Monday, September 23, 2019

The problem with calling charter schools "public" schools

I recently posted something to Twitter that generated quite a reaction:

"Support for charter schools by policy makers is an admission they don’t want to do the hard work to make public schools better. And their obsession with test scores that don’t mean what they think drives their narrative. True accountability solves this. Don’t you think it’s time?"

Most supported the thinking, which is simple logic: you don't charter fire houses or police stations when things go awry--you get experts in to solve whatever problems exist. When it comes to schools, policy makers went another route.

But several folks, predictably, did not agree, declaring, with noted exasperation, that charter schools are public schools and for me to say otherwise puts me into the camp of not wanting to have to improve traditional schools to the point that they can compete.

I spend my life shredding such stupid arguments, but the point I want to make here is different. Rather than argue what the label of "public school" should apply to, I instead want to perform a simple compare/contrast exercise to show that whatever you want to call them, they are not the same thing. And rather than write a book (which I could), I'll limit myself to three things.

First, traditional schools have an elected board that represents the will of a community for its schools. This elected board hires the superintendent, makes budgetary decisions, and must ensure that the district operates within all of the rules and regulations placed on them by the state. Funding for facilities is through bonds, which the electorate must approve.

Charter schools have an appointed board that sees to an overall mission of the school, or in the case of charter chains, lots of schools (and often lots of profits). The notion of a community as a physical place does not exist, and budgetary decisions are far less regulated than in a traditional school, and in some cases not regulated at all. Funding is through formulas unique to a state's charter rules, and the idea of going for a facilities bond would be silly since no community exists to vote on such a thing. As a result, facilities are included in the formula.

Second, the school tax for a community is determined by that community, so that whether perceived as fair or unfair traditional schools are funded through taxation with representation. But charter schools are funded based on the number of students enrolled from across taxing jurisdictions. In some states, the funding is actually removed from a traditional public school and given to the charter, by order of the state, thereby usurping the local taxing authority.

No matter how you try and slice it, charters represent a form of taxation without representation, something that should concern all of us, especially when that unrepresented tax goes to for profit companies. And whereas the finances in traditional schools are a matter of public record, that is not the norm for charters, which can operate almost entirely in the dark.

Third, charters get to select their students, but a traditional public school takes everyone. Even when charters go to the extreme to attempt fairness in their selection process, people have to select their way in, which all but guarantees that the students most desperately in need of a solid education, or with the greatest number of barriers to obtaining an education, are left to the traditional schools. That means that the students who are least expensive to educate are likely to end up in charters, and those most expensive to educate are likely to end up in traditional schools (I'm referring only to regular ed students here--charters don't generally take the neediest special education students, which is another issue entirely).

Funding formulas in states don't take these differences into consideration, but rather, fund per student. That leaves the charters with an abundance of resources and the traditional schools with a dearth. And then charter advocates have the gall to suggest that the competition is fair: that traditional schools that serve a more challenging set of students with less than sufficient resources should be able to compete against the over-resourced charter schools and the less challenging student populations.

The remarkable thing is how poorly the vast majority of charters do when compared to the traditional public schools when apples to apples comparisons are performed by thoughtful researchers.

Whatever you call them, and whatever your feelings towards either, charters and public schools are not the same thing--to think otherwise is simple ignorance against the facts.

Friday, March 8, 2019

The structure of accountability in effective organizations

The basic accountability structure in effective organizations is surprisingly simple. It consists of two parts: the first is a thorough accounting, and the second is an appropriate signal (thorough and appropriate are key terms here). An effective organization is defined as one that regularly achieves its mission.

The accountings that go into an accountability system are determined by what needs to be accomplished in order to achieve the organization’s mission. A hospital would consider patient outcomes. A business would consider its ability to be innovative or profitable.

Regardless, the accounting must be thorough. No one would invest in a company that released one month’s worth of financial records from one of its ten divisions. The decision to invest would be invalid. No one would have surgery in a hospital that released only its patient outcomes for a type of surgery other than what you will have. In either case the information to make an effective decision is missing.

Now consider what would happen if each of these organizations was required to change based on this information. If the company forced a change on its other nine divisions, or even within the division that provided the months’ worth of books, those decisions would be invalid at best, and at worst dead wrong. Acting upon them will make the organization less, not more efficient, and risk damaging the organization in a very real way. If the hospital forced a change based on its limited information, it risks undermining areas of surgery that are highly effective and ignoring areas of surgery in dire need of change. Again, the outcome is that the organization becomes less, not more efficient, and risks real harm to the organization and its mission. In the case of the hospital the harm extends to the patients the hospital is supposed to serve.

Now consider signals. Signals represent the forward-facing decisions that will be made to better align an organization and its outcomes with the mission. Signals consider the accountings and then act appropriately according to the mission being considered. Because organizations are complex things different signals are appropriate for different circumstances. Signals will range from being dictated (minimum or no flexibility) to being professionally determined (maximum flexibility).

Consider the signals to be made in a criminal case in which the mission of the court is justice, in which case the signal is largely dictated. The accounting, provided it is thorough, would convince a judge or jury to apply a sentence commensurate with the crime, representing a dictated signal.

Consider the signals to be made in the life of a technology company. Its mission at the start will likely focus on innovation without regard for profitability, but at some point, that mission will most certainly include the ability to return the investor’s money along with a profit. The appropriate signals should be in line with the then current mission, and to be effective will require a maximum amount of flexibility in deciding the best next steps.

Ineffective organizations are those which rarely, if ever achieve their mission. All too often such organizations violate the accountability structure used in effective organizations to an embarrassing degree. Ineffective organizations frequently rely on partial accountings, demand or make inappropriate signals, or in the worst-case scenario, both. As shown above, partial accountings lead to invalid decisions that make the organization less efficient.

Inappropriate signals directly put an organization’s mission at risk. Consider that the mission of justice would be poorly served if every court case was a crap shoot with all outcomes possible, with no regard as to the nature of crime. Consider that the mission of early innovation in a company would be poorly served if the signals were only about profit, just as the latter mission of profit would be poorly served through signals that we’re only about innovation. In each of these cases the signals are inappropriate and threaten the mission, and if left unchecked, will cause the organization to fail.

The most frustrating of all the scenarios would be one in which the organization was required to use partial accountings and then be forced to make inappropriate signals. In the case of the court example lots of innocent people would go to prison and lots of guilty people would not and the mission of justice would not be served. In the case of the tech company no one would have a clear sense of what was actually going on and the resulting signals would be unlikely to represent decisions capable of accomplishing any of the missions. Bankruptcy would be the most likely outcome.

Which brings us to the structure of current school accountability. Schools obviously have a very clear mission, which is to maximize the educational benefit for each and every child, and an effective school would be one that regularly does that. An effective accountability system would be one that created thorough accountings against that mission, and then given the complexity of educating a child and the unique circumstances of each school, allowed for the maximum amount of flexibility in the signals.

That is precisely what education does not have.

Instead, schools are told to make a partial accounting in the form of several test scores and then make a dictated signal of pass or fail, with additional dictated consequences for failure. No one can reasonably claim that a test score—or even several tests scores, even from the finest of tests—is anything other than a partial accounting against the mission. And no one can claim that the signals allow for the flexibility necessary to achieve a school’s mission.

Indeed, the structure of current school accountability is the worst of all possible scenarios: a partial accounting dictates that schools make inappropriate signals. Consider where that leaves schools: the organizations most responsible for the continuation of our civic democracy have been forced into an accountability environment that would cause the best organizations in the world to fail. In other words, an approach that would lead to bankruptcy, injustice, and outright failure in most organizations is now the manner in which we hold schools “accountable.”

Where we should take heart is in the degree to which public schools have managed to survive in spite of an embarrassingly bad accountability environment. Just imagine the possibility of what those same educators could do if placed in an accountability environment designed for effective organizations. Imagine that their accountings are no longer partial or incomplete, but rather thoroughly addressed the mission of schooling. Imagine that the signals were appropriate, allowing for the necessary flexibility to make the proper decisions regarding children and their education. Imagine the amount of recoverable effort and energy that could be converted to the mission of schooling simply by eliminating the inefficiency and frustration imposed by a bad accountability system.

We need public schools to be highly effective organizations, which means schools must have an accountability environment designed to support that goal. We can no longer afford an accountability environment designed to help schools fail, and while an argument can be made creating such an environment was never intended, that is exactly what was done. For the sake of our children let’s admit as much as a step towards a better place.

Monday, February 18, 2019

A call for action for True Accountability

One of the more interesting (and harmful) things to come out of the test-based accountability era is that we now equate testing with accountability, to the point where most people can’t see how accountability could be done without testing.

This, however, is wrong on so many levels. In my work we approach the issue from a far more practical angle. My question years ago was simple: is there a structure or framework to the way in which effective organizations do accountability? Even though hospitals, businesses, and non-profits function in dramatically different ways, and whether formal or informal, is there something they have in common when their results match their mission?

The answer was a resounding yes: a common set of patterns and frameworks is most definitely shared across effective organizations. Upon that discovery my work immediately shifted to a simple premise: if effective organizations have an accountability framework in common, and we want schools to among the most effective organizations in society, don’t schools deserve to operate under an accountability framework designed for effective organizations?

If your answer is no, stop reading. You’ll be happy with what we have, which upon closer analysis through the lens of these frameworks reveals itself to be an accountability designed to sow discord, create confusion, and separate the haves from the have nots. That is incredibly ironic since the primary argument for the system was based on equity.

But if your answer is yes, these true accountability frameworks offer a compelling solution.

Think of it this simply: which question is the most important to a parent:
1. Was my child safe yesterday?
2. Will my child be safe in school today?

It isn’t that the first is unimportant, as it informs our work, but it is the second that should occupy our accountability efforts, and that is of greatest concern to all of us. What that suggests is that accountability must have a forward-facing function, or it will fail to support a continuous improvement mindset. When accountability is only about what happened, the most likely messages will be negative given that the perfect school does not exist, and judgments about the past are always against some ideal.

When accountability takes a forward-facing approach, it puts a set of leaders in the position of leading towards the future, and when done properly, as in effective organizations, it makes those efforts transparent to anyone wishing to look.

Test-based accountability can do nothing of the sort. It offers a brief backwards-facing look that is at best a partial accounting, and fails to offer insights into the most important of the two questions: will my child be safe today?

I had the theory for a lot of this pretty well intact two and a half years ago when the Texas Association of School Administrators and I decided to partner and see if districts were interested in doing this work. We hoped for a dozen and then more than forty signed up. That group took the theories and made them live, fine tuning the old frameworks and building new ones in the very pragmatic environment of actual schooling. We now have research partners, and more and more districts interested in joining. Additional states have started to take notice, and a great many organizations are coming to a similar conclusion: that tweaking test-based accountability is a waste of time and risks the future of the majority of our children.

I have never put out a blatant call to action, until now. I am encouraging you to find a way to support this work, wherever you are. Learn the frameworks and put them into action. Fine tune them through practice and share your discoveries so that others can benefit. Stop the nonsense of thinking that a better test exists or that tweaking the existing system solves anything. It does not. We need a different way of doing school accountability, one that finally is good for our children, their communities, and their schools.