Performance Accountability for All Kentucky Public Schools, or Just Charter Schools?

Over the last year as Kentucky lawmakers, educators, and educational leaders have debated the merits of adopting charter school legislation, demands for accountability for charter schools from the traditional public education community were heard all over the state. In fact, concerns about accountability for Kentucky’s charter schools came second only to concerns about funding following children who exited traditional public schools to attend charter schools.

Personally, I welcome and encourage public accountability for schools specifically, and government more generally. I believe tax payers, students, and their parents should expect and demand transparency from public schools and school districts, and that schools should be held accountable for their outcomes, including students’ academic performance and authentic measures of students’ career and postsecondary readiness. I have encouraged that conversation with the consideration of charter school legislation in Kentucky, and I will be a fierce proponent of performance accountability for charter schools as they are established in Kentucky.

The end result of our charter accountability conversations is that Kentucky’s charter school law will hold Kentucky’s charter schools to a very high standard, as it should. Truthfully, there wasn’t much to debate, as charter school advocates in the state were as adamant about performance accountability for charter schools as charter school opponents were. Central to what charter school advocates argued for was providing charter schools with greater organizational and governance flexibility and autonomy in exchange for increased accountability. That’s what the new law now requires. Kentucky’s charters will participate in the same assessment and accountability system as traditional public schools in the state. Additionally, because charter contracts will be granted for periods of no longer than five years, charter schools will be required to make the case to their authorizers for charter renewal and continued existence based on their performance. As well, because no students will be assigned to or required to attend a Kentucky charter school, charter schools face consumer accountability, in that a failure to attract and retain students will result in the school having to close its doors for lack of enrollment and funding.

What is unfortunate but not surprising, however, is that I’ve never heard demands for performance accountability for Kentucky’s traditional public schools with anywhere near the same intensity as I have heard from educators and educational leaders concerning charter school accountability.  I don’t believe I have ever heard the school boards association, or teachers unions, or superintendents associations demanding that traditional public schools be held accountable for their outcomes. Do Kentucky’s educator and educational leadership organizations only believe in performance accountability for charter schools? Should traditional public schools simply be trusted to work hard and do the best they can with students? Given that a healthy and successful charter school sector in Kentucky is not likely to directly serve more than 5 or 6% of Kentucky’s public school students, a focus on performance accountability for only charter schools leaves the rest of Kentucky’s public school students in a bind.

Kentucky does have an assessment and accountability system for public schools, but that system has been woefully inadequate in holding schools accountable for closing achievement gaps and preparing students for success in careers and postsecondary education. Under that system gaps have grown in some school school districts. Further, the system is far from being transparent with parents about the performance of schools. For example, one Kentucky high school classified as Distinguished in the current school accountability system posted the following assessment results for the 2015-2016 academic year:

  • 39.6% of students scored proficient or higher on the K-PREP Language Mechanics assessment (lower than state average)
  • 47% of students scored proficient or higher on the English II End-of-Course assessment (lower than the state average),
  • 49% of students scored proficient or higher on the Algebra II End-of-Course assessment,
  • 20% of its students scored proficient t or higher on the Biology End-of-Course assessment (lower than the state average)
  • 47% of students scored proficient or higher on the U.S. History End-of-Course assessment (lower than the state average)

As troubling as those numbers are, those are the averages across all students. The scores for low-income students and students of color are much worse. There is absolutely nothing Distinguished about that school’s results. And while I celebrate the progress the school has made, or any school similarly situated, we are at best misleading parents and students when we say  school performance like that is distinguished. It is not. Yet I have not heard of teachers unions or organizations of school boards or educational leaders decrying the ineptitude of a school accountability system that inappropriately labels schools as being high achieving when we know in fact they are not.

It is past time for Kentucky’s educators and educational leaders to get serious about performance accountability for our public schools; as serious as they were about accountability for charter schools. Kentucky will not move the needle on postsecondary success, degree attainment, or workforce participation until we design and implement accountability systems that center on students’ academic achievement, significant and meaningful achievement growth, and authentic measures of college and career readiness.