Innovation or accountability? Do we have to choose?

Innovation or accountability? Because of the limited way we, as a nation and as a sector, currently measure quality and enforce accountability, education reform efforts too often fall cleanly on one or the other side of a bright line. As one Education Week article put it, “Schools want to utilize new tools and embrace different ways of teaching, but not at the expense of their performance on state achievement tests.”

But that tradeoff – innovation vs. accountability – ultimately hurts kids. Many educators avoid promising new approaches and tools for fear of a temporary dip in standardized test scores. As Rick Hess says, “The way you measure quality and holds folks accountable is going to limit your ability to solve problems in new ways.”

There has to be a smarter approach. How can we broaden school quality measures in a way facilitates innovation? Other than standardized test-scores, what evidence-based measures can help us document and ensure quality? Recent research by two cutting-edge organizations offers a possible solution.

  • Mass Insight conducted research into high performing high poverty schools and found that the schools all had similar conditions that led to success: Students feel safe, have positive and enduring relationships with teachers, and receive individualized instruction. Staff, meanwhile, feel a shared responsibility for achievement collaborate with one another.
  • The Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) analyzed over 15 years of data and found that schools that improved performance had a set of similar characteristics: Students felt their school was safe and orderly, and coursework was demanding. For their part, teachers believed their students could succeed, worked collaboratively and felt a responsibility for improving student outcomes. Likewise, principals set a clear vision for school success and ensured school engagement with families.

It seems clear that we need to find a way to systematically link the ways we drive accountability and innovation.

Measuring quality based on these types of inputs, as well as on outcomes, frees schools to experiment with innovative new approaches by giving educators the confidence to weather temporary dips in test scores. Certainly these qualitative conditions are more difficult to objectively document than standardized test scores, but for the sake of giving dedicated educators the flexibility to innovate in ways that may drive radical improvements in student achievement, doing so is both critical and possible. CCSR captured all of their data through surveys, and they have made the survey, analysis and reporting tools available for use by others.

And cost shouldn’t be used as an excuse for failure to implement these measures. Although widespread implementation would be costly, it’s unlikely to be as expensive as developing and then administering 408 new standardized tests. More importantly, the costs of limiting innovation (as measured by the number of kids’ who continue to be underserved by schools, and the number of educators constrained by test-based measures of quality) are unacceptable.

The Education Week article that I quoted above leads with the story of a North Carolina superintendent who braced for a few years of lower scores as the district implemented new approaches to personalized learning. But what he saw was staggering: “In three years,” notes the article, “the district went from ranking 30th in the state in school performance measurements to fourth.”

Given those results, it seems clear that we need to find a way to systematically link the ways we drive accountability and innovation. States must consider how to design and implement reliable accountability measures that set an evidence-based bar for performance and allow for innovative reform in schools.