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School Accountability and Choice

Updated: Mar 22

Elementary students walking out of school
Happy children can best be gotten when schools and parents work together

By: Dave Rojeck, PhD

Catholic Educational Leadership/Policy Studies

Public education in the United States has served hundreds of millions of students well, teaching knowledge and skills that citizens have used to advance society and make a livelihood. For others, government school education has not been a good fit for drawing out the capacities of our most treasured natural resource – our youth! As such, ongoing school assessment is critical to minimize the numbers of students who drop out of the system. Unfortunately, assessment of government schools often takes on the form of self-evaluation only, leading to subjectivity and bias rather than the consideration of opinions from other stakeholders. American public schools would improve their effectiveness if they got out of the business of evaluating themselves and allowed families to organically evaluate schools by the free choice of enrolling or withdrawing.

In evaluating American education as a whole to other countries, the Pew Research Center in 2017 reported the U.S. ranked in the middle of nations in science, mathematics, and reading when comparing scores in the Programme for International Student Assessment (1). Including per-pupil funding with academic achievement is a manner to gauge the effectiveness of countries’ to educate their citizens. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “In 2016, the United States spent $13,600 per full-time-equivalent student on elementary and secondary education, which was 39 percent higher than the average of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries of $9,800”(2). Thus, the USA is average with regard to achievement, but is above average in spending in education as compared to other countries.

Schools should and do assess their own effectiveness. With all the data from test scores, schools can compare students’ test scores from year-to-year (added value). But, there is ongoing debate as to whether evaluating test scores is the sole measurement of determining good students and good schools. This debate normally ensues when the state academic report card rankings of schools are published. But, is there more to school than academics. What about the domain of affect, emotional intelligence, soft skills, character education? Most schools do not test for emotional smarts with the same frequency as academic achievement. Affect is more difficult to measure than cognition. Rojeck (2014) offered an instrument for schools to measure affect that includes social outcomes, non-violent tendencies, student engagement, and relationships with others. (3)

Additionally, schools engage in a periodic self-analysis via an accreditation process sponsored by an outside agency, which is essentially measuring a school’s progress against a pre-determined school improvement plan. Members of the outside agency i.e. Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) and Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) or another agency descend on a school for a few days every few years to observe, interview stakeholders, and make determinations as to whether the school has satisfactory met the objectives of the accreditation plan.

In summary, public schools engage in self-assessment at the behest of the state with the help of outside agencies, and of course for their own effforts to improve effectiveness. However, having state employees evaluating state schools is fraught with the potential of subjectivity. The state is certainly entitled to oversee the education of its citizens, but the state may also be prone to bias in that it is evaluating an organism within its own ecosystem. Thus, is there another source available to assess and offer constructive feedback on the progress of America’s public schools? Is there some other reflective lens that will allow public schools in the USA to see themselves as they truly are, showing their objective reality?

An education that allows for objective stakeholders to weigh-in on the educational process is essential. No one cares more for their children than parents. Not the school, municipality, or the state. Therefore, a more organic and natural system to improve schools is to allow parents to evaluate schools simply by exercising school choice. Parents will keep their children in effective schools which satisfy their own tastes and demonstrate authentic learning, growth, and development. Parents will take their children out of schools that don’t offer these facets along with safety, belonging, self-worth. Parents enrolling/dis-enrolling their children in schools is a real indicator of school effectiveness. Effective schools will have waiting lists while ineffective will have vacant desks. The vacant desks will cause inefficient schools to assess their own effectiveness. This is currently not the case in government schools where parents are not given choice about where to send their children to school, and also where teachers are not first and foremost accountable to families.

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times (4) discussing international scores on the Programme for International Assessment found that family income is a primary driver for educational achievement. High wage-earning countries score better than low wage-earning countries. In the USA, high socioeconomic students were found to perform better than low socio-economic students. “When it comes to measuring the effects of income inequality, PISA offers a powerful lesson for the United States: If we want a better educated population, we cannot ignore our culpability in allowing so many children to grow up in poverty.” Both income inequality and the monopoly of the public-government school system have been constants for generations. Education is supposed to be a primary driver out of poverty. Thus, the current system of government schooling has not been the absolute antidote to poverty.

The answer to the question of real school accountability is to give universal vouchers to all students, whereby per-pupil funding goes directly to parents to choose their own schools rather than government delivery of education funds straight to school districts, bypassing families. Families being free to use funds to choose their own school will increase competition between schools and drive up quality. Mediocre teachers will no longer be able to hide in their isolated classrooms. Parents will choose schools that best suit their children’s needs whether activity-driven, thematic, religiously affiliated, big, small, containing special programs, etc.

Thus in a moment, all schools will be transformed into private schools. There will no longer be a monopoly of government schools. Ineffective schools will no longer be propped up by the state. All schools will be placed on a level playing field. School administrators and teachers will have a personal stake in the effectiveness of the school, thus escalating effort, initiative, and quality of the K-12 educational delivery system.

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