With the passage of Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), President Obama said, "With this bill, we reaffirm that fundamentally American ideal — that every child, regardless of race, income, background, the zip code where they live, deserves the chance to make of their lives what they will."
It's a student-centric message, but will this new law actually drive schools to focus on all students, or will it widen the gap between the well-educated and the less fortunate?
Many states today grade schools through A-F or 1-5 grading systems (or another similar scale). Others stack-rank schools from top to bottom. These ratings are based in large part on annual state tests.
But support for standardized testing is falling. Parents and educators express concern that these tests dont capture the myriad of other learning objectives, competencies and skills critical to a child's education. Assigning grades to schools gives a parent no insight into the educational welfare of their child. A student may be in an "A" school, but still be behind academically. Similarly, a student in a "C" or "D" school could be excelling and her parents very happy with the quality of education she is receiving. This can lead to false characterizations of school quality and to students being overlooked or underserved.
Current accountability systems create real challenges for alternative schools designed to serve at-risk students. Some alternative schools aim to re-engage students who have fallen dangerously behind or dropped out of school altogether. Others are public schools of choice that offer innovative learning programs for students not succeeding in traditional schools. Online schools, for example, face high numbers of incoming students who failed in their previous school and enter these programs below grade level and not on track to graduate. As public schools, they cannot (and should not) deny equal access based on students' academic histories. For many families, online schools are the only public school alternative available and often their last chance at obtaining a quality education.
It is noble for a school to take in academically at-risk students, but also perilous. For example, a cross-country team that relies on its combined average running times to qualify for competitions would be in jeopardy of missing the cut if several new, but slower, runners joined the team. The new runners pull the team's combined time down.
The same is true for schools under many accountability systems. If a school accepts high numbers of academically at-risk transfer students, it can expect that these first-year students will post low test scores that will drag down the school's average, thus negatively impacting its overall accountability rating and damaging its reputation. But public education is not a team competition, nor should it be. Its mission is to serve every individual student. Accountability structures where students are grouped and measured together to grade and rank schools create disincentives for schools to serve students most in need. These kids become "hot potatoes" nobody wants to touch. Too often, they are bounced around, filtered out or lost.
A recent report from the Center for Reinventing Public Education, "Backfill in Charter High Schools: Practices to Learn from and Questions to be Answered," provides a real-life example of this disincentive. The report surveyed a group of anonymous charter school leaders to examine the policies and practices around backfilling (enrolling new students into "seats" that become available in public charter schools). Some school leaders, according to the report, are unwilling to "risk tarnishing their performance records and reputations by taking new students after the end of 9th grade." One anecdote from a charter school leader stands out:
Strong accountability pressures for on-time graduation reinforce the leadership's reluctance to accept transfer students with very high academic needs. ... She said, "It sounds terrible, but that's the system. If I would take [a student who needed extra time], it would draw down my graduation rate by more than a percent."
Educators should never be put in a position to choose winners and losers, but it is happening. The system is, in effect, pitting students against one another: high performers against struggling learners; proficient vs. not proficient. A school that opens its arms to more at-risk students could put itself in danger of being labeled a failure or even face closure.
Under ESSA, states are empowered with greater autonomy to determine how to measure schools. Policymakers can now rethink how to best to define and measure success for schools. They can make a course correction from school-centered toward student-centered accountability. Rather than relying on systems that assign grades to school buildings based on annual high-stakes tests, states can adopt competency-based frameworks — measuring individual student progress over multiple points throughout the year, and promoting continuous improvement metrics that factor in the demographics of the student body.
Accountability is about demonstrating results, but not at the expense of those who need our help the most. No child ought to be cut for the good of the team. It only widens the gap between the haves and have-nots, driving poverty and unrest. The harmful incentives that cause schools — especially alternative schools of choice — to turn away struggling students must be removed.
If education policies are improved, and accountability systems are properly realigned, then we can meet the president's goal of giving every child equal opportunity to succeed, regardless of race, income, background, or zip code.
Davis is executive chairman of K12 Inc., a technology-based education company and leading provider of online learning programs to schools across the U.S.