achievement. This is, no doubt, a catchy mantra. On the surface it is intended to get all educators on board to help their students learn, but I believe the real intent of such a mantra is to cut-off any explanations about why schools and students perform as they do. As educators, we are simply expected to achieve 100%, 100% of the time.

Helping all students learn is what teachers do, and I do agree that we should not make excuses for the shortcomings in our schools. I also agree that we should have high expectations. The no excuses mindset suggests, however, that if we try to explain why our schools are not improving or why our students are not succeeding, then we are simply making excuses. As an evidence based school leader, I continue to argue that the "Make No Excuses" mantra does little to contribute to improved school and student outcomes due to its data-proof nature.

Contrary to this mantra, I suggest that we should recognize why our students and schools are performing at different levels. States and districts provide principals with a tremendous amount of data, and I feel it is the principal's responsibility to carefully analyze these data collaboratively with teachers to identify areas that need more attention. Scholars have identified several variables that influence school and student outcomes, and data analyses will allow principals and teachers to discuss the reasons, not excuses, for specific school and/or student outcomes. Using the data in this manner has positively influenced the school and student outcomes for our school, and we plan to continue to take this approach to help all of our students learn. If we fail to recognize why school and student performance is at a particular level, then we're just ignoring the evidence that will help us to improve.

So, I challenge all educators to argue against the "Make No Excuses" mantra. Use the data to identify reasons why your school and students have performed at certain levels. Then, use these reasons as a guide to modify and enhance your programs and instructional strategies to improve school and student outcomes.

Remember, reality is not an excuse for school and student outcomes. It's just....reality!