Accountability King (For a Day)

As Wyoming legislators now consider Senate File 57, the State’s new Education Accountability bill, I find myself spending more time answering questions from teachers and the general public about this bill, what it contains, and what it will mean for Wyoming School districts.  This might be because I have not been shy about educational accountability in general.  You can search my blog for “Accountability” for the entire list of accountability blogs if you are so inclined or are having trouble sleeping.

Recently, someone asked me what I would do regarding accountability if I were “King for a Day”.   Great question.  It’s easy to back seat drive the legislators as they work to find a solution to educational accountability and improved student performance, so as “Accountability King for a Day” here’s my front seat solution.

  1. Fully Fund Instructional Facilitators:  Yes…I know, this isn’t “technically” accountability, but we need to address the core reasons why we aren’t achieving at the levels we want.  Nobody is better at funding schools than Wyoming, but classroom teaching is THE critical piece to increasing student achievement, and coaching those teachers is THE critical piece to improving instruction.   Coaching teachers is done by principals and instructional facilitators (IF’s).  The State only funds 60% of IF positions and it’s done in block grant fashion.  SCSD #1 has great IF’s, but it can be hard to get quality coaches because so many teachers who might take those positions are afraid that the position will disappear with the funding.  Districts also need to commit to using these positions in the way they were designed to be used.  It’s too easy for districts to use them to pick up a wide variety of unassigned duties in a school.  SCSD #1 has mandated that at least 75% of IF work time is in direct contact with teachers.
  2. Remove the Moratorium on Alternative Schools:  Again, not technically accountability, but still relevant to improving the graduation rate and the dropout rate, two common accountability measures.  An arcane piece of legislation (WS 21-13-309 v.b.I) allows some Wyoming school districts to maintain their current alternative programs and prevents other Wyoming school districts from starting an alternative program.  Besides being a constitutional equity issue, this prevents at-risk students in districts like SCSD #1 from accessing programs that have proven to be highly effective at keeping more students in school and getting more kids graduated.  While it’s our job to see that every child is successful, not every child fits the traditional model for a wide variety of reasons not related to their school.  School districts need the alternative setting to serve these students.
  3. Develop Statewide External Review Teams for Instruction:  Teachers that are truly committed to improving their craft seek feedback from other teachers.   I would propose that the Wyoming Department of Education develop a FORMATIVE external review process for classroom instruction.   This isn’t the district accreditation process we currently use through AdvancED.  This would be Wyoming teachers providing feedback to Wyoming teachers by visiting classrooms.  It’s not a gotcha piece either.  It’s a statewide PLC process using teachers from outside districts.  It’s collaboration and sharing of best practice.  Many districts already do this internally, but by sending our best and brightest out to visit each other, we also add a layer of self-accountability that is intrinsic to every highly successful organization.
  4. Revise Tenure Laws:  Highly controversial, I know.  And probably not all that popular with some of our staff, but it needs to be addressed.  If you aren’t a highly effective teacher, you shouldn’t be teaching…period.  Removing an ineffective teacher shouldn’t be a burdensome process.  We’re dealing with the life and future of children, not making widgets.   That’s not to say that our teachers don’t deserve safeguards, they do, but our priority always has to be about benefiting children before adults.
  5. Put the Introduction of New Accountability Measures on a Five Year Cycle Similar to Recalibration:  Ever shoot a gun while running?  Forget what you see in the movies, it’s virtually impossible to hit the target.  That’s what it feels like to be a teacher these days.   New standards, a new evaluation system and now a new accountability system will have been added in the last 18 months as the result of legislation.  A new accountability test is soon to follow.  School districts need time to implement the changes, assess the results and revise accordingly.  Open and close the window for accountability change every five years and then give us the time and resources to meet expectations.  We’ll never meet them when we are continually focused on things other than instruction.
  6. Raise the Required Age of Attendance to at Least 17:  I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this.  If you are going to hold school districts accountable for seeing every child receives a diploma, raising the required age of attendance to at least 17 is a no-brainer.
  7. Embed the Testing and Hold Parents and Students Accountable:  The accountability model itself is probably the area where we spend the most amount of time and the area having the least amount of impact. Why?  We all want to hold somebody responsible.  That’s human nature. Unfortunately, in education, we’re talking about a cooperative effort between students, parents, teachers, administrators, school boards and now legislators.  The only people being held accountable in most systems are the teachers and administrators.  According to my math, holding two out of six groups accountable isn’t a passing grade, yet it’s what we do.  The consultant hired by the State to develop the accountability model in SF 57 is a very bright guy.  Personally, I think the proposed model is one of the best U.S. based models I’ve seen.  It addresses both growth and readiness, and it does it in a way that’s fair.  But being one of the best in the U.S. doesn’t ensure effectiveness.  I think we all know that.  We’re still stuck on bubble tests and the testing requirements proposed in SF 57 includes a LOT of testing.

Strangely enough, some of the best accountability systems don’t do high stakes testing.  In Finland for example, the education system that everyone seems to be identifying as a successful model, no external standardized tests is used to rank students or schools.  They use school based, student centered, open-ended tasks embedded in the curriculum.  These tasks are regularly evaluated by the Finnish Education Department.  Outside the U.S., it’s quite common for the assessments to be embedded in the curriculum.  There’s no reason why we can’t do that in a state the size of Wyoming.  Oh wait…we already do.  It’s called the Body of Evidence (BOE).  Designed by the same bright guy that’s designing our new system (ironic don’t you think).  The problem is that we just didn’t have quite enough trust in our local school districts to let the BOE be the true quality indicator.  We needed a NUMBER, something that the BOED doesn’t readily provide.  So we added the additional testing layer (PAWS) which makes the BOE redundant and headed for extinction in the new plan.

Using something like the BOE as the sole quality indicator would be effective in my opinion, but I’m realistic enough to know that legislators aren’t going to give up the scoreboard stats that come with bubble tests.  So regardless of what we do, we have to address accountability for at least two other components of the educational model, parents and students.  The PAWS test is meaningless to our students.  Until we address this issue, I would argue that the lack of effort on the test affects the validity.  If you really want to see student performance increase, apply restrictions to driver’s licenses for students without a proficient PAWS score or who have yet to graduate.  Wishful thinking, but I am the Accountability King for a Day.  Secondly, there is no accountability for parents.  How can you hold a teacher responsible for the education of a child when we aren’t even attempting to address the responsibility of the parent?  All individual rights arguments aside, we can’t complain about the direction of our society, economy and schools if collectively we aren’t willing to acknowledge that the primary responsibility for a child’s education rests with the parents and do something to hold parents accountable.   Of all the strategic planning priorities we have at SCSD #1, the one that we catch the most grief over is our goal to improve attendance.   That’s sad.  And frankly the State isn’t much help.  The maximum fine to parents for truancy is $25.  A recent bill to raise that fine failed in the Senate.  That’s just tragic.

Well…there you have it.  Feel free to elect me king at any time and I’ll get straight to work.  There’s just the small issue that kings aren’t elected and we don’t really have one.

About Jay Harnack

Superintendent of Sublette County School District #1
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One Response to Accountability King (For a Day)

  1. Rollie says:

    Another fine contribution to your patrons. It would be nice if you could be that
    “King for a Day.

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