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Commentary: New state accountability system signals progress

Guest contributor | September 12, 2016

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(Courtesy: YouthTruth)

By Sonya Heisters

There is a growing, and arguably overwhelming, array of ways to measure school performance. Many researchers and policymakers say that we’ve been measuring the wrong things and, in some cases, I think that those naysayers are on to something.

Then, in Thursday’s California State Board of Education meeting, the board unanimously adopted a new accountability system that, in addition to state indicators, favor four local indicators over the single Academic Performance Index (API) score. This is great news for those of us who tire of a single data point representing a complex system. The API was well and good, but we’ve got to have more — and better — measures. My perspective is one of a parent, educator and nonprofit leader. And also as someone who believes, and sees that research shows, that we need to do metrics better.

Two of the local indicators are particularly worth celebrating: one on parent engagement, and another on school climate. Both can be measured through local surveys of parents, teachers and students.

On the first measure, districts need more nuanced data to engage families. Since parent involvement is linked with academic performance, districts have to get the parent-school relationship right. The Harvard Family Research Project comments, “As schools increasingly focus on building parent capacity to support their children’s learning and on promoting positive home-school relationships, schools and districts need new measures to ascertain which types of approaches work best.” 

Just as family feedback can help prioritize the agenda for parent engagement programs, school staff need a voice too. The suggestion box will not suffice. We need a valid, reliable and third-party feedback instrument about the school as a workplace. This is critical to improving the teaching profession and helping districts find and keep talent. With 20 percent of experienced teachers leaving the profession before retirement, districts are well-served to seek and act on staff feedback to make schools great places to work. 

So what if parents had an anonymous way to tell their child’s teacher and principal if they felt valued by their child’s school? And what if there were easy and accessible tools for school staff to give feedback on the degree to which their school is managed effectively?

We might have stronger relationships in our communities. We might have more committed staff. We might have better schools.

But we need to go beyond that. The first step toward achieving those goals is to measure and learn from family and staff members’ alternate, yet complementary, perspectives and attitudes. The second step is to incorporate that feedback into school improvement initiatives.


YouthTruth feedback data on students’ experience of academic rigor at a school.

That’s what led us at YouthTruth to create and launch this month Family and Staff Surveys: 15-minute online tools that complement our core student surveys to provide districts with feedback data to identify what is working and not working. As a national nonprofit, we’ve surveyed around a half-million students and coached hundreds of education leaders in using student voice data to drive change. Through this work we’ve learned that student voice is not enough – we need multiple perspectives paired with multiple measures.

Critics of the new accountability system worry that measuring school climate is too nuanced and gathering perception data too complicated. We’ve solved for that. Check. Now let’s get back to focusing on what matters.

Education leaders have a responsibility to build partnerships with staff and the community to drive learning and achievement. Like students, the families, teachers and staff within a school system are uniquely positioned to provide actionable feedback about performance that simply can’t be captured through other measures. When evaluating the effectiveness of systems, strategic plans, programs and interventions, considering the perceptions of those you seek to help is key.

Perception data must provide education leaders with information on both an absolute and comparative level on the most critical elements to assessing school climate, like school culture, engagement and relationships.


(Courtesy: YouthTruth)

While piloting the Family and Staff instruments with districts across multiple states, we learned that this work resonates in and outside of California. Kathy Gomez, superintendent of Evergreen School District in San Jose, believes that perception data from stakeholder groups is “crucial to help us serve our families.” 

When assessing school performance, California is setting the standard. And thank goodness, we are not alone. Public dialogue and legislative priorities are shifting to recognize that we cannot reduce school quality to one metric or data source. It’s not just test scores, it’s an array of perspectives and hard data that help drive positive student outcomes.

Sonya Heisters is director of partnerships and outreach at YouthTruth. Follow her on Twitter at @SonyaHeisters.

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