10 Words Defining What Makes a Truly Accountable Public School

Good day, CharterFolk.

Thank you, CharterFolk, for your response to my last post.

It apparently struck a chord, given how many of you reached out. Thanks also to Fordham for reposting it (with such a cute picture no less!)

Last week we saw this op-ed come out from Tom Kane at the Times.

It reminded me of another recent post wherein I quoted Kane.

In that post from early this year, I shared a lesson I learned from my Dad during a conversation we had in the kitchen when I was 12 years old.

(It was a post that also seems to have struck a chord with many of you.

Last month, I was in Colorado for work, which gave me a chance to stay with my parents. While I was working downstairs, an email came in from a CharterFolk reader thanking me again for the post and asking for more information about my Dad, who is going on 86 these day. After fulfilling the inquirer’s request, I walked upstairs to the kitchen and showed my Dad the message that had come in about the lesson he had imparted to me some 45 years ago.


Thank you, CharterFolk.)

Kane’s new piece talks about how clueless parents are about how far behind their kids are in school. That cluelessness, as we have been highlighting here at CharterFolk, is widespread.

A few months back I was on a flight and happened to sit next to a woman who is a senior person in the U.S. Navy responsible for training and professional development. Her role is making sure that senior people within the Navy are trained and ready for the next levels of responsibility they are entrusted with, be that captaining a ship, or stewarding a defense system, or overseeing a logistics command.

It was a fascinating conversation.

At some point she began telling me about the collapse in skill levels the Navy is seeing for new recruits. It’s affecting the Navy’s ability to sign up entry level enlisted positions.

It’s also affecting the Navy’s ability to recruit top guns. Apparently today’s top guns aren’t as tiptop as they used to be.

Maybe that help explains our nostalgia.

It’s a trend mirrored across society more broadly. Vast numbers of kids leaving high school aren’t prepared to do college level work.

More than a decade ago, we used to try to do something about it.

These days we are in a mode of sunsetting remediation altogether.

What do we think this does to our collective understanding of reality? 

Do we recognize that vast numbers of young people exit high school essentially unable to engage in college work?  Or does the disappearance of remediation classes make us all think kids are learning more such that we no longer have need for remediation?

Paul Vallas, in essentially his first public gesture since losing the mayor’s race, issued an impassioned plea to combat the further spread of cluelessness.

Meanwhile, Chicago Public Schools is going in exactly the opposite direction.

As is so often the case, status quo protectors in Chicago present their work as harbingers of what’s to come across the country.

The Chicago school board unanimously approved a new system for evaluating campuses that district leaders vowed will make the city a national leader in rethinking how to size up school quality ….

Under the new accountability policy, the district will compile a wide array of metrics and present them to parents and the public ….

And while the policy aims to hold the district accountable for providing the money, guidance, and other resources schools need to improve, it does not spell out any consequences for campuses that are not making headway.

At the Wednesday board meeting where the policy was approved, district CEO Pedro Martinez said the new system reflects Chicago’s commitment to equity and marks a break with a punitive approach to evaluating schools. He said national leaders, including U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, are watching Chicago’s overhaul closely.

It leaves the Tribune sputtering at the audacity of it.

If your kid comes home saying that her class got canceled, the teacher could not keep order, that she feels either unsafe or like she is not learning the necessary skills she will need in her career, are you looking for “soft accountability” from the educational professionals in charge of her learning?

Thought not. Some nouns are better not being modified by an adjective designed to compromise their power. And accountability is one of them.

What parents and children need and deserve from the Chicago Public Schools is accountability, pure and simple. Those promoting “soft accountability,” which could easily morph into no accountability at all, would never use such words when applied, say, to the police. There, they rightly demand accountability, period. And so they should.

The question then becomes, how do you define “accountability, period?”

Or perhaps phrased more summatively: “What is the definition of a truly accountable public school?”

A starting point, as my father taught, would be to focus on the eight words that define a great public school.

Accountable schools are ones that are made to be responsible for:

  1. Positively
  2. Affecting
  3. The
  4. Rate
  5. At
  6. Which
  7. Children
  8. Learn

But even before that, before the starting point, at the very foundation, what is the essential condition that must be in place in order for schools to be accountable?

Our lack of crispness on this has hurt our movement for generations now. We identify minimum performance expectations and prescribe sanctions and consequences, none of which have been built to last, and all of which have lacked the proper foundation.

And when we aren’t crisp in our definition, we cede the territory to status quo protectors who assert their own, which is that an accountable public school complies with various laws, or is governed in a certain way, or maintains some pre-ordained legal status.

And so our lack of precision leads to the common understanding of “accountability” migrating away from its long-known, common sense definition – “being held responsible for results” – to one that serves the agenda of Establishment defenders – “being exactly like public schools have always been,” meaning that nothing new or innovative is ever allowed to appear.

For me, just as it is possible to define what a great public school is in eight words, so is it possible to define an accountable one in ten.

The definition is made plain in first seeing its inverse. Its opposite. In what we saw Chicago Public Schools do last month.

They demonstrated how they are the opposite of accountable.

They made up their own rules. And they proudly proclaimed that they will be the ones that will enforce those rules.

Thus, they intend to both field a team and serve as referee.

Just like virtually all school districts in the country do. They get to operate schools and they get to deem whether their operation of those schools generated results sufficient to warrant an extension of their operating privileges.

It’s essentially being accountable to no one but yourself, which is the very definition of being bereft of accountability.

It makes our nation’s public schools, sadly, among the least accountable of any entities we find in modern life, vacant of the common sense checks and balances we find across almost all other aspects of our society.

Charter schools are not like this.

We don’t make up our own rules. Nor do we serve as our own referees.

We have third parties who regularly review our operations and decide whether we should be granted a continuation of the privilege to operate public schools.

An accountable public school is not one that scores an A or a B on an A-F rating system, or that meets AYP, or that gets high numbers of students into college or other post-secondary opportunities, or even accelerates the rate at which children learn.

Though these things should be taken into account, obviously.

Being accountable means existing in a circumstance where a neutral entity makes a regular ongoing determination whether you’re doing a good enough job with students to continue having the incredible right to serve them.

For years now, we have been so focused on attempting to find authorizing conditions for charter schools that are acceptable that we have forgotten to make the case that we don’t just want them for ourselves, but we want them in fact for all schools.

Because when schools don’t have them, they aren’t accountable. And when schools aren’t accountable, it’s the most vulnerable kids who suffer most. Like the thousands upon thousand of additional kids and families in Chicago who are now poised to suffer even more given the check-less and balance-less future their school district is ushering them into.

Put as succinctly as possible:

We don’t want great authorizing just for ourselves.

We want great authorizing for all.

Because truly accountable public schools are ones that:

  1. Have
  2. Third
  3. Parties
  4. Determine
  5. Whether
  6. To
  7. Renew
  8. Their
  9. Operating
  10. Privileges