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Viewpoints: Give local school boards leeway on accountability

California leads the nation in returning educational control closer to the classroom – where it belongs.

We have adopted new standards that give teachers a bigger role in deciding what is taught, and we have reoriented our entire school finance model to allow local school boards, not legislative committees in Sacramento, to make spending decisions.

Local control leads to decisions that benefit students and lets local communities discover better ways to ensure that all students graduate ready to succeed in college, careers and life. The Legislature has directed the State Board of Education to rebuild our school accountability system, the Academic Performance Index, for this purpose. This change provides a great opportunity to continue our move toward local control because a single accountability model in a state as large and diverse as California simply cannot deliver the results we want.

The State Board of Education should take advantage of local innovation and review and approve multiple accountability models as long as they prepare all students for college and career success, close achievement gaps and are backed by research. If multiple ways of reaching these goals are approved, then school districts could focus on their students’ needs as opposed to complying with heavy-handed state rules.

Ask an employer what they’re looking for in a potential employee, and they’ll say team players who can solve problems and organize their work. Specific knowledge, while important for functioning in a workplace, is rated much lower by employers.

Yet our current state and federal school accountability systems focus almost exclusively on test scores. Too often, our schools are forced to focus on narrow outcomes, rather than developing well-rounded creative thinkers who are ready for the jobs of the future.

The State Board of Education is trying to deal with this and has agreed to include high school graduation rates, but has yet to approve – or even identify – any other measures to add to the accountability mix. The rationale is that the board is seeking indicators that are used by all schools and all students.

This may be like looking for a unicorn. We don’t need to do it that way. Rather than developing a new one-size-fits-all standard, the board should develop rigorous accountability guidelines and then approve any local models that meet them.

There are already several accountability models being developed in California that look beyond test scores alone.

For example, the School Quality Improvement System was developed by my organization, the CORE consortium of 10 districts (including Sacramento City Unified and Fresno Unified), which collectively represent more than 1 million students in California.

Our federally approved accountability model includes a range of measures that have been proven to help prepare students for college and career. It does measure performance on statewide tests, but also tracks graduation rates, development of students’ social skills and a school’s learning culture.

Similarly, Linked Learning – an approach that integrates rigorous academics, sequenced technical training, work-based learning and personalized student supports – has been found to improve high school graduation rates. Practices encouraged by Linked Learning, such as dual enrollment and internships, could be extremely informative and valid measures of students’ readiness for college and career.

These are just a couple of examples, and the State Board of Education should encourage even more innovation to conceive new, reliable and stable measures of student readiness and meet broad accountability rules. California could and should continue our national leadership in education reform.