Research & Insights / MassINC Gateways Podcast: Bringing accountability to school improvement

MassINC Gateways Podcast: Bringing accountability to school improvement

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Ben Forman, Director of the Gateway Cities Innovation Institute and host of the Gateways Podcast at MassINC. Sparked by their work in local accountability, we spoke in-depth about the examples of Boston Public Schools’ School Quality Framework and the use of arts data to drive change in Boston and now at the state level. The following are a few highlights from the podcast, the entirety is available here. Portions have been edited for clarity.

BF: The (Boston Public Schools) district took a leadership role and tried to put more information out there on each school: how it was performing, what it was offering, and so forth – how did that come about?

MR: I think the effort you’re referring to is the development of the BPS School Quality Framework that I’ve been involved with over the last five years. That effort grew out of the change in school assignment process back in the 2012-13 school year. Boston is different from other cities, in that we’re a choice district. Students, especially those in elementary and middle levels, don’t always go to schools in their neighborhoods. In the past, there was a broad span of geographic area they could choose from and the desire, back in 2012-13 when the system was redesigned, was to bring quality closer to home so students would have access to the highest quality of schools in their neighborhoods.

It was a complex approach – developed by MIT – to creating a set of choices a family could have to ensure students and families had a range of quality within their ‘basket’ of schools available to them. Originally, their choice ‘basket’ was a selection of schools in multi tiers of performance assigned by the state accountability system that was in place.

It was very clear that educators and families did not think this system was an adequate measure of quality. This led to the launching of the School Quality Working Group charged with the task of defining quality in a more robust way resulting in the School Quality Framework. The key piece about the Framework was that it had 5 domains and was not simply about student performance, the domains covered teaching and learning; family, community and culture; leadership and collaboration; and student access and opportunities within schools. Over the years we have continued to refine the tool and families can rank and prioritize their search criteria and have the ability to dive into the details and features of each particular school.

With the School Quality Framework or with a school or district plan, having a lot of voices is important but having a lot of voices can also equal complexity. That’s a balance point we don’t talk about enough and it’s something that gets in the way. Finding the balance of making sure you have those voices but to cull that down to say “we hear all of these things, they all matter but what are the most important – right now – things we’re going to do.” It’s a critical part of the conversation, both how do we get to a place where people can make those choices and tradeoffs about the key factors and then make that happen at the school level.

BF: ESSA, the state’s accountability system was something many people were excited about, particularly the arts community. In the end, the state didn’t have much room to maneuver – it wasn’t as innovative, it wasn’t an approach that supported deeper learning. The state can only do so much and maybe that’s exactly right, it’s up to the communities to complement when the state must offer a one-size-fits-all approach. Is there still considerable room to have more state accountability? Or is it up to urban communities with complex systems to find their own answers?

MR: There’s always room to improve accountability at the macro-level. One of the ways that happens is through local experimentation with cities leading the way.

Our example here in Boston around local accountability is related to BPS Arts Expansion which EdVestors has been the lead partner on.  Ten years ago we didn’t use the words ‘local accountability’;  it was more a transparent use of data by doing the first-ever survey of what students were actually getting in terms of arts education during the school day. By collecting that data by grade, by school, and publishing that data, we saw change. Just by putting that information out there for school leaders, district leaders, and families.

School leaders looked around and said “wow, the person down the street with the same resources as I \[have\] is doing something different and we’re getting a message from district leadership and key stakeholders that this matters, so let me think of how I can do things differently.”

It’s really powerful to see the use of data as a motivating force to start the conversation. We buttress that with philanthropic dollars and stakeholder convenings and communications but at the end of the day, we saw the power of that data.

We brought together leaders in the arts space when we saw this opportunity with ESSA. We had advocates in the field who wanted arts education to be part of ESSA but also had this local example backed by data which was able to be used in the state accountability system.

That local innovation can be leveraged to press the system at a macro-level.

The entire podcast episode is available here.