Friday, October 30, 2015

The costs of accountability

Not much time to post this week, so I thought I’d link to Jerry Muller’s great survey of how “the virtues of accountability metrics have been oversold and their costs are underappreciated.” A few quick excerpts:

The characteristic feature of the culture of accountability is the aspiration to replace judgment with standardized measurement. Judgment is understood as personal, subjective, and self-interested; metrics are supposed to provide information that is hard and objective.

. . .

But, in many cases, the extension of standardized measurement may suffer diminished utility and even become counterproductive if sensible pragmatism gives way to metric madness. Measurement can readily become counterproductive when it tries to measure the unmeasurable and quantify the unquantifiable, whether to determine rewards or for other purposes.

. . .

Accountability by metrics imposes a simplification not only of goals but of knowledge. In [James C.] Scott’s insightful formulation, metrics and performance indicators, like many forms of cost-benefit analysis, “manage, through heroic assumptions and an implausible metric for comparing incommensurate variables, to produce a quantitative answer to thorny questions. They achieve impartiality, precision, and replicability at the cost of accuracy.”

. . .

Many matters of great importance are too subject to judgment and interpretation to be solved by standardized metrics. In recent decades, too many politicians, business leaders, policymakers, and academic officials have lost sight of that distinction.

A lot to recognize in this article. On this topic, more to come.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

October 27 board agenda

I’d love to use this blog as a way to hear some thoughts about issues that appear on our board agenda. The agenda for this coming week’s meeting is here. Among other things, we will be discussing:

The bell schedule. The district changed the bell schedule this year, extending the elementary school day and adjusting the daily start and end times for all students. I was against the change and, especially given some of the unintended consequences we have experienced (for example, with bus schedules), am strongly inclined to revisit it. My fellow director Lori Roetlin, who also wants to revisit the issue, has written a letter explaining her thoughts about how we should move forward with the issue. What are your thoughts?

The possibility of buying into ThoughtExchange, an online platform for gathering and aggregating public input on school issues. I have some initial thoughts about this issue that I’ll try to post separately. You can read about ThoughtExchange (or at least see advertisements for it) by clicking on the links and PDFs here. The service would cost $170,000 over five years. Your thoughts on ThoughtExchange?

The preliminary report about this year’s class sizes. You can read the report here. I’ve heard a lot of concern about our class sizes this year. Chime in if you have thoughts on the issue.

You may find something else in the agenda that catches your eye. Feel free to post a comment.

UPDATE, 10-29:  Thanks, everyone, for the terrific comments.  I’ve had less time the past couple of days to respond individually—as will inevitably happen here—but I always read the comments and I really value the input.  At our Tuesday night meeting, we voted unanimously to adopt Director Lori Roetlin’s proposal to set up a task force to examine the bell schedule and make recommendations.  The proposal is designed to get the process going soon there will be plenty of time to get input from the community before any decision gets made.

We also heard a presentation from the ThoughtExchange vendor and discussed the service at some length, but we did not vote on it.  Some of my fellow board members are very supportive of the proposal, while others want more information about alternatives, while others (including me) are pretty skeptical, so the discussion will continue at a future meeting.

The board president summarized our clarification of the threat protocol that occurred at last week’s work session, and the issue will go to board committees for further discussion.  The class size report focused (as I would have expected) on the shortage of supplemental state aid and on the district’s choices about how to put available funding to the best use.

Government ≠ corporation

It is striking how the establishment view of school boards differs from how we ordinarily view elected governmental bodies.

What I’m calling the establishment view is that school board service is no different than service on a corporate board. That view does make sense in one way: the relationship of the school board to the superintendent is very analogous to that of a corporate board to a corporate CEO. In each case, the board has to decide just how much it wants to delegate to its chief employee and what boundaries to put on his or her authority; that chief employee then makes the day-to-day decisions about how to run the organization within those boundaries.

In other ways, however, an elected government board is very different from a corporate board. During our recent orientation to board service, for example, our school board members discussed the “norm” that once the board makes a decision, the board members will unite in support of that decision, even if the initial vote was not unanimous. I think it’s true that this is very much seen as a norm of good governance on corporate boards.

Elected governmental bodies, though, strike me as a very different matter. No one suggests that the Democrats in Congress should unite in support of the Bush tax cuts simply because Congress at some point passed them. I certainly wouldn’t want the Democrats in our legislature to unite behind Governor Branstad’s approach to prioritizing tax cuts over school funding just because he got his way this past year.

Sure, constantly changing course can be a way to get nowhere. On many matters, an out-voted minority might decide it’s better not to pursue its disagreement with the majority. But it’s quite another thing to think that “good governance” obliges it to do so.

There’s a good reason for distinguishing between corporate and government boards in that respect. If a corporate shareholder dislikes the direction of the corporate board, she can always sell her shares and buy shares in a different corporation. It’s a very different thing to suggest that a voter should “love or leave” her country or state or school district. Voters (and thus their representatives) are entitled to try continually to bring the government around to their point of view.

Moreover, in the corporate context, there is typically a shared underlying goal: maximize profit. In the governmental context, there is no similar agreement about fundamental values. That’s what elections are fought over, and then fought over again. The ongoing debate about those value differences is exactly what elections are for. When important value differences are at stake, the minority shouldn’t be expected to close ranks around the majority’s decisions.

Yet somehow, the idea persists that good governance requires school board members to rally around their board’s decisions. In any other governmental context, such a “norm” would be seen as transparently a device to protect the status quo and stifle dissent. What is it about the school context that elicits a different response?

Iowa City Community School District votes to oppose Smarter Balanced tests

The Iowa Board of Education has proposed an administrative rule that would require Iowa school districts to implement the Smarter Balanced Assessments. Earlier this month, the school board of the Iowa City Community School District voted to submit the following comment opposing the rule. A more extended argument for opposing the rule appears here. Comments on the rule are due by November 3; you can read about how to submit one here.

Mr. Phil Wise
Administrative Rules Co-Coordinator
Iowa Department of Education
Second Floor
Grimes State Office Building
Des Moines, IA 50319-0146

Re: Proposed amendments to Chapter 12, “General Accreditation Standards,” Iowa Administrative Code

Dear Mr. Wise:

As the Board of Directors of the Iowa City Community School District, we write to urge you not to approve statewide adoption of the Smarter Balanced Assessments, for these reasons:

First, we are concerned that the state has insufficient information about the full cost of adopting the Smarter Balanced Assessments. In particular, there is insufficient information about how much it will cost to establish and maintain the technological infrastructure that will be necessary to implement these tech-intensive tests. Without information about the full costs of the tests, there is no way to evaluate whether the benefits of the tests are worth the cost.

Second, the partial information that is available indicates that the cost of the Smarter Balanced Assessments will be high. The Smarter Balanced consortium estimates the per-test price of its assessments to be $23.50, and that does not include the cost of the science assessment that the law also requires. The total price is several times higher than the per-student price of the Iowa Assessments, which the state currently requires. The price is also significantly higher than that of the Next Generation Iowa Assessments, which the task force determined was also Iowa-Core-aligned, and which, like the current Iowa Assessments, are produced in Iowa by the Iowa Testing Programs.

Third, we are concerned that the costs of the Smarter Balanced Assessments will fall ultimately on the districts. Even if the state allocates money to pay for the tests, it seems likely that that allocation will result in less money available for state supplemental aid. We are concerned that those costs will force districts to make cuts in instructional programming and other educational needs, at a time when budget dollars are already stretched thin.

Fourth, we are concerned that Iowa districts may not be technologically ready to implement the Smarter Balanced Assessments by the 2016-17 school year as the governing statute would require. See Iowa Code 256.7(21)(b)(2).

Fifth, we are concerned that the State Board of Education does not have the legal authority to adopt the Smarter Balanced Assessments through the administrative rule-making process, given that the governing statute states that the “state board shall submit to the general assembly recommendations” about new assessments. Iowa Code 256.7(21)(b)(4).

Thank you for your consideration,

Board of Directors,
Iowa City Community School District
1725 North Dodge Street
Iowa City, IA 52245

Why Iowa school districts should oppose the Smarter Balanced tests

The Iowa Board of Education has proposed an administrative rule that would require Iowa school districts to implement the Smarter Balanced Assessments. Our school board recently voted to submit a comment to the Department to oppose the rule. (Thank you, fellow board members!) Here is the letter I wrote to the board to explain why I thought we should submit that comment. The comment we submitted is here.

Dear Fellow Directors,

Thanks for your willingness to consider an item that I asked to put on the agenda about the state’s possible adoption of the Smarter Balanced Assessments.

The State Board of Education is currently considering adopting an administrative rule that would require Iowa school districts to use the Smarter Balanced Assessments instead of the Iowa Assessments that the state has required until now. As part of the rule-making process, the State Board has solicited public comment on the proposal; comments are due by November 3. I believe our board should submit a comment opposing the adoption of the Smarter Balanced tests.

In short, the Smarter Balanced tests will be much, much more expensive than the tests we have been using, both because of the cost of the tests themselves and because of the cost of the technology that will be necessary to administer them. It is not clear whether the state will allocate money to cover those costs. Even if it does, every dollar allocated to pay for the tests is likely to be one less dollar available for state supplemental aid. By requiring these tests, the state will, in effect, be deciding for us that we should redirect a large amount of our spending toward high-tech standardized tests, even if, in our judgment, the money would be better spent on preserving curricular programs, preventing class sizes from growing, or providing additional resources toward schools with particular needs (to name just a few possibilities). I’m afraid that the decision to adopt these tests will affect the state’s ability to provide supplemental aid for years, and could lead to additional rounds of budget cuts like those our district saw in 2014.

The purpose of this letter is to give you some background on the issue; I have attempted to provide links to sources or to more information wherever I could. I am separately attaching a first draft of a possible comment letter that we could submit; I mean it only as a starting point for our discussion if it is helpful.

Welcome to Another Blog About School

Welcome to Another Blog about School. As a new school board member, I’m still not sure exactly how I will use this blog. I hope I can find ways to use it to solicit ideas and arguments on school issues, to explain some of the choices I make as a board member, and to do some thinking out loud about education and about the experience of being on the board. I chose the name as a reference to my previous blog. I’m not sure how much time I’ll have to spend on it, but I’ll give it a try and see where it goes.