Accountability Meets Equity
Monday, September 30, 2019
by: Dr. Nettie Collins-Hart

Section: From Contributors

NASS’ 2019 Superintendent of the Year: Dr. Nettie Collins-Hart

Most people and organizations will say they support equity—even when they don’t really understand what it is. But the National Association of School Superintendents is bold and inclusive in its approach to support equity in education.
Most people and organizations will say they support equity—even when they don’t really understand what it is. But the National Association of School Superintendents is bold and inclusive in its approach to support equity in education.
I have great respect and admiration for my colleague, Dr. Rod Paige, whom I have associated mostly with being the U.S. Secretary of Education and the architect of No Child Left Behind, as a part of his lifelong work to improve the quality of education for all students. I personally believe that No Child Left Behind has been the most impactful force in defining what has happened in public schools during my very long career.
The overall goals of both No Child Left Behind—and now the Every Student Succeeds Act—to raise national standards, address academic improvements and accountability, and incorporate school reform in an effort to raise  educational excellence  for all students, were far overdue at the time—and still are—worthy goals.   However, we missed the mark because our children, our work, what schools do every day, and what students know, cannot be demonstrated in a testing marathon in a defined few days.
I propose that we change how we view school reform and accountability and add equity as a partner. I propose that Equity and Accountability run away and get married, have several children, and put them in the public schools. Here is the profile of those children.
One child, a girl, has great skill in math and science; another child is gifted, struggling with gender identity, and has been underperforming since 5th grade; a third child has an IEP with numerous exceptionalities, some not currently being addressed; there is one other child that might be described as just typical—but let’s just ignore that child because after years of being ignored, that child has become a discipline problem.  Equity works as a clerk in the local grocery store and Accountability is a school bus driver. The children would qualify for free and reduced lunch, but Equity and Accountability, both high school graduates and proud members of the community, will not agree to complete a free and reduced lunch application. Clearly, the children of Equity and Accountability, just based on those characteristics have very diverse needs if the school they attend are going to serve them rather than underserve them.
If the goal of school reform and accountability is as we say it is, then why is the outcome of most of these students failing to reach the bar so predictable for this diverse student family? I would submit that it is because the educational system does not only fail to address equitable needs for students, but the system fails to support schools or give credit to schools in addressing those needs. I would submit that true equity would include multiple measures and some measure of how a school addresses the whole child. Why not focus on growth that will give our students and staff encouragement?
For example, we know that if we continue to simply track student progress in our traditional ways, we can—with a high level of accuracy—predict the outcome for diverse student populations. Yet, we continue to rank, sort, and select, students, schools, and the work of educators based on the same traditional measures.  Then we proceed to pat ourselves on the back for doing a pretty good job of educating students who need us least, give ourselves a score for how well we have educated them, then announce our successes to the public, comparing the progress of those students to students whom we have traditionally underserved.
For example, contrast Accountability and Equity to a family in a neighboring school district—Money and Privilege. In that school district, there are a few families that meet the description of our first family, and there are so few of them that when test scores are compared—they don’t show up in the data—although they are underserved. In addition, the per pupil expenditure in the school district where the family of Money and Privilege attend school is $5,000 more per student, and they don’t accept federal funds—so the plight of such students is never reported. That district’s greatest concern is that more families such as those like Equity and Accountability will move into their school system so that the numbers increase large enough to have to report that subgroup and unveil their secret of underserving students such as those in the families of Equity and Accountability. However, they don’t have to worry because ESSA, much like NCLB, has put ranking and sorting in place so that they will also highlight the bottom 5%. Based on demographics alone—they will never fit into that category and can legitimately continue to pat themselves on the back for being a great school system—just not for diverse populations in numbers large enough to count.
We know that public schools are doing a better job of educating students than we have ever done, and that public education has traditionally done a good job of educating most children we serve.
I submit that one of the reasons that true equity is not yet happening in schools—is because our accountability measures, our standards, our school improvement have failed to capture what schools must do NOW.
Yet we continue—first with NCLB and now still with ESSA—to sort, select, and rank schools and pat ourselves on the back when we do a pretty good job of educating the students who need the least? Again, I ask—why not use multiple measures and an emphasis on growth, rather than the ranking of schools?
We should applaud ourselves for recognizing that we have students in schools that we previously chose to keep invisible. I applaud the Equality Act, the 21st Century STEM for Girls and Underrepresented Minorities Act, and measures to support high-cost students and increase intervention services.  But I want us to marry those equity concepts with a partnership between EQUITY AND ACCOUNTABILIY, and stop the sorting, selecting, and ranking of these students based on students’ circumstances, and the numbers of identified students within that population.
Let us marry Equity and Accountability by providing resources and training to support the diversity of students we now serve so that districts, such as those in our district, do not eventually become unable to support our students financially. Reframe teacher education programs so that teachers are trained to work with real students—not just those we used to consider ideal students.
Let us marry Equity and Accountability by funding, piloting, and conducting case studies that reflect innovative practices where individual schools and classrooms try different approaches based on a smaller scale to address the needs of diverse students.
I am proud to be a part of what I can only hope will spark a change for students. I stand ready to continue to be a voice and advocate for a change in education—over my next 40 years in education. Thank you!
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