Tag: accountability

Want Accountability in Education? Empower Parents

The selection of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education has exposed longstanding tensions among education reformers who are united in their support for expanding educational choice but divided over the government’s role in regulating such programs.

The schism is often portrayed as being between those who support or reject “accountability,” but this isn’t quite accurate. The real disagreement is not whether there should be accountability, but to whom schools should be held accountable: parents or bureaucrats. As Lindsey Burke and I argue in a new report published by the Heritage Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, educational choice programs like education savings accounts should place the accountability for academic outcomes with parents.

For decades, the term “accountability” primarily referred, in education policy circles, to government regulations intended to ensure quality. That’s because most children attend their assigned district schools, which are not directly answerable to parents and function as de facto monopolies. As Lindsey and I explain:

A distinctive feature of monopolies is lack of accountability. Because district schools are not held directly accountable to parents, some policymakers have attempted to impose accountability through top-down government regulations. Yet decades of attempts to regulate district schools into quality have had little effect. Unfortunately, too many policymakers have still come to see centralized government regulations as synonymous with “accountability” rather than an inferior alternative to direct accountability to parents, and have therefore sought to impose similar regulations on choice programs. However, regulations designed for a monopoly system are inappropriate for a market-based system.

In a market-based system, producers are held directly accountable to consumers for results. The government sets certain rules against fraud or health and safety standards, but the consumers ultimately decide whether a product or service meets their needs. Likewise, the government could ensure that ESA funds are spent on qualifying educational products and services, but the accountability for results should lie with parents, who are in the best position to evaluate those results. Holding education providers directly accountable to parents creates a feedback loop that does not exist in more centralized, top-down systems like the district schools. As social scientist Yuval Levin has argued, this enables the system to “channel social knowledge from the bottom up rather than…impose technical knowledge from the top down.” This channeling is accomplished “through a process of experimentation, evaluation, and evolution.”

If we want an education system that makes significant improvements in quality over time, education providers must be free to innovate and parents must be free to choose the providers that work best for their own children. This system evolves over time because higher-quality providers will attract more parents and lower-quality providers will face pressure to either improve or shut down.

However, technocratic attempts to guarantee quality through imposing uniform standards can interrupt this evolutionary process.

The Price of Technocratic Accountability

The technocratic approach to accountability requires that all schools are judged according to uniform metrics, therefore the technocrats rely heavily (indeed, almost exclusively) on standardized test scores, particularly in math and language arts. The technocratic reformers want to use these scores to set a minimum standard, meaning “underperforming” schools would be excluded from receiving voucher funds–or, in the case of charter schools, be shut down entirely–even against the will of parents who still want to enroll their children there.

Let us be clear about what is at stake. The technocratic approach would eliminate a family’s least-bad educational alternative, leaving children worse off “for their own good.” For example, parents may have chosen a private or charter school that did not perform well on the state’s standardized test overall, but the school may have provided a safer environment than the local district school. Or perhaps the school was succeeding at its mission to aid the most at-risk students, but the state’s uniform “accountability” system failed to take its mission into account. The damage done to children who lose the opportunity to attend schools that their parents believe are better than the alternative is incalculable.

We should also be realistic about the unintended consequences of over-reliance on test scores. Although standardized tests can provide parents with useful information about their child’s academic performance, using them to impose uniform standards that so narrowly define “quality” creates perverse incentives that narrow the curriculum, stifle innovation, and can drive away quality schools from participating in the choice program. As Lindsey and I explain:

When schools are rewarded or punished based on their students’ performance on math and reading tests, they have a strong incentive to divert their time and resources to tested subjects and away from others. A study by the Center on Education Policy found that the time district schools spent on subjects besides math and reading declined considerably after Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind Act (NLCB), which mandated that states require district schools to administer the state standardized math and reading tests in grades three through eight and report the results. In the five years after NCLB was implemented, approximately 62 percent of elementary district schools reported increasing the amount of time spent on English language arts and/or math, and 44 percent reported decreasing time spent on social studies, science, art and music, physical education, lunch, or recess.

The narrowing curriculum is particularly alarming because, as Jay P. Greene has noted, recent research has found that “later success in math, reading, and science depends on early acquisition of the kind of ‘general knowledge’ and fine-motor skills learned through art and other subjects.” In other words, a narrower curriculum not only deprives students of having a broader and more enriching education, but also negatively impacts their performance in the tested subjects. “If we narrow education to the mechanics of math and reading as captured by yearly testing,” Greene concludes, “we short-change the broader knowledge that is the key to academic success later.”

Mandating a single test exacerbates this phenomenon. Within the tested subjects, schools have a strong incentive to teach the concepts that will be on the mandated test. This incentive to “teach to the test” can result in a de facto curriculum. For example, if a school had been teaching math concepts A, B, and C in grade 7, but the new state test was going to cover concepts B, D, and E, the school would almost certainly drop concepts A and C in favor of D and E, even if the math teachers believe that the original curriculum was superior. Keeping the original curriculum would put their students at a disadvantage on the state test vis-à-vis students at other schools that had aligned their curriculum to the test. This standardization might make sense in a world in which there was one right way to teach math, or at least one right order to teach concepts, but that is not the case.

Again, this isn’t to say that we should do away with testing entirely. As Robert Pondiscio recently wrote, standardized tests should be “used to illuminate and inform parent choice, but not to limit it.” Tests can provide valuable information, but using the tests as the sole or primary metric of performance does more harm than good. What’s needed is a more comprehensive understanding of quality that considers the needs of individual students, not just the “typical” student, and that’s something that parents are in a much better position to determine than technocrats.

Body Camera Scorecard Reveals Nationwide Failure to Promote Transparency and Accountability

An updated body camera scorecard highlights a disturbing state of affairs in body camera policy that lawmakers should strongly resist. A majority of the body camera policies examined by Upturn and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights received the lowest possible score when it came to officer review of footage and citizens alleging misconduct having access to footage, meaning that the departments were either silent on the issues or have policies in place that are contrary to the civil rights principles outlined in the scorecard. Such policies do not promote transparency and accountability and serve as a reminder that body cameras can only play a valuable role in criminal justice reform if they’re governed by the right policies.

Upturn and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights looked at the body camera policies in fifty departments, including all departments in major cities that have either outfitted their officers with body cameras or will do so in the near future. Other departments that were scored include departments that received at least $500,000 in body camera grants from the Department of Justice as well as Baton Rouge Police Department and the Ferguson Police Department.

Each department was given one of four possible scores in eight categories (personal privacy, officer review, biometric use, footage retention, etc.). Departments were either awarded a red ex, a yellow circle, or a green check, depending on how consistent their body camera policy is with the civil rights principles outlined in the scorecard, with a red ex indicating inconsistency or silence and a green check indicating consistency. A fourth score, the “?”, was awarded to policies that were not publicly available.

Below are the scoring criteria for officer review and footage access for citizens filing complaints:

 

 

 

Forty of the fifty departments received the lowest possible score for “Officer Review,” and not one received a green check.

When it comes to access to footage the scores are marginally better, with four departments being awarded green checks. However, thirty-nine of departments in the “Footage Access” category received the lowest score.

Thirty-five (70%) of the departments received the lowest possible score for both officer review and access to footage. Among these departments are some of the America’s largest, including the Los Angeles Police Department, the New York Police Department, the Houston Police Department, and the Philadelphia Police Department.

Regrettably, the federal government has sent body camera funds to departments with the lowest-scoring officer review and footage access policies. Eleven of the thirty-five departments that received a red ex for officer review and footage access were awarded at least $500,000 in body camera grants by the Department of Justice.

Body cameras can only be tools for increased transparency and accountability in law enforcement with the right policies in place. Unfortunately, Upturn and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ scorecard reveals not only that many departments have poor accountability and transparency policies but also that the Department of Justice does not review these policies as disqualifying when it comes to body camera grants. 

 

Educational Choice: Getting It Right

Over the last couple weeks, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has been holding its second annual Wonk-a-thon. In the wake of Nevada enacting a groundbreaking, nearly universal education savings account (ESA) law, Fordham asked practitioners, scholars, and policy analysts what Nevada must “get right in order to provide positive outcomes for kids and taxpayers.”

Readers can vote for the wonk who offered the wisest analysis here. For a summary of the various recommendations, see here.

ESAs have the potential to radically remake the education landscape. Rather than choose just a single school, parents can use ESA funds for a variety of educational goods and services. Students may spend part of a day in a classroom, part on a computer, and part with personal tutors. Someday, students may even learn in “education malls” where they will choose from among numerous education providers for each subject, each with a different approach or focus. Or perhaps there will be explosive growth in full or partial homeschooling or blended learning. Frankly, we cannot predict with any certainty how education will change over the next few decades in a robust market.

Does Sweden’s Voucher Program Need Stricter Regulation?

Slate recently published a badly misinformed piece about Sweden’s voucher program, which I addressed here. One of the other responses to the Slate piece was written by Swedish economist Tino Sanandaji for NRO. Sanandaji did an excellent job of showing that the voucher program cannot plausibly explain Sweden’s test score decline and usefully explored some of the more likely causes.

Though I agree with much of what Sanandaji wrote, his piece occasionally endorses heavier regulation of the program for reasons that are either not apparent or inconsistent with the evidence. For instance, he rightly observes that the Swedish government requires universities to accept high school grades as a key admissions criterion but does not permit them to take into account differential grading practices across high schools. This, he notes, puts significant external pressure on high schools to inflate grades. But despite acknowledging this, he later refers to “other problems caused by the [voucher/school choice] reform … such as grade inflation,” implying that this “corruption” is “caused by the lack of [state] control.”

And yet the evidence he presents points to the opposite conclusion: that grade inflation is particularly problematic in Sweden because of imprudent government intrusion into university admissions policy. Consider as a contrast the case of the United States, where universities are free to take high schools’ grading practices into account during admissions. We still have differential grade inflation across high schools, but it is less of a concern because universities can adjust for it. As the head of admissions at Brandeis University has observed, “It’s really not that hard [for colleges] to evaluate a school bearing in mind the differences in grading and weighting processes they employ.” In the absence of government meddling, high schools cannot secure admission to good colleges for their students simply by giving them all A’s.

Still more puzzling is Sanandaji’s criticism that “some private schools broke the rules to cherry-pick students.” This is curious because Sanandaji defends free markets on a number of other occasions, and a hallmark of free markets is that they rely on mutually voluntary exchange. So, naturally, schools in a relatively free marketplace want to enroll students they think they can successfully serve, just as families seek schools they believe can successfully serve them.

This does not mean that all private schools in a relatively free market will seek to serve only high-scoring or well-behaved students. In the United States, where the vast majority of private schools are free to admit students based on any criteria they like, many exist specifically to serve difficult-to-educate students that the typical public school is not well-equipped to teach. A study conducted in the mid-1990s found that public school districts were sending hundreds of thousands of students to the private sector for just that reason. Do some other private schools focus on serving high-performing students? Of course. But the largest share seem to place little or no emphasis on students’ prior academic performance, based on survey data from Arizona that I analyzed several years ago.

Several States Expand Educational Choice

On Friday, Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation that expands eligibility for the Florida’s longstanding scholarship tax credit (STC) program and creates a new education savings account for students with special needs. Earlier this year, Oklahoma expanded its STC program and Arizona expanded both its STC and education savings account programs. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed legislation creating a new STC program, though unfortunately it is limited only to low-income students assigned to government schools that are designated as “failing” by the state’s board of education. Students in “non-failing” schools that are nevertheless failing to meet their needs are not eligible to receive scholarships.

The changes to Florida’s scholarship program were mostly positive. Florida eliminated the requirement that students first spend a year at a government school before being eligible to receive a scholarship. Also, starting in 2016-17, the income eligibility cap for first-time recipients will increase to include middle-income families (from 185 percent of the federal poverty line to 260 percent), with priority given to lower-income students. Students from middle-income families will receive smaller scholarships. Students in foster homes will be eligible regardless of their foster family’s income.

Unfortunately, the law adds new rules regulating the operation of scholarship organizations. Florida already has the most regulated scholarship program in the nation, which explains why the state has only one scholarship organization while other states have dozens or even (in the case of Pennsylvania) hundreds.

Back in March, the bill’s prospects seemed dim. The Florida Speaker of the House and Senate President battled over whether to mandate that private schools administer the state test (i.e. – Common Core) as a condition of receiving scholarship students. As a result, the bill’s sponsor withdrew the legislation. That poison pill would have severely restricted school autonomy and parental choice. Fortunately, the resurrected bill that the governor signed into law did not mandate state tests. Participating schools must still administer nationally norm-referenced tests.

Florida’s new education savings account for students with special needs is based on Arizona’s highly popular program, but with a twist: nonprofit scholarship organizations will administer the program rather than the state, though the accounts will still use public funds.

Parents will be able to use the funds to pay for a variety of educational services, including private school tuition, tutoring, online education, curriculum, therapy, post-secondary educational institutions in Florida, and other defined educational services. … The maximum amount for the Personal Learning Scholarship Account shall be equivalent to 90 percent of the state and local funds reflected in the state funding formula that would have gone to the student had he or she attended public school.  

Students qualify if they reside in Florida and are eligible to enroll in kindergarten through 12th grade who have an Individualized Education Plan or have been diagnosed with one of the following: autism, Down syndrome, Intellectual disability, Prader-Willi syndrome, Spina-bifida, Williams syndrome, and kindergartners who are considered high-risk. 

Unfortunately, New York legislators ended the session without passing an educational choice bill, despite majority support in both chambers of the legislature and a promise by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to Timothy Cardinal Dolan that he would support STC legislation. Given the legislative support, the New York Post faulted Gov. Cuomo for the failure to pass the legislation:

The human tragedy, of course, is who will pay the price for Cuomo’s alliance with the Working Families Party & Co.: i.e., the children of actual working families, who have no avenues of escape from rotten public schools where they aren’t learning.

Education, Standards, and Private Certification

Can there be standards in education without the government imposing them?

Too many education policy wonks, including some with a pro-market bent, take it for granted that standards emanate solely from the government. But that does not have to be the case. Indeed, the lack of a government-imposed standard leaves space for competing standards. As a result of market incentives, these standards are likely to be higher, more diverse, more comprehensive, and more responsive to change than the top-down, one-size-fits-all standards that governments tend to impose. I explain why this is so at Education Next today in What Education Reformers Can Learn from Kosher Certification.” 

Educational Choice IS Accountability

There’s been a lot of confusion over what constitutes “accountability” in education lately. In response, representatives of the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, Friedman Foundation, Heartland Institute, and the Center for Education Reform have issued a joint open letter explaining why the best form of accountability is directly to parents.

To some, accountability means government-imposed standards and testing, like the Common Core State Standards, which advocates believe will ensure that every child receives at least a minimally acceptable education. Although well-intentioned, their faith is misplaced and their prescription is inimical to the most promising development in American education: parental choice.

True accountability comes not from top-down regulations but from parents financially empowered to exit schools that fail to meet their child’s needs. Parental choice, coupled with freedom for educators, creates the incentives and opportunities that spur quality. The compelled conformity fostered by centralized standards and tests stifles the very diversity that gives consumer choice its value.

This confusion about accountability is not limited just to tests. It even extends to personnel management. An example of this confusion comes to us today from a Republican legislator in Tennesee:

Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, a voucher critic, has filed an amendment that would tweak Gov. Bill Haslam’s voucher bill by requiring private schools that take public scholarship dollars to use the controversial Tennessee Evaluator Acceleration Model [TEAM] to grade its teachers.

The reason government schools need such heavy-handed evaluation systems is because tenure and union contracts make it nearly impossible to fire a teacher. According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ “School and Staffing Survey,” during the 2010-11 school year, only 1.9 percent of Tennessee teachers were dismissed or did not have their contracts renewed due to poor performance, up from 1.1 percent in 2007-08.

By contrast, private schools have greater flexibility than government schools over hiring, firing, and evaluating teachers. They’re also held directly accountable to parents, so there is market pressure not to retain teachers who perform poorly.

Moreover, the legislator’s argument that the government should force its evaluation system on private entities because they are accepting students who are publicly subsidized is patently absurd. It’s like arguing that all employees at grocery stores that accept food stamps or hospitals that accept Medicaid must be evaluated according to the same metrics as DMV employees.

State and local governments have the prerogative to devise whatever accountability measures they deem necessary to operate their schools and manage their employees. Private schools should continue to enjoy the freedom to set their own goals and to determine how best to measure their own performance and we should empower parents to choose the school that best meets their children’s needs.