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The implementation of standards-based reform—first in the states in the 1990s and then by the federal government under the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001—sought to establish clear goals, provide necessary supports for reaching those goals, and then hold educators accountable for student outcomes. Over the past two decades, this movement has brought increased attention to academic achievement in the nation’s schools. As Chester E. Finn, Jr. notes, setting clear standards and then publicly reporting test scores, graduation rates, and other data on school performance were critical first steps. So, too, were efforts to extend public school choice through charter schools and across district lines. Most notably, these efforts spurred an unprecedented focus on the deficiencies of schools that serve poor and minority students—students who were long ignored and whose outcomes were mostly hidden from view.
But the past two decades have also revealed daunting barriers to effective accountability policies across many different spheres and levels of education. Successful outcomes, such as high state test scores or graduation rates, are all too often shown to be the result of low standards and not increased learning. States, for example,consistently manipulate their reporting of student outcomes. They also fail to hold low performers accountable by continually identifying teacher preparation programs as low performing but allowing those programs’ graduates to enter classrooms, and keeping chronically low-performing schools—including charters—open without improvement.16 The public is shown a veneer of accountability; there’s no real change.
The decade-long saga of Markham Middle School, a low-performing school located in the Watts neighborhood of southeastern Los Angeles,is a cautionary tale. Markham is stuffed with over 1,500 students in just three grades, sixth to eighth. Roughly 70 percent of the students are Hispanic, and 30 percent are black. Eighty-two percent are poor. In 1997, the first year the state of California designated Markham as low-performing, the average Markham student scored at the 16th percentile in math and 12th percentile in reading.
Over the next 11 years, California, and then the federal government under NCLB, enacted a series of reforms designed to turn Markham and other schools like it around Officials affixed a variety of alarming labels to these schools: “chronically low-performing,” “failing,” or “troubled.” They drew up plans, disbursed funds, and hired specialists. And, at Markham, they expended over $3 million in extra funds across multiple overlapping and often misaligned state and federal initiatives. Yet, at the end of all that, Markham Middle School was still open for business, still serving low-income and minority students, and still low-performing. In 2009 only 3 percent of the students were proficient in math and 11 percent in English.17
At Markham, despite the glossy plans, new programs, and millions in additional funding, little of what mattered most—student outcomes—actually changed. This is, in part, because the state and district failed to make the tough choices on behalf of vulnerable students, refusing to choose a restructuring model that would overhaul the school’s leadership or staff. Thus, when the school’s staff finally did change—in May 2008, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools took control of Markham, installed a new principal, and chose a new teaching staff—it was ravaged by seniority-based layoffs. A year later, the mostly young teaching staff was gone and the school found itself at the center of a lawsuit and the national debate over teacher seniority policies.18
As districts, states, and the nation look to develop the next generation of accountability policies—and the Congress prepares to debate the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—one lesson is increasingly clear: to be effective, accountability policies cannot stand alone. Political structures and a willingness to meaningfully intervene must be present, even if it requires difficult changes to personnel or institutional relationships and structures. Effective systems to better support schools and educators in the challenging work of improvement are also critical. And finally, a host of coherent policies—including better measures such as improved assessments and real outcomes data on how well students actually fared post-highschool graduation, aligned human capital policies, strong standards, and data systems that can provide insight into all of these—are essential.
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