Accountability and the Achievement Gap


Those promoting accountability as the best way to close the “achievement gap,” focus their sights on what they identify as educational reforms. With Republicans in control of the legislature, and Reps. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton), Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington), and Sen. Gen Olson (R-Minnetrista) in leadership positions, several measures were front-and-center during the last session. Other groups also advocate for accountability, but may not agree with the entire agenda.

Student testing

Reform advocates promote setting high standards and establishing measurable goals to hold schools and teachers accountable to specific outcomes. Through testing, schools are to demonstrate measurable improvement on standardized test scores. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), adopted in 2001, requires all students to achieve proficiency, as measured by standardized tests, in all subjects by the year 2014. Scores are reported by racial and economic sub-groups. Prior to that date, schools must make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) towards that goal or lose federal funding. Creating common expectations is deemed essential to improving educational quality for all students, which in turn will close achievement gaps.

Critics of student testing approaches argue that they blame schools alone for educational performance. A study by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice concluded that: “Poor nutrition and illness cause students (a) to miss school more often and (b) to be less prepared to learn when they attend. Within the disadvantaged home, parents often have relationships with their children that are, emotionally and physically, less healthy. These unhealthy relationships are reinforced in part by economic pressures that induce conflicts between parents and children.” From this perspective, addressing harmful effects of social and economic disadvantage is seen as a crucial component of “any effort to reduce educational inequality.”

Others say that this approach motivates teachers to give excessive attention to test preparation, or “teach to the test,” that it stifles critical thinking and creativity in favor of memorization, , and exposes students to a narrower curriculum. Plus there are questions about what test scores actually measure. Education Minnesota reports that, “The national consensus of education researchers is that student test scores or test score growth…are not, by themselves, an accurate measure of teacher effectiveness.” Among the reasons: scores are “too inconsistent and subject to change (depending on the statistical method used, the year or the class)….”

Rewarding and punishing schools based on performance

Shifting school funding to those schools that meet or exceed established performance standards has been a foundation of the No Child Left Behind Act. Those who favor such an approach argue that linking funding to performance gives schools the incentive to improve because punishment is so harsh if they do not.

Critics say that a multitude of factors affecting school performance are ignored by this approach, that it evaluates schools removed from their socioeconomic context and that its punishments are far too severe. Recent reports by the Education Trust and Heritage Foundation suggest that responsibility for educational inequity lies solely with schools. The Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practices warns that “…(T)he same view underpinning these recent reports—that schools are almost entirely to blame for educational inequity—is also a basic assumption now embedded in educational policy at both the state and federal levels.” They recommend that policy makers take a more comprehensive approach to addressing basic disadvantages caused by poverty.

Besides poverty, Education Week reports that researchers are exploring “more subtle factors” that can contribute to achievement gaps such as peer pressure, student tracking, negative stereotyping, and test bias. “Research also has shown that students from a disadvantaged group can perform below their normal ability when confronted with negative stereotypes about their group.”

Basing teacher retention and pay on student performance

Traditionally, public school teacher pay and retention has been based on length of tenure and level of education. Reform advocates say that this system protects teachers because of their seniority, and results in dismissal of more innovative younger staff. They also contend that seniority rules leave children enrolled in distressed urban schools in the hands of the least experienced teachers. Teachers, they argue, should be retained and paid based on how well their students are performing.

Opponents of this approach argue that eliminating tenure allows school districts to fire older teachers and replace them with lower-cost younger teachers. They also say that it is punitive and makes scapegoats of teachers, when, in fact, student performance is the result of a complex set of factors, many of which lie outside the walls of the classroom. Furthermore, Education Minnesota says, “There is no evidence that departing teachers would actually be the weakest, or that they would be replaced by better teachers….” It adds, “The kind of merit pay programs offered in the private sector do not work well for teachers, who tend to value collaboration over competition and intrinsic satisfactions over external rewards.”

Increasing alternative licensure paths

Those who favor alternative licensure paths argue that by allowing college graduates to bypass some of the rigorous requirements necessary to become a teacher, such paths open the door for people with expertise in certain subject areas to more easily enter the profession. Minnesota passed an alternative licensure law this year. Candidates who complete the alternative licensure program and pass content and skills exams will earn a standard teaching license. According to Minnesota Public Radio, the stated goals of the legislation are to improve student achievement, increase diversity among teachers and help close the achievement gap.

Critics counter that there’s much more to teaching than knowledge of a subject; that alternative licensure paths do not account for skills required to plan effective curriculum, or knowledge of how children learn or develop cognitively. Education Minnesota has been an opponent of such legislation, saying that the state’s high standards are lowered by this law.

Expanding the number of charter schools:

Those who champion charter schools argue that with less regulation and greater autonomy come enhanced opportunities for teachers to teach, innovate, and attend to students needing more assistance, all of which help shrink the achievement gap. By providing families more choice, charter schools are said to give school districts added incentive to improve or risk losing the students they have.

In Rep. Sondra Erickson’s mind, Seed Academy & Harvest Preparatory School, an African American focused coeducational charter school serving grades K to 6, stands out, because it demonstrates how a different approach can alter the performance of students who fit the demographics of low achievers. Seed Academy’s student body, she notes, “consists primarily of black and poor students, often from single-parent homes.” Yet, with more structure, longer school days, and an emphasis on academics and moral character, indicators show that students are achieving. According to Erickson, free of many of the rules and regulations, teachers at charter schools have more room to innovate and to devote to good teaching.

Detractors argue that charter schools remove scarce resources from traditional schools. When a student opts to leave a mainstream public school in favor of a charter, much needed revenue goes out the door with them. Studies also show that most charter schools in the Twin Cities continue to underperform comparable traditional public schools and intensify segregation. Myron Orfield, Director of the Institute on Race and Poverty, has said that, “Rather than being a solution to the educational problems faced by low-income students and students of color, charter schools are deepening these problems,” in large part because they tend to be so economically and racially segregated.

State-funded vouchers for private school tuition

Supporters of vouchers say that they offer families more freedom and choice and that a free market is more likely to make public schools accountable than government regulations. With free market competition, public schools would have to improve their performance or risk losing students and the funding attached to those students. Supporters say that vouchers extend the range of options open to children of families with low and modest incomes, which will expose those students to better schools and teaching, and shrink the achievement gap.

Critics of vouchers charge that they subsidize private schools at the expense of public schools and that by expanding access to vouchers there is a risk of further segregating schools by drawing better students from struggling districts out of the system. Vouchers also raise constitutional questions about state support of religious schools.

Who’s pushing the accountability/reform agenda

All three education chairs, Erickson, Garofalo, and Olson, are members of the ALEC Education Task Force. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a national group that brings state legislators and corporations together to draft bills that can be introduced at the state level.

Minnesota is far from the only state where such legislation is being advanced. As reported in the Minnesota Independent and MinnPost, Parents United, a Minnesota nonprofit that keeps tabs on what’s happening in public schools, has investigated ties between the state’s GOP and ALEC. MinnPost reported that, “Corporations can veto proposals and ideas that aren’t to their liking—and can propose measures then written into model bills. Those model bills are introduced in multiple places creating consistent messages across the country. One state strategy is to introduce a lot of bills so education proponents can’t do away with all of them at one time.”

Among ALEC’s priorities on the education front are voucher programs, alternative teacher licensure paths, eliminating tenure for teachers, and undermining teacher’s unions.