The New York State Education Department recently unveiled the final draft of the state’s accountability plan, as required under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The biggest goal in the new accountability plan is to broaden how school success is measured, reaching beyond test scores and graduation rates. One new accountability indicator the State was considering, evaluating schools on their efforts to teach an integrated, diverse population, was not included in the final state accountability plan but the State has indicated it is continuing to consider how such a measure could be included.
New York’s accountability system could certainly use improvement, but focusing on evaluating how well a school is integrated makes the same mistake New York has suffered from for decades: measuring a school’s inputs while ignoring the outcomes. This is one of the key lessons New York should have learned from its successful charter sector.
Charter schools intentionally address that problem head on: schools have autonomy to modify the various school inputs however they see fit, so long as they produce positive outcomes. One of the purposes of enacting New York’s charter school law was specifically to “provide schools with a method to change from rule-based to performance-based accountability systems.” Yet, nearly 20 years later, the Education Department and Board of Regents persist in seeking to evaluate schools not on the results they achieve, but on their compliance with whatever inputs the Department deems to be important in the current accountability cycle.
This is not to say that integration isn’t important. It just highlights the fact that how New York State measures school quality is all over the map - and is certainly not outcomes-focused.
Students at Sisulu-Walker Charter School, one of the state's oldest charters
The ultimate question is how the Board of Regents should balance the inputs and the structure of schools with actual student outputs for the new accountability plan under ESSA. In many charters, incredible growth, success, and graduation rates can be overshadowed by a Board hand-wringing over demographics when a charter doesn't look exactly like a highly segregated district school. It is a mistake and should not be repeated in the broader accountability system. Again, this doesn't mean demographics are irrelevant. Do we really want a system where good schools are sanctioned on enrollment demographics if it is otherwise performing well, especially if the measure or goal for those demographics are based on extreme fluctuations in the concentration of at-risk students from school to school?
Some charter schools enroll 95% or more minority students and have shown exceptional results. Others intentionally seek racial and socio-economic integration and diversity and prove that schools can work for all types of students. But both these types of schools seek to be judged where it matters: on academic results.
Charters were first envisioned as experiments from which traditional public schools and districts could learn. One lesson charters have proven is that schools can succeed in educating all children if they are given autonomy from centralized mandates and instead evaluated based on their results. With this latest proposal, focusing on school inputs and structure, the state is again ignoring the only thing that should matter: are students actually learning?
In many of charter schools, the answer is already “yes”. We should pull back on these unsophisticated accountability metrics and instead focus where it counts.