Tinker(ing) with Accountability

Drive-by Education Experts

Tinker vs. Des Moines was a landmark legal case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court that established the rights of students.  In essence, the case established the fact that students do not “abandon their rights at the school-house door”.    The fact of the matter is that students don’t abandon a lot of things at the school-house door.  They don’t abandon addiction and abuse.   They don’t abandon cognitive delays and language barriers.  They don’t abandon homelessness and hunger.

During the Senate Education Committee on HB0091 and HB0072, Sen. Chris Rothfuss proposed an amendment that would establish a pilot project for one district to use a 360 degree evaluation as a part of the accountability process.  Taking a nod from the business world, 360 degree feedback systems have become popular in education and are a good way of using multi-source feedback to improve performance.  We require all of our administrators to conduct a 360 degree assessment and are considering one for use by our board of trustees.  I commend Sen. Rothfuss for his thinking.  From my perspective, it could be another “club in our bag”, in terms of improvement.

But as a member of the Senate Education Committee, I would also challenge Sen. Rothfuss and all Wyoming legislators to extend their thinking beyond just monitoring student performance when it comes to using a 360 degree approach.  A well established body of research shows that outside of school factors must be addressed if policy makers wish to truly improve educational performance.   The importance of these outside-school factors should also caution against policies that simplistically attribute student test scores to teachers.

The landmark study that started the “school effects” debate was the Coleman Study.  With over 650,000 students in the sample and resulting in over 700 pages, it was one of the largest studies ever conducted at that time.   Entitled “Equality of Educational Opportunity”, it evaluated how a student’s background and socioeconomic factors affect their performance.  It’s a debate that continues to this day, but it doesn’t seem to be a part of the debate in Wyoming (or anywhere else for that matter outside of research papers).

If 360 degree evaluations are good for businesses and schools, why wouldn’t they be good for educational accountability as a whole?    Why wouldn’t our legislators want to track the “outside-of-school” factors that research has shown to affect student performance as much or more than things like teacher quality;  factors like poverty, access to health care, malnutrition, truancy rates, and high-speed internet access?  Factors our legislators could influence with policy, just as they are doing with education.  

Make no mistake, I’m not trying to divert the accountability discussion, just broaden it.  School districts in Wyoming need to name our challenges and own them.  We need to take responsibility for every student that walks through our doors.   State-wide, there’s an army of people working on that issue.  But the reality is that we don’t own some of the biggest challenges we face.  To ignore this fact, fails to incorporate the basic tenets of multi-source feedback for performance improvement.

Our district uses a balanced scorecard to monitor quality indicators for our district.  These quality indicators are aligned to our strategic plan.  It’s a common practice as a part of good strategic planning.  These quality indicators include more than just student performance measures, as we know that there’s more to a providing a quality education than high stakes test results.  We measure a broad range of factors that include everything from the percentage of network uptime to a self-evaluation process for our board of trustees.  I don’t see any reason our legislators can’t begin to monitor the full spectrum of factors that affect student performance, including the out-of-school factors, and take policy steps to positively affect these factors too.

I often hear our legislators say that they just want to improve the quality of education in Wyoming.  If that’s true, the research is clear.  We have to do more than just focus on the in-school factors.  Sen. Rothfuss is right.  It’s time we begin to consider evaluating performance from a 360 degree perspective.  But, we need to put the child in the center of that data collection circle, rather than just the teacher.

About Jay Harnack

Superintendent of Sublette County School District #1
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