Invitation to a New Path Forward: Seeking Equity Together Through Assessment and Accountability
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As stewards of America’s noble endeavor to educate our children, it is our collective privilege and responsibility to marshal the resources, skills, and knowledge necessary to ensure that each and every child is prepared for lifelong learning, a meaningful career, and productive engagement in our communities and broader civil society. In recent history we have raised expectations for our students, educators, and the systems that serve them, and have developed broad policies and programs intended to assess progress and hold ourselves accountable for results. We are beginning to see, however, that the consequences of our current approach to assessment and accountability are not living up to intentions, and that new solutions – as well as new ways of working together – are required.
This invitation communicates what we – the Center for Innovation in Education in partnership with our local, state, and national learning communities – are learning about how we can better seek equitable ,authentic, and sustainable improvements in education through new approaches to assessment and accountability design. It is offered as a launching pad for exploring the potential to support such work in partnership with state and local leaders and communities in the states.
I. RECOGNIZE WHERE WE ARE
Even before the tumult of 2020, we recognized that the assessment and accountability structures we built were not working. As Gene Wilhoit wrote to chief state school officers in September, the current system’s shortfalls are plain to see. Even where one can show important gains through the use of end of- year summative assessments for institutional accountability and oversight, the negative impact of these systems on the most critical goal, improving teaching and learning, is well-documented: a narrowing of curriculum; preoccupation with the performance of “bubble” kids in tested subjects while others are ignored; decreased student motivation; increased pressure to cheat; and growing disillusionment among the teaching workforce. At a systems level, over-reliance on top-down external pressures to coerce changes in behavior has removed responsibility and ownership from those closest to students, causing them to perceive assessment not as integral to improving outcomes but as a state endeavor with which they must minimally comply.
Families, too, have become increasingly disillusioned by assessment and accountability systems they perceive as intrusive, punitive, and perpetuating systemic racism. Indeed, the current system consumes considerable percentages of taxpayer money and instructional time to identify results that, in the eyes of those inside classrooms, are already known. Disparities in performance within and across schools and districts do require surfacing, therefore we do agree that states cannot abdicate their important role in
holding public institutions accountable for serving each and every child. But the invasive and punitive manner in which current systems enact that role – especially when consequences for persistent achievement gaps are prescribed without also providing resources to make necessary improvements – insufficiently promotes improvement. Instead the current system largely shrugs at resource disparities like differences in local tax-based revenue and educator experience that are historical consequences of overtly racist policies such as redlining. Consequently, low marks on state assessments and accountability
measures repel home buyers, lowering property values and prompting a vicious cycle of disinvestment in under-resourced communities. Thus, historically underserved families feel inappropriately blamed for achievement gaps and are disproportionately punished by them, too.
Now, the co-evolving crises of 2020 including the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recession, and social awakening to systemic racism have deepened stakeholders’ discontent with assessment and accountability systems exposed as inequitable and disconnected from reality. They perceive the mismatch between standardized” assessments and students’ wildly inequitable opportunities to learn (let alone variable testing conditions) as schools turn remote. They rebuke leveling judgment on students, families, and schools based on an oversimplified sense of “results” while ignoring the far more complex indicators of student and community health and progress that are of greatest local concern. In the eyes of many
stakeholders, state assessment and accountability systems are presently irrelevant.
For these reasons, we must recognize and reject the myth that what we have created is helping as intended. Instead, to truly improve education, create more equitable systems, and positively impact teaching and learning – in a pandemic and after – we must approach assessment and accountability design in very different ways.
II. RESTRUCTURE HOW WE OPERATE
State education leaders may be drawn to retrofit prior assessment and accountability machinery with technical fixes, ignoring the adaptive challenge caused by shifts in context and growing disillusionment among multiple stakeholders. Or, they may be tempted to solve the “assessment problem” on its own through assessment system redesign or innovation pilots without jointly addressing what Gene has called the “web of dependence” between current standardized end-of-year assessments and entire systems of state and federal accountability, and all the other system components they implicate. We believe both “business as usual” and “siloed tinkering” approaches are inadequate responses incapable of meeting our ongoing commitment to serve every child. Instead, we are learning that true equity-seeking transformation requires not only rethinking what we do but also fundamentally restructuring how we work together across all parts of the system.
A key insight emerging across many fields –education, business, national defense, sociology, and anthropology, to name a few – is that in complex social systems, and especially in times of turbulence, advancements are made not by experts handing down pre-constructed solutions but by marshalling the collective wisdom and capabilities of diverse actors across the whole system to find emerging solutions. In doing so, system leaders gain rich insight on reality (where things are here and now, not where we assume or wish them to be) and are best able to collaborate to achieve meaningful shifts in culture, behavior, and outcomes. On the other hand, leaders who wall off diverse input or prescribe a “right path” risk worsening the situation by creating unforeseen negative side-effects, losing credibility, and squandering distributed ownership and buy-in even if (and it’s a big “if”) desired results are achieved.
In education, we must recognize that our current assessment and accountability systems – like the agencies that created them – operate paternalistically by discounting the expertise of local actors and placing the onus on state leaders to know what is best and prescribe a “right way” for others to follow. As a result, like any underutilized muscle, the capacity of local leaders and educators to self-regulate and drive improvement in assessment and accountability must be invigorated if systems are to achieve the strong foundation necessary for sustained improvement in outcomes for all students.
Similarly, education departments themselves deeply silo their processes based on a flawed sense of predictability and disregard for a more coherent view of systems thinking. Both leaders and staffers are prone to think programmatically, with the majority of staff acting as caretakers implementing directives with a compliance mindset. Walled gardens intended to promote efficiency prevent the kinds of collaborative, cross-cutting conversations necessary to respond nimbly to change and inhibit shared ownership of the work. It is little surprise that buy-in both internal and external to education agencies is often so low and that talk of underperformance catalyzes more push-back and defensiveness than real desire to change patterns of behavior.
We also must recognize that embedded deep in the hierarchies of the current education system are remnants of white supremist assumptions that directly limit our ability to seek more equitable outcomes for our students. For example, when a community with significant racial minorities is persistently underperforming, our systems will often value the perspectives of powerful, typically-white experts from outside the community more than the lived experiences and expertise of community members themselves. Education agencies are more prone to shallow inclusion efforts, such as token focus groups and surveys that inadequately reach intended populations, than to be led by or enlist members of historically marginalized communities as partners and co-creators of systems that will actually work for all of us.
No single person is responsible for this substandard way of operating, but all of us can work together to change it. We believe that it is well within reach for education system leaders, in partnership with their full agencies and stakeholders across state and local communities, to pursue equity-seeking work that shifts paradigms around educational assessment and accountability; and in doing so, effectively improves outcomes for all students, especially those most historically underserved.
III. A NEW PATH
We believe this work lives or dies by the strength of relationships with and among those directly engaged in the learning process: students, educators, and – increasingly with the ubiquity of remote learning – parents, families, and community members. These stakeholders represent the beating heart of the educational enterprise and their influence is felt not only on the “instructional core” but reverberates throughout the system. They are, as such, the primary stakeholders around which the design of new assessment and accountability models should be centered.
Centering assessment and accountability system design around those closest to the learning process means more than inviting their input through more frequent and longer meetings or focus groups at the state department or district central office. Rather, it requires building state-to-local coalitions and then discerning when to share or cede power and decision-making authority, within what structures of oversight, and with what reciprocal investments in capacity-building. It means building inclusive, interdependent relationships and commitments that forge levels of trust necessary for distributed accountability to take root.
This new way forward is premised on a balance between (1) local organization and leadership of “laboratories of learning” and (2) state support and responsibility for systems-level implications and for ensuring every child is served.
In their role, districts assume leadership for organizing primary stakeholders and partners in local “laboratories of learning” aimed at creating more balanced assessment and accountability models that better serve community needs and strengthen teaching and learning. Districts can invite conversations and build partnerships with diverse stakeholders in their communities, including representatives from groups least often involved in education transformation and decision-making. When districts are leading in this manner, it is they who are best positioned to lead collaborative efforts to prototype new accountability metrics that better align with outcomes most meaningful to the community, and to innovate different ways of collecting evidence of progress towards those outcomes. Similarly, when reciprocal trust is established with primary stakeholders, districts are best situated to recognize whether innovations are or are not having desired effects on learning and why or why not, and to work with their partners to make adjustments.
From their system-wide vantage point, state education leaders are responsible for animating the work, engendering trust and commitment to a new path forward, converting local insights into systemic transformation, and providing oversight that ensures equitable learning supports for every child. Specifically, the state’s role, in partnership with intermediaries and local leadership where applicable, includes:
Communicating an unwavering commitment to pursue equity and serve each and every learner;
Initiating and facilitating conversations with diverse stakeholders statewide to build awareness; reach a consensus appraisal of the current assessment and accountability system, its shortcomings, and the need to work differently; and surface a vision for a better way forward;
Creating conditions (policies, funding, structural supports, networking, and other incentives) that enable local “laboratories of learning” based on the common goal of creating more equitable and balanced assessment and accountability models that strengthen the learning process for all students;
Validating local results, and ensuring consistent alignment to equity goals and adherence to shared principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion; and
Listening to and learning alongside local work and supporting sense-making (what is happening, what shared meaning is created) and application to broader systems change.
That latter role – supporting application to broader systems change – is critical and involves several wrap- around tracks of work that must be pre-loaded from the beginning, not attempted as an afterthought; otherwise the “web of dependency” among system components will snuff out progress. These essential wrap-around tracks of work are within the charge of state leadership working in reciprocal partnerships with intermediaries and local leaders and include:
Working within state and district agencies to improve capacity to support local work as partners and co-creators (including both structural reorganization and culture change as needed);
Keeping focus on the long-term goal of system-wide transformation, including creating strategies for involving increasing numbers of districts in assessment and accountability redesign (through communications campaigns, defining tiers of involvement based on readiness, building tools and systems useful to onboarding, and supporting strategies for scaling through approximation);
Listening to and supporting educator professional learning communities as they enhance their roles in supporting student learning; Enlisting, engaging, and creating transparent flows of communication with both political actors and the broader public to garner broad understanding and support throughout all phases of the work;
Creating routines and mechanisms through which robust, contextual information on progress is routinely monitored, reflected on, and used to inform corrections or enact broader systems change; and
Addressing implications on funding and governance, including implications for the investment of time, talent, finances, and/or tool development.
While these responsibilities may feel dauntingly comprehensive, if the hard work of building trusting, reciprocal partnerships is front-loaded, the work will not rest solely on the state to carry out. In addition, some of these functions may be supported by partner organizations as we will describe in the final section of this invitation.
We envision the work unfolding through two phases: an initial exploratory, coalition-building phase, followed by a longer phase of deep transformational work, as illustrated below.
IV. WHERE TO BEGIN AND WHAT TO EXPECT
Phase One: Exploration and Coalition-Building
Before any tangible work begins, we must work to build broad awareness and understanding of the need for change in our approach to assessment and accountability, similar to what we’ve attempted to communicate in the first sections of this invitation. Importantly, these conversations should include representatives from groups that have been historically under-represented in education system decision- making so that emerging solutions reflect the authentic needs of all those impacted by the system. First steps should also include engaging the State Board of Education, State Legislature, and Governor to ensure they are willing to help carry this agenda.
Next state leaders, in partnership with local leaders, lead diverse stakeholders in collaborative exercises to envision a better way forward. Co-creation is paramount because the resulting vision must feel owned by all stakeholders, especially those closest to the learning process as well as those internal to state and district agencies. This critical step “plows the field” to prepare it for the deep local work that comes next.
Then, guided by the emerging “North Star” vision for equitable assessment and accountability, states initiate exploratory conversations with districts to determine willingness to lead local “laboratories of learning” tied to the statewide agenda. Questions of broad-based will as well as district capacity, stability, and expertise should inform the conversations and shape the collaborative creation of tiers of readiness reflecting how and when districts might engage in the statewide learning agenda, and what additional capacity-building supports are needed at each tier. It should be noted that, while some districts may begin the work first, all of them should be involved in the broader conversation about where we are headed and why; and all should be increasingly looped-in according to readiness milestones if and when Phase Two work proceeds.
Meanwhile, this initial phase of work must make inroads in re-patterning state education agency behaviors to be better able to work collaboratively and support local laboratories of learning – otherwise departments will too readily revert to entrained top-down behaviors. State chiefs should look across departments (not just assessment or accountability staff but also directors of equity, inclusion, innovation, teaching and learning, and others) to examine which organizational assets should be directly mobilized to support this work. Further, we recommend chiefs lead an effort to change agency culture by building understanding of the limitations of how we have operated in the past and the need to work differently – more collaboratively – moving forward. This does not mean that sweeping cultural change is expected by the end of Phase One, but that a vector is set, awareness is raised, and important conversations have begun.
Some of these Phase One actions might be carried out with the support of partner organizations knowledgeable not only in assessment and accountability but also in equity-seeking systems transformation, especially those that have relationships and credibility at both state and local levels. For example, such organizations may be able to assist state and local leaders in framing stakeholder conversations, ensuring diverse representation, facilitating inclusive processes for collaboration that balance power dynamics so that all voices are heard, advise on the creation of processes for partnering with districts around a shared learning agenda, and/or support conversations leading to structural and cultural changes inside education agencies.
Resulting from Phase One, the state and its partners will achieve:
A shared state-wide narrative capturing the dire need and urgent opportunity to seek equity by rethinking assessment and accountability;
A shared state-wide vision for a better way forward;
An initial plan for structuring Phase Two work; and
A broad and inclusive structure of relationships that can serve as a coalition for change, whether or not the state decides to move into Phase Two work.
Upon completion of Phase One, we imagine that the state and its local partners would pause to ask whether there is desire and capacity to launch into Phase Two at this time. If not, participants can still realize the value of the assets created in Phase One for future improvement efforts. But if the state and its partners are ready, a timeline and milestones are established for the deeper, longer work of Phase Two.
Phase Two: Deep Transformation Work through Local Laboratories of Learning, Sense-Making, and Application to Broader Systems Change
With the groundwork laid in Phase One, states are poised to launch a Phase Two process through which local, district-run “laboratories of learning” prototype and test ideas and models designed to address their local priories in ways aligned to the statewide vision of more equitable systems of assessment and accountability, as identified in Phase One. Meanwhile state education leaders and their partners carry out the responsibilities and wrap-around tracks of work as described above in Section III. Importantly, we emphasize that state leaders, local leaders, and communities should collaborate to routinely monitor and synthesize what is learned within and across sites. States also support the work by identifying and applying insights toward broader systems change, supporting increasing engagement within and across districts, continuously engaging with and garnering public and political will, and ensuring adherence to statewide equity goals. Like in Phase One, some of these Phase Two actions may be carried out in collaboration with partner organizations skilled at framing, advising, process design, and/or facilitation.
Resulting from Phase Two, the state and its partners will achieve:
A variety of models, prototypes, or elements that improve local systems of assessment and accountability and can be approximated elsewhere in the state at increasing scale;
Directional movement of the structures and dispositions of local systems that, when a tipping point is reached, trigger statewide (and potentially, national) systems transformation; and
Muscle tone” (i.e. capacities, attitudes, and trusting relationships) supporting a reciprocal approach to accountability in which responsibility for outcomes is shared across all levels of the system.
While we cannot promise a rapid timeline for Phase Two results to materialize (i.e. we can expect more than a one-year project), we emphasize that the slow work of building trust and shared responsibility is far more effective and able to substantially improve teaching and learning for all students, especially the most historically underserved, than a quick but shallow top-down mandate. To quote Dwight D. Eisenhower, 4 star General in command at Normandy during WWII and 34th President of the United States, “There are no victories at bargain prices.” But there are, already throughout your state, partners and allies who will commit to seeing it through. They merely need to be invited in.
November 17, 2020 This Invitation has been prepared for the Interstate Learning Community by Jennifer Poon in collaboration with Gene Wilhoit, Paul Leather, Linda Pittenger, and the team at C!E, as a follow-up to Gene's September 21, 2020 letter to state chiefs and the education field.