Most Americans agree that U.S. schools should be judged by how effectively they educate all of their students, including those from low-income families or with disabilities, and English language learners. Making sure that accountability systems support these goals is especially important as states move to assessments aligned with Common Core State Standards.
Based on our research and observations of innovative programs in Chicago and New York, we have seen large-scale success in systems of schools that focus on essential elements. For starters, leaders of these schools focus relentlessly on improving the quality, consistency, and coherence of instruction, and have the time and resources to make real improvement possible. Even more important, teachers and administrators in successful schools serving high-poverty students hold each other accountable through a shared sense of responsibility for the success of their students. This is dramatically different from accountability that leaves teachers operating in isolation and in fear of repercussions from test scores.
Getting accountability right is especially difficult in the transition to the Common Core. States now hold teachers accountable for students’ scores on existing tests that emphasize mastery of procedural skills while at the same time asking them to prepare students to demonstrate mastery on new assessments that emphasize the more difficult conceptual skills embedded in Common Core standards.
In preparation for our new book, Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education, we visited campuses that are part of the University of Chicago Charter School on Chicago’s South Side and schools in an innovative network of more than 100 small public high schools of choice in New York City. These models serve largely poor and minority student bodies and have been proven effective in rigorous evaluations.
Our observations, research reviews and interviews with leaders at the North Kenwood/Oakland (NKO) campus in Chicago and the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice (SLJ) in Brooklyn, revealed a strikingly consistent explanation for their success: Strong supports and internal accountability pervades teachers’ work lives. (Transcripts and videos describing their work are available at restoringopportunity.com.)
These leaders understand the challenges teachers face in revamping instruction to prepare for the Common Core. Carrie Walsh, director of NKO, says teachers welcome higher standards but know that preparing students to meet them will be difficult. “[I]t’s really trying to keep teachers feeling good and inspired and proud of what they’re doing, while also, in some cases, completely revamping the work they’re doing.”
Walsh uses every opportunity to develop teachers’ skills, including teacher evaluations. She videotapes and transcribes teachers’ lessons, and points out particular areas where improvement is needed. “It could be something as simple as … you’re just calling on boys all the time and girls actually are hesitant about raising their hand in your class.”
These leaders recognize the importance of maximizing the value of teachers’ time. SLJ Principal Suzette Dyer reported that she and her leadership team “sit together weekly and create the protocols that we want grade teams and departments to use when they’re talking about student work, when they’re talking about lesson plans, when they’re thinking about end-of-the-year outcomes…”
To help reduce the isolation that many teachers experience, both schools work at creating a culture in which accepting and offering criticism is a normal and positive part of a teacher’s job. Tanika Island, chief academic officer for NKO, acknowledges that no one wants to hear that something they’ve put a lot of effort into isn’t quite right. “You have to train teacher leaders and teachers to be open-minded, to be willing to take feedback, and that takes time,” she said. “You have to practice doing that together. And you have to model [that] for teachers.”
Island emphasizes that accountability and support must go together: “My mantra . . . is high expectations with high support … At the end of the day, we’re in it together.”
These schools offer lessons that other schools can borrow. First, it is it is possible to improve the quality and consistency of instruction in high-poverty schools. The second is that it takes consistently strong supports and internal accountability. Without strong school supports and internal accountability, external pressure to improve student scores will fail. Third, progress takes time. For the Common Core to improve all U.S. schools, high-stakes accountability must not get ahead of the difficult work of consistently providing strong school supports and the time necessary for teachers to educate every student well.
Greg J. Duncan is Distinguished Professor in the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine. Richard J. Murnane is Thompson Professor of Education and Society at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. They are the co-authors of the 2014 book Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education, which was published by the Harvard Education Press and the Russell Sage Foundation. Three six-minute videos describing the schools featured in the book are available on the book’s website restoringopportunity.com