On Aug. 15, the Texas Education Agency released academic accountability ratings for districts, charter schools, and other campuses across the state. In this first implementation of an A-F scale to rate how well school systems are functioning, Texas joined 15 other states across the country that have implemented a similar accountability system.
In 1999, Florida became the first state to adopt an A-F school rating system as part of its A+ Education Plan. In 2015, when the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law, the federal government gave states the authority to meet education standards without hampering them with excessive mandates and stipulations. In response to this new flexibility, several states began implementing accountability models like Florida’s. Now that the approach is becoming more widely used, educators all over the nation are debating the merit and implications of an A-F accountability system.
A-F Accountability Proponents
States that have adopted the A-F school rating system claim that it gives students, parents, educators, and communities clearer information regarding how well their schools are doing. Proponents also argue that the A-F system provides a transparent and objective way to communicate school performance to community stakeholders as well as an incentive to compel improvements in low-performing schools.
Another attractive feature of the A-F accountability system is its ability to incorporate standardized test data. Texas policymakers believe that standardized tests, which are tailored to the Texas curriculum standards, offer one of the only consistent statewide metrics that can be used. The state assessment should, therefore, be a significant component of the state’s accountability system.
A-F Accountability Opponents
Many schools systems counter states’ support for an A-F accountability system by arguing that assigning a letter grade to a school system based almost exclusively on quantitative data (e.g., test scores) does not account for numerous other factors that contribute to school performance, including many that are outside of educators’ control. According to critics, the lack of clarity about the relative difference between each letter grade and the absence of explanations about the how or why of low performance impede future school improvement efforts. Some opponents also believe that schools or districts that receive a low grade may find it more difficult to attract and retain the highly effective teachers and school leaders necessary to turn around school performance.
Finally, in spite of all the support for such a system, there has been little research conducted to determine the reliability or validity of using them for state accountability. Simply put, many A-F accountability system opponents find that a single letter grade for schools does not tell the whole story.
The Reason for the Disconnect
Regardless of what your opinion is in regards to the national A-F accountability system trend, one has to wonder why we have such divergence between state policymakers and educators. What lies at the heart of this disagreement? I believe it is rooted in the differences between two schools of educational theory that have been in conflict for centuries – progressivism and essentialism.
To give a brief overview, the progressive education philosophy was established in mid-1920’s America and was led by major educational philosophers like John Dewey. Those who subscribe to progressivism believe that learning is rooted in the questions that students devise as they experience the world. They also believe that schools should improve the way of life of citizens through offering the experience of freedom and democracy in schools. This multi-dimensional purpose for schools would lead one to support a more comprehensive and descriptive accountability system that goes beyond standardized tests.
An opposing educational philosophy, essentialism rose in response to the progressive movement. With the goal of molding productive citizens, educators with this perspective emphasize academic rigor and focus on teaching essential knowledge and skills and moral standards. This more conservative belief about the purpose of schools would lead one to support a simplified accountability system that is based on the measurement of the essential knowledge and skills students must know (e.g., standardized tests based on rigorous state standards).
With philosophical differences in mind, it appears that the A-F accountability system, supported by many politically conservative states, is mostly based on a belief that schools and districts should focus in teaching students the essential knowledge and skills addressed through state standards. Conversely, opponents of an A-F accountability system seem to believe that such a system oversimplifies school performance and ignores the fact that schools today are multi-dimensional institutions charged with teaching students much more than what can be measured on a standardized test.
How to Solve the Problem
It is abundantly clear that there are real differences between how proponents and opponents of the A-F accountability system understand what it means. Those differences go beyond what each side argues for: a system that makes it easier for parents to know how schools are doing; or a system that provides comprehensive ratings that don’t make it difficult to recruit good teachers and administrators.
A more in-depth analysis should lead us to shift the debate over accountability systems to a debate over what kind of education we want for our children. At the heart of the argument, we should be debating the answer to these questions: what should be the purpose of public schools today? Should schools focus on teaching students the essential knowledge and skills, or should schools and districts focus on preparing students to be productive members of a democratic society? Of course, anyone could conclude that both are necessary for schools. However, people might take a more nuanced perspective when considering the traditional role of the family and public schools have had in educating children.
Such an analysis should also force us to take a more critical look at how educational philosophies like essentialism and progressivism have manifested themselves in our modern educational programs and accountability systems today. Educators should not overlook how relevant these fundamental theories impact what we do in public education and what we believe the role of public schools should play in educating our students today. If we are more explicit about the purpose of our public school system, then we can be more precise about how to measure its effectiveness.
I encourage you to share your thoughts below on what the role of public schools and districts should be in educating children today.