AS A TEACHER, I believe that accountability is necessary to help districts lift their underperforming schools. As a teacher in a turnaround school, I’m convinced that only a radical accountability model—one that substantively addresses the community and holistic needs of everyone—can help children meet the outcomes they’re capable of.
In Massachusetts, public schools are evaluated through an accountability system that tracks key indicators such as test scores, attendance, and rates of graduation. Our lowest performing schools are required to complete an intensive, state-guided improvement plan to “turn around” their underperformance.
In 2011, the state required my district, New Bedford, to create an improvement plan. In the years that followed, our schools underwent drastic changes, with controversial shake-ups in the teaching staff, longer school days, district-aligned instructional goals, and boosts in extracurricular and learning opportunities across all schools.
It is certainly true that many of these efforts have had positive effects, helping us achieve academic gains and revitalizing the spirit of the community. But, as we enter the last phases of our turnaround plan, I’ve thought more about the system of school accountability itself, what led my district to warrant state supervision to begin with, and whether the framework we use to evaluate schools is equitable. I’ve come to believe that our current approaches 1) do not substantively account for local context and 2) struggle with balancing the legitimate needs of school accountability with the urgent socioeconomic needs of the community.
When New Bedford was first identified as requiring state assistance, there wasn’t much debate that we needed help, but providing more context on why or how we found ourselves in this situation may have helped to shape a more equitable agenda. Yes, my school had underperformed on most indicators of school success, but our shortcomings are part of well-documented, broader patterns of systemic poverty and other structural challenges that enable underperformance in the first place.
We’re an urban district with high concentrations of poverty, violence, and drug abuse; as such, we have many children who not only struggle with the means to consistently attend school, but also have to deal with any number of difficult experiences, from homelessness to abusive parents, that impact their capacity to learn. In addition, with one-third of our student body being English language learners―many of whom with interrupted formal education or undocumented status―linguistic, social, and political barriers make traditional markers of “success” harder to achieve. We cannot use these factors as excuses for low performance, but we must acknowledge their impact on education and advocate that they be more holistically factored into how schools are held accountable, especially when we’re compared to districts without some of these hardships.
By emphasizing equal (but not always equitable) criteria to evaluate disparate school systems, many accountability measures disproportionately focus on schools that serve our most at-risk children. On top of that, these systems have historically, by their design, failed to prioritize socioeconomic and community needs as the central lever for change. The typical model of accountability revolves around addressing variables within the school rather than those outside it, despite their interconnected nature.
A consequence of this approach is that school leaders tend to double down on issues that they have direct control over, or those that validate a school’s function as solely an academic institution, such as test scores. I felt this process first-hand when our turnaround plan focused on instruction as the main source of and solution to our underperformance.
While these interventions may have moved the academic needle, it felt as though at times we were chasing short-term successes, rather than addressing the fundamental causes of our challenges: racial and socioeconomic disparity, linguistic hurdles for immigrant populations, and socioemotional trauma. By attending to the symptoms of our problems, we unintentionally set aside the systemic and structural causes that exist outside the school.
Our schools are both an academic institution and a community resource; a reform effort that prioritizes one over the other can achieve only so much success. As many high-needs districts like mine struggle to close their opportunity gaps, we must radically reimagine an accountability model that heals schools in conjunction with their communities. This can be done through greater access to health care, social wraparound services, or more family-centered supports.
When I work with my students, I am often reminded that learning is most impactful when it relates to and activates their life and experiences. It’s only by looking outside the walls of our classrooms that we can find our solutions to the problems within. It’s time for a model that approaches accountability in the same way.