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March 1, 2008
Vol. 65
No. 6

Leading to Change / Waiting for NCLB

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While the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is stalled in Congress, school leaders have a perfect opportunity to seize the initiative. Without waiting for permission from any governmental authority, we can create new models of educational accountability that are more constructive and meaningful than those now in place.
The U.S. Department of Education is demonstrating increasing willingness to provide flexibility to states as they refine their accountability systems, whether within a new and improved NCLB or within the framework of the existing law. Many school districts have already created their own enhanced systems, confident that no federal or state statute will prohibit them from reporting more information to their communities than NCLB requires. Following the lead of these school districts, education leaders—with or without NCLB—can finally get accountability right.

Measure the Adults, Not Just the Kids

Effective accountability must include more than a litany of student test scores. Any accountability model that depends exclusively on test scores will automatically exclude recognition of superior teachers in subjects that are not tested. Wise leaders know that the lessons learned from good practice in physical education, music, technology, kindergarten, and a host of other nontested subjects and grades can improve instruction in every subject and at every grade level.
In addition, focusing solely on test scores ignores many other inputs and outcomes that are crucial in determining education quality. Schools in Wisconsin, Nevada, Connecticut, Virginia, Indiana, and Georgia regularly report not only test scores, but also measurements of a wide variety of other factors ranging from teaching strategies to parent involvement to extracurricular activities (Carnoy, Elmore, & Siskin, 2003; Reeves, 2004). These schools acknowledge the contribution of every component of the education system, including the library media center, counseling, athletics, central office departments, and other essential services that typical accountability systems ignore.
Such a broad view of education accountability recognizes the contributions of every stakeholder and confirms that meaningful accountability is more than a set of test scores. In fact, this holistic view of accountability reveals that two schools with identical test scores can have vastly different learning environments and produce vastly different student outcomes in other important areas, such as initiative, teamwork, intellectual curiosity, and physical and emotional health.

Measure Performance and Growth

One of the most consistent criticisms of No Child Left Behind has been the unfairness of labeling schools on the basis of annual test-score comparisons. After all, comparing this year's 4th grade students with last year's 4th grade students involves different cohorts. Changes in test scores may be less a result of teaching and leadership than a reflection of changes in the groups of students who are tested.
A better alternative is to determine school success by measuring the growth of the same students from year to year. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings recently announced that the current pilot project for growth models will be extended to all 50 states (Hoff, 2007). With this new flexibility comes both opportunity and risk. The opportunity is that states can create growth models that provide clear insight into how teaching and leadership strategies influence student achievement. The risk is that state growth models will vary widely in quality, transparency, and breadth.
A consideration of growth in achievement is particularly important for students with learning disabilities, those who came to school speaking little or no English, or those who suffer from multi-year skill deficiencies. When 7th grade students improve from a 2nd grade reading level to a 5th grade reading level during the year, their teachers clearly haven't "failed." Yet those same excellent teachers could be branded as failures under most state accountability systems because their students have not reached the state proficiency cutoff.
Critics of growth models insist that students must meet academic standards and that the use of growth measures for accountability purposes can provide an excuse to tolerate low academic achievement. This need not be an "either/or" question, however. A complete accountability system will consider both achievement and growth.

Communicate with Clarity and Transparency

Talking about growth in student achievement and communicating clearly about it can be two different matters. If accountability systems are to have a positive effect on teaching and leadership decisions, school leaders must understand and communicate to the school community the relationship between educators' actions and the school's performance as rated by the accountability system.
For example, although statistical models may be able to calculate the amount of growth in a particular classroom, that is not the same as determining the cause of the growth or isolating a single teacher as the predominant factor associated with student learning gains. Interesting experiments, such as those underway in New York City, Dallas, Houston, and Tennessee, are likely to provide a treasure trove of data for researchers if policymakers use the information as a basis for leadership and policy. The same well-intentioned research, however, will ignite a firestorm of litigation if officials use it to make decisions on formal evaluation, tenure, or termination (Medina, 2008).
Some of the most sophisticated growth models can be enormously complex, involving advanced statistical calculations, and these models can yield powerful information to improve instruction. William Sanders, a pioneer in value-added accountability, states thatdistrict and school leaders can benefit from value-added analyses because the reports indicate whether or not students at all achievement levels are having an opportunity to make appropriate progress. The reports can serve as a catalyst for reflection on the way that local policy, curriculum, and instructional practices have influenced student progress in the past so that they can be improved to benefit more students. (personal communication, December 4, 2007)
The nuanced reflection that Sanders recommends is more likely to occur when teachers and administrators review the data in a spirit of open inquiry rather than through a cloud of fear, ambiguity, and litigiousness.

Time for a Constructive Approach

One of the easiest applause lines at education gatherings is for the speaker to heap scorn on NCLB in particular and government intrusion into education in general. A more constructive approach, however, is to acknowledge that governments that fund education will always demand accountability and to attempt to learn from the mistakes of the past. While waiting for the federal government to act on NCLB reauthorization, school leaders can broaden the scope of accountability, consider growth as well as standards, and communicate with every stakeholder to promote the most constructive kind of accountability—the kind that will lead to real improvement in education quality.

Carnoy, M., Elmore, R., & Siskin, L. S. (Eds.). (2003). The new accountability: High schools and high stakes testing. New York: Routledge Falmer.

Hoff, D. (2007, December 12). Growth pilot now open to all states. Education Week, pp. 1, 20.

Medina, J. (2008, January 21). New York measuring teachers by test scores. New York Times, p. A15.

Reeves, D. B. (2004). Accountability for learning: How teachers and school leaders can take charge. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Douglas B. Reeves is the author of more than 100 articles and 40 books on educational leadership and student achievement and has worked with numerous education, business, nonprofit, and government organizations throughout the world.

Reeves is the founder of Creative Leadership Solutions, a non-profit with the mission to improve educational opportunities for students using creative solutions for leadership, policy, teaching, and learning. He was twice named to the Harvard University Distinguished Authors Series, and received the Contribution to the Field Award from the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward) and was named the Brock International Laureate for his contributions to education.

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