Task force zeros in on literacy-based accountability proposal

Gov. Brad Little’s K-12 education task force spent two hours debating school accountability during its second-to-last meeting Wednesday.

As expected, “Our Kids, Idaho’s Future” task force co-chairs Debbie Critchfield, Bill Gilbert and Little’s education liaison Greg Wilson outlined a proposal to launch a new school accountability system that is based around growth in K-3 reading scores. The new system would use the Idaho Reading Indicator (IRI) test as the tool for measuring K-3 reading levels. But rather than zero in on proficiency levels, Critchfield, Gilbert and Wilson want to focus on growth to proficiency. They also want to only compare schools with similar demographic characteristics for accountability purposes. Finally, they would focus on local control by empowering school boards to hold superintendents and principals — not teachers — accountable for hitting growth targets as compared to similar schools.

“We wanted to lean in heavily on our existing focus on K-3 literacy,” Wilson said. “K-3 literacy is foundational. It is something that will impact their lives and careers as a student, which is why we think it is so important.”

Even though there was not direct opposition expressed to the proposal, accountability was a touchy subject.

Gilbert said the state hasn’t properly handled or understood school accountability in the past.

“Educators have been unfairly beaten up in a whole lot of ways for a long time,” he said. “We gotta get past that.”

At another point, task force member and Melaleuca attorney Katie Hart referred to accountability as “the a-word,” after suggesting that saying the word accountability out loud would trigger administrators and educators.

To be clear, Idaho already has a pretty new school accountability system in place. The U.S. Department of Education approved it in 2018 as part of Idaho’s consolidated state plan to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act. In simplified terms, the existing accountability plan involves multiple measures of student achievement and school quality. It also involves the state releasing and publishing achievement data for every school through online report cards and identifying the state’s lowest-performing schools, as well as highlighting schools that meet goals and perform at the highest levels.

Its unclear how educators would respond to an accountability system based on just the IRI test because during public hearings in 2016 and 2017, several State Department of Education officials and education stakeholders opposed the idea of building an accountability system around a single high-stakes test.

Gilbert and Critchfield argue that in order to move the needle on the state’s top priority of literacy, the state needs to simplify things and focus on making an all-hands-on-deck push to increase youth literacy. Over time, they suggest, local district leaders could add additional accountability measures to the literacy based system.

Gilbert, who comes from the business world and does not have an education background, said the first step is for schools to embrace accountability as a way to understand what they are doing well, what they are not doing well and then use that data to apply strategic changes to improve student achievement.

He said any new accountability system would fail if it was only used as a punishment.

“With low performing organizations, you end up in a gotcha,” he said. “In high performing organizations, you use information to make course corrections.”

Critchfield agreed.

“We have missed the mark on what accountability is if we create an environment of a gotcha because we have not accurately communicated what accountability is,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean that accountability is reduced to checking off boxes and moving on.

“The purpose of accountability is to ensure performance,” Sen. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, said. “The process of achieving accountability doesn’t become the end goal. The performance we seek is student achievement.”

The full “Our Kids, Idaho’s Future” task force did not vote Wednesday on whether to approve any of the five recommendations its member have prioritized. The vote will take place Nov. 4 during the task force’s final meeting, which will likely take place at Boise State University.

When the vote is called, Critchfield said task force members will be able to vote one of three ways — yes, no or abstain. The task force will then send the list of recommendations it approves to Little, who will decide whether to accept them or try to implement them. During Wednesday’s meeting, task force members stressed that it will likely take several years to implement the recommendations.

Recommendations likely to be up for a vote Nov. 4 include:

  • The proposed literacy-based accountability system.
  • Funding statewide, optional all-day kindergarten.
  • Expanding and building out the career ladder salary allocation system to increase pay for veteran teachers by paying out to levels of $40,000, $50,000 and $60,000.
  • Offering professional development and access to additional resources to better understand and serve students facing social and emotional challenges, including trauma and mental illness.
  • Providing greater flexibility within the K-12 public school funding formula by collapsing some budget earmarks known as line items to give school districts more autonomy in how they spend state funding, while preserving some statewide earmarks, such as salary-based apportionment, literacy initiative funding and more.

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