COVID-19 laid bare just how important schools are for student learning, especially in math. With student attendance rates and academic performance still far below normal, it’s a good time to reconsider how policymakers can help.
I sat down with Elliot Regenstein from Foresight Law and Policy to talk through these issues. Elliot is the author of Education Restated: Getting Policy Right on Accountability, Teacher Pay, and School Choice. We talk through questions like what education policy is good for, how much growth is reasonable to expect students to make in one year, and how to refocus school accountability systems on helping schools improve rather than merely labeling them. What follows is a lightly edited version of our conversation.
Chad Aldeman: Let’s start from the beginning. This is a book about education policy. I really liked your distinction on what policy is good for, and where policy is not as likely to be effective. Can you explain your thoughts on this? In what ways is policy likely to work well, and where is it not as likely to work?
Elliot Regenstein: In my experience, I find that policy does actually create real incentives for behavior at the local level. People are paying attention to what the state is requiring and are trying to comply with it.
Having said that, the more prescriptive a policy is, the less likely it is to be followed. I definitely take to heart Rick Hess’ admonition that states can make local actors do things but it can’t make them do those things well.
Policy can really set an important direction and give people guidance on what the goals are. But it’s not a substitute for building the capacity to actually do the work well.
Aldeman: Let’s talk about what’s reasonable to expect from schools. You cite data from the Stanford Education Data Archive showing that about 40% of schools manage to help their kids make more than a year’s worth of academic growth per year of school. But kids are losing ground in about half of districts. What does that mean to you? What does it imply for debates about education policy?
Regenstein: There are a couple of things going on. One is that states are correctly looking at schools where student growth is low, to see if there might be ways to improve performance in those schools. That’s an important exercise and needs to continue.
Two, we often end up combining data from growth and proficiency to obscure what’s really happening in schools. And this is an outgrowth of the No Child Left Behind era when proficiency was the end-all-be-all. Obviously, how kids are doing matters—but because of the correlation between proficiency and demographics, proficiency may not be the best way of telling how an individual school is doing. Using proficiency and growth in the wrong combination can be a distraction from figuring out which schools really need help.
Three, some kids enter school already behind. What the data shows is that if a school has a group of kids who are already a year behind at the end of second grade, only about 15% of districts in the country are providing enough growth to catch those kids up by the end of high school. To me that says that we’re not focusing nearly enough attention on those early years, when we have the biggest chance to make a difference.
Aldeman: We’re going to come back to the early years. But one thing I think that is useful in your book is you talk about how accountability systems might do a decent job of identifying which schools need to improve, but they have not been as good at helping schools actually improve. In the book you propose an “inspectorate” model where trained experts come in from the outside and help identify what a school might need to work on. Can you talk more about how you landed on the inspectorate model and what are some of the upsides you see?
Regenstein: My view on this is shaped by my experience in early childhood, where versions of an inspectorate model are in active use. They provide feedback for schools and districts in a way that test scores do not. Inspections don’t necessarily give schools the capacity to act on what they learn, but they at least give school leaders a roadmap for improvement.
Inspectorate models can also be valuable because they can be used for any age group. Head Start and some state early childhood programs already use an inspectorate model to look at how programs are performing. It’s not done as much in later grades, but it could be. Given that we’ve built so much on standardized tests, and you can’t really use standardized tests for accountability with younger children, that makes inspectorates one of the few metrics that could be used for all ages.
Aldeman: You mentioned this in the book and it’s true that inspectorate systems are an awkward fit with our current accountability structure in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), but there’s a lot of upside to it. How might an inspectorate model fit within current accountability systems, or what would need to change to allow more places to adopt inspectorate-type systems?
Regenstein: I’s definitely an awkward fit within the current ESSA framework.
What I would like to see is for the federal government to at least allow states to try it. Right now one of the things holding states back is the notion that every single school’s accountability must look the same. And if you were going to do an inspectorate model, from a capacity standpoint, it’s not realistic to think that you would do it for every school in a state every year. There are some schools that would likely benefit from it more than others. The federal government could open the door to states attempting this, knowing that some states won’t try it and that other states might try it and not be entirely successful. If you’re not married to the idea that every single school’s accountability formula has to be identical, you could start to envision a world where states would see this as a useful tool.
You also don’t necessarily need to have one rubric for every school. You don’t want to have too many so there’s no coherence, and you would want to have some throughlines among them — but you could have one rubric for big schools and small schools, one for magnet schools or other different kinds of schools. The act of creating rubrics for an inspectorate should also have value in its own right. Because, if you’re doing that right, you’re bringing together some of the top educators in the state and saying, “What do you want to be held accountable for?” That level of community engagement and educator empowerment could be applied in any number of policy areas.
Aldeman: I like the idea of using data as an initial screen and then having some sort of rubric or evaluation that’s more human centered, expert focused, to drill down on what schools need to actually improve.
Regenstein: The sense I’m getting is that test-based accountability is not front and center right now. And appropriately so to some degree after the pandemic, but it is really important that we have outside accountability for schools for a variety of historical reasons. That accountability can be more thoughtful than what we’ve seen historically. But it’s still important for it to exist.
The idea of an inspectorate might be a new way of going about it that could bring us into a new era of accountability.
Aldeman: I like that you’re ending on a note of optimism. I want to go back to the early childhood point. If we buy your argument, which I think is well grounded, that third grade might be too late to start looking at how kids are performing, what sort of measures would you recommend states consider? I know you’ve written about this, but what would you recommend for state policymakers who want to include kindergarten through second grade students into the way they evaluate schools?
Regenstein: I actually had the opportunity back in 2017 to chair an Illinois work group that looked at this exact issue. The state board had approved the idea of a K-2 indicator. The process of talking about why and how we wanted to measure it turned out to be really valuable. I would definitely recommend states have this conversation.
One idea was to use and/or overweight chronic absenteeism. Chronic absenteeism is something that is already in many state accountability formulas. It is something that can be measured in K-2 as well, and there’s data showing that K-2 chronic absenteeism can be highly predictive of later absenteeism.
Part of the reason states might include something like chronic absenteeism in an accountability system is to try to inspire schools and districts to do something about it. When you look at the actions that schools should take to improve attendance in the K-2 years, a lot of them would focus on engaging parents or providing health supports, which are all good things to be doing. At the very least, it causes school leaders to have to think specifically about those early years and what’s going on. One of my arguments is that current accountability systems focus too heavily on later grades, and this at least starts the process of getting people to think about the entire spectrum.
Aldeman: In your book you talk about what should happen in cases where a school or district is making some progress, but it’s just not that much. That requires a different sort of solution than if it’s a school-based problem. And that’s where you get into more of the early childhood supports and community supports. Could you elaborate on that briefly? What should policymakers should take away from that?
Regenstein: There’s a few things that an accountability system does right. One is that it gives you a definition of a great school. It’s obviously important on that level.
But one of the things accountability hasn’t done well historically is what to do when a lot of students come into kindergarten so far behind. One state leader I talked to recently realized that their goals for the K-12 system could not be achieved without a better early childhood system. Not everyone in K-12 has turned that corner. But those who have recognized that they need to have kindergarten readiness to get high school outcomes.
Most states have not thought about how an accountability system fits into that. Most just default to say, “okay, we’re going to measure what goes on between third grade and 12th grade because that’s what the federal government tells us to do” without thinking about how the act of focusing on those years skews the system away from the need to get kids off to a strong start.
Aldeman: You have a lot of stuff in the book that we haven’t touched on, on teachers and choice, but I want to ask you about the concept of trust. Trust—and distrust—is one of the major themes in your book. I look around and don’t see a ton of trust in large institutions like public schools. Do you have any particular solutions there or how are you thinking about trust and distrust right now?
Regenstein: There is a lot of skepticism and distrust of institutions right now. I believe deeply in our public institutions, but believing deeply in them is not the same thing as thinking that they’re capable of whatever we ask them to do. There are often mismatches between mission and capacity that are really challenging.
One of the things that I talk about in the book is that the very best schools operate on trust. The teachers trust the administration, the parents trust the teachers, the children trust the teachers, and so on. In all of the relationships, there is trust.
But an accountability system fundamentally is about distrust. We know that if states don’t take some sort of oversight role, that a meaningful percentage of schools — particularly the ones serving children who’ve been historically excluded — are going to end up doing a bad job. That’s not necessarily the fault of the educators in those schools, because in many cases the system has set them up to fail.
You need to build school environments based on trust, and you need external systems that are based on distrust monitoring that school. That’s just an inherent tension that’s never going away. What we really need is leaders at both the state and school level who understand that dynamic and are trying to build systems that account for it.
Aldeman: Is there anything else that you would like people to know about the book?
Regenstein: Well, the movie rights are still available and I would be happy to provide a list of actors who could play me!
No, seriously, these are complex challenges, and there aren’t easy answers. But my goal was to write a book that people who work on these issues could read, could feel like they learned something, and potentially even build on and come up with their own better ideas. I do feel like the conversations about accountability have really been missing this focus on how much can we actually expect from the system between third and 12th grade, and what that means for the years before third grade. Getting that into the conversation is a key piece at the state level.