School climate data and accountability

First off, apologies for our prolonged absence from posting. We have been working on some really exciting projects here at the Workshop, but for various reasons we need to keep it under wraps for a while longer. We very much looking forward to writing about what we are doing instead of what we might be doing in the future. Stay tuned!

Last week’s Inquirer series on school violence and the district’s response to it (or lack thereof) has prompted a range of responses, and we’ll have quite a bit to say about it in the coming days. Today I wanted to comment briefly on reporting and data. (Sorry, I’m a researcher. These things interest me.)

For a while now, I’ve been working on how we might incorporate school climate measures into our accountability systems. This is not because I’m a big fan of such systems (I am not), but rather because they create a market for interventions. For instance, the exhaustive testing provisions of NCLB prompted an explosion in new products and services geared toward 1) the curricular focus of the test, 2) test prep itself, and 3) data systems and interim assessments designed to predict state test performance. I’m not wild about any of these interventions. But I was struck by the fact that schools and districts found money to pay for them. That’s what I mean by creating a market.

School climate interventions, be they direct services to kids or school-wide measures like positive behavior supports, are often the first things to get the axe when resources get tight. The reason is that they only indirectly relate to accountability measures. If school climate data could be integrated within those measures, I reasoned, we’d give schools and districts a greater incentive to fund and sustain those kinds of interventions.

These days I am much more skeptical. As the Inquirer series showed (and though we don’t like to talk about it, what law enforcement efforts have shown before that) is that the higher the stakes around the data, the more likely it is that people start cooking the books. This is especially true when the deck is stacked against them, as it is in Philly schools.

I still wonder whether a good student survey looking at safety, sense of community, etc. could be used for such purposes, and whether it might help. (And organizations like the Center for Social and Emotional Education have some great work in this area.) But at this point I’m coming around to the point of view that anything that makes us more myopically focused on accountability measures is probably a step in the wrong direction, even if it has some side benefits.