Parents, Not Government, Should Hold Schools Accountable

Published January 25, 2017

It’s high time the U.S. government, especially the Department of Education, looked to parents for some advice on how to run things, rather than the other way around.

Every parent knows the old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” is useful in encouraging a child to keep practicing his or her violin. What smart parents know is acknowledging when it’s time to quit is often just as important.

Presumably, our hypothetical child with a violin is receiving sound instruction, is eager to learn from mistakes, and is determined to improve. If any of these ingredients is missing, the parent who holds the child “accountable” (to use a government term) by paying for the costly lessons and overseeing progress, has a right—and I dare say a duty—to discontinue the hopeless enterprise.

Why not make government beholden to the same simple rules that govern childhood?

What instruction or “oversight” do DOE employees receive? Do taxpayers ever really get to say, “We aren’t getting our money’s worth,” or, “You’re not good at this,” and cancel the arrangement? Who holds the accountability police accountable?

What happens when DOE workers do not learn from their mistakes and are not eager to improve? Do they go on muddling through sloppy practices, reinforcing bad habits and inflicting the painful outcomes on the rest of us, like a child disinterested in an extracurricular activity for which he or she has no talent? You bet.

Take the current school accountability debacle, for example. In an attempt to “ensure that every child … has the opportunity to obtain a high-quality education,” the Obama administration issued accountability requirements as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act. They require “each state education agency to have an accountability system that is state-determined and based on multiple indicators, including, but not limited to, at least one indicator of school quality or student success and, at a state’s discretion, an indicator of student growth.”

The Office of the Federal Register further states on its website, “The ESSA also significantly modified the requirements for differentiating among schools and the basis on which schools must be identified for further comprehensive or targeted support and improvement. Additionally, the ESSA no longer requires a particular sequence of escalating interventions in Title I schools that are identified and continue to fail to make adequate yearly progress. Instead, it gives SEAs and local educational agencies discretion to determine the evidence-based interventions that are appropriate to address the needs of identified schools.”

If the above sounds like a mess of acronyms meant to confuse, that’s because it is. In layman’s terms, it means: Under ESSA, state assessment scores won’t be the only thing that matters when rating schools. We are giving state and local educational agencies power to deal with bad schools in a few different ways we, the biggest educational agency of all, say are acceptable.

How well students perform on state tests used to be the go-to indicator of whether schools were educating kids or not. That was before the government determined long-standing standards weren’t good enough and decided to make them even worse. Thus, the Common Core State Standards were born and implemented, along with the standardized tests aligned to them. States had their arms twisted: Either adopt the standards or else lose your federal education funding.

Common Core testing has been disastrous. In Massachusetts, students have taken three different state exams in the past three years. Alaska has suspended standardized testing entirely for the time being. Opt-out rates are high and getting higher every year.

Long story short: DOE wanted to make itself seem worthwhile, so it adopted “accountability requirements” as its generic and unassuming project. The accountability bandwagon meant new standards and new tests, all of which have, like a game of dominoes, one after another fallen flat. A few failing years later and suddenly the government says, “You know, test scores don’t matter that much, after all.” Coincidence? I think not.

Clearly, the status quo isn’t working. Federal standards and increased high-stakes testing are not the answer. Parents know what’s good for their child, and what do they do when their child is struggling in school, in a sport, or in some other pursuit? They try doing things a different way or try something different altogether.

In the case of the DOE, I suggest the agency take a cue from parents and do something a different way, by making schools completely accountable to parents, and it should try something different altogether, by going away.

[Originally Published at Virginian Pilot]