MassINC Research Provides Common Ground for Win-Win Chapter 70 Compromise

Uncovering the need for more focus and attention on local accountability

The dog days of summer are here. While parents, students, and a good number of teachers try to put school far out of mind, Massachusetts legislators are under the golden dome working through a once-in-a-generation education aid package. The sticking point seems to be “accountability”—some want schools to accept more supervision from the state in exchange for more funding; others believe the state already has sufficient power to ensure communities deploy educational resources well. With both sides talking past each other, legislators once again find themselves in a quagmire.

As aides working on the state’s landmark 1993 education reform act, MassINC’s founders experienced this same predicament. They came away convinced that research from an independent organization could bring objective analysis to heated public policy debates. In the decades following, MassINC sought to fill this role, particularly in the area of education accountability.

MassINC research conducted over the past three years reveals a great need for increased attention to accountability at the local level. While this is not a rallying cry heard from either side of the current debate, it is a widely accepted position, both among national experts on education accountability policy and, as we have learned, among urban educators who have directly led improvement efforts, gaining unique insight into the strengths and limitations of the state’s current accountability framework.

Below we retrace the journey we took to uncover the need for more focus and attention on local accountability, beginning in 2016 with an education accountability learning community where state agency leaders met over several days to have first-of-their-kind discussions with superintendents, principals, teachers, and accountability policy experts.

This led to a series of forums in Gateway Cities and a statewide public opinion poll, which spawned a major study exploring the status of local accountability in these vital communities. Released earlier this year, the findings provide powerful evidence that efforts are needed to strengthen the ability of communities to act as “force multipliers” for school improvement efforts. Over the past few months, we unpacked the results of this research in a podcast series with education leaders, who shared their experiences with accountability from a wide range of vantage points.

Please take time this summer to explore this deep body of work. It holds valuable insights for legislators searching for a Chapter 70 compromise, as well as local officials directing action in their communities, parent leaders looking to engage productively in school improvement efforts, journalists covering this complex topic, and funders underwriting efforts that interact with local accountability in various ways.

Listening to urban educators and state accountability directors exchange perspective 

MassINC’s focus on local accountability grew out of a learning community that brought educators from small- and medium-sized urban districts throughout New England together with accountability directors from state education agencies. Back in 2016, state officials were working to refine their accountability systems to comply with ESSA, the most recent iteration of the federal education act. They wanted to hear what urban educators thought. With support from the Barr Foundation, we convened this group and listened attentively to their conversation as it unfolded over three full days.

One clear lesson emerged: state accountability systems could get better, but only around the edges; communities needed to recognize that they could and should take more initiative. Through “local accountability” practices, schools and school districts could figure out what they were trying to achieve and devise ways to measure their progress. Done well, this approach might lead to more ownership and shared responsibility for student success. And, at least in the near-term, it was probably the only way that communities could get a better handle on how they performed in more complex areas like social-emotional learning, or in areas that cut across traditional systems, such as kindergarten readiness and post-secondary success.

Getting a better understanding of how the public thinks about education accountability 

To develop a better sense of what community leaders thought about education accountability and how we should approach it in the future, we summarized key issues in a short report and hosted discussions in Gateway Cities around the state with a grant from the Gates Foundation. We found that while community leaders had strongly held feelings about many aspects of education accountability that had come to the fore during the No Child Left Behind era, few had a full understanding of the evolution of the policy and most hadn’t engaged in its development.

We also conducted a public opinion poll to gain a better understanding of where Massachusetts voters landed on these issues. Consistent with the concept of local accountability, a majority of Massachusetts voters felt leaders at the community level should be most responsible for spearheading efforts to devise new priorities for schools, strategies to meet them, and methods to measure success. This is not to say they think the state shouldn’t play a role. Many voters said the state has a central function to perform in these areas as well.

Digging deeper with research to define “local accountability” and the state of the practice

After all of this work, we felt like the fisherman with a bass at the end of the line and a bird’s nest in the reel. There was clearly a big opportunity in local accountability, but also many complicated questions that we didn’t have answers to: What did local accountability practice entail? How should it interact with state accountability policy? And to what extent was it occurring already?

With a second grant from the Barr Foundation, MassINC joined up with the Center for Assessment to produce a report that sought to answer these pivotal questions. The study was the first to advance a definition for the term local accountability and establish a set of principles for how communities could exercise it in ways that augment state accountability policies.

To gauge the extent to which Gateway Cities were carrying out such activities, we produced two more reports. The first examined school and district improvement plans, and the second looked at school councils and school committees responsible for overseeing the development and execution of these strategies in a manner that produces meaningful accountability at a local level. We found little evidence that school councils and school committees (the bodies responsible for providing local accountability by overseeing these plans and their implementation) actually delivered strong accountability.

In February, we presented these findings at a State House forum. Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeff Riley and a panel of educators responded. Their remarks echoed those of the learning community back in 2016. Local educators didn’t have a significant role shaping state and federal accountability policies. Substantial buy-in from educators is essential to strengthening accountability in the future with new forms of assessment and stronger models of collaborative governance. The state can move forward in this direction by supporting innovative efforts at the local level.

Exploring the opportunity through the local accountability podcast series 

How do we get to a future where communities provide more accountability locally and also play a central role helping the state improve its accountability practices? To answer these questions, we embarked on a series of podcasts.

The first stop was Worcester, where we talked Local Accountability with Tracy Novick, former school committee member and Field Director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. Tracy pointed out that turnaround schools are a notable exception when it comes to strategic planning and accountability for executing the plan.

To pick up on the turnaround school story, we went back to Worcester to hear about How One Community Transformed a Struggling School. Union Hill Elementary was one of the first schools in the state to undergo a successful transformation from struggling to high achieving. Marie Morse and Kareem Tatum, who spearheaded the turnaround as a formidable Principal/Assistant Principal duo, joined us on the podcast. We also heard from Mullen Sawyer, Executive Director of Oak Hill Community Development Corporation. Mullen described how efforts to increase housing stability in an area hard-hit by the foreclosure crisis were key to success. Working together, members of the community built a school that everyone could be proud of, which created a stabilizing force for the entire neighborhood.

Conducting our research, we saw that larger cities with more resources had pioneered many of the local accountability efforts around the country. To learn from these districts, we sat down with Marinell Rousmaniere, CEO of Edvestors. Marinell shared the history of efforts in Boston to provide parents with a more complete picture of school quality, including her organization’s work to enhance measures of arts learning. We then went to Springfield to chat with Paul Foster, Chief Information Officer for Springfield Public Schools. Paul described how principals and superintendent evaluations in Springfield are now data-driven and aligned with strategic plans (a practice that we found lacking in almost all of the evaluations we reviewed for our research report).

This idea repeats in Caradonio and the Lowell Citywide Family Council: Jim Caradonio, the former superintendent of the Worcester Public Schools, speaks about his career in public education and the formative experience of working with business leaders early on to develop and implement thoughtful strategic plans. As superintendent, he felt it was crucial that his evaluation be tied entirely to performance on the measures laid out in the district’s strategic plan.

Accountability and the School Funding Debate offers a good feel for the moment that’s upon us now. We spoke with Representative Aaron Vega, author of the Education Promise Act, and Ed Lambert, a legislator representing Fall River in 1993 and currently Executive Director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. In the conversation, you hear hope that more funding will come to Gateway City schools, frustration that students have been made to wait for so long, concern that an education aid package might lack appropriate accountability provisions, and trepidation that accountability might make the politics of a progressive funding formula that much more difficult to sort out.

A Win-Win Chapter 70 Compromise and Beyond 

With a series of relatively simple changes, the 1993 education reform act dramatically overhauled governance at the local level in the hopes that communities would be in a better position to invest new monies. Some of these changes worked, others fell short. Regardless, the world has changed dramatically since 1993. All of our research on accountability suggests a new set of tweaks is in order. This finding is echoed elsewhere. Around the country, education policymakers are realizing that local school boards can be a valuable force multiplier for school improvement strategies. Similarly, efforts to engage parents and the wider community in collaborative governance centered around data and student learning outcomes are gaining traction.

We have offered suggestions (see here and here) on how the Chapter 70 legislation could incorporate slight changes to laws and regulations relating to school councils and school committees that would put communities in a better position to establish and sustain strong school- and district-level governing bodies. MassINC is also developing a variety of strategies to support Gateway Cities working to strengthen local accountability. Please reach out to us if we can contribute to efforts underway in your community.

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