State’s public school reform at a pivotal moment

California has arrived at a moment of great promise in public education. Never before have we seen so much change in such a short time.

California schools are now using updated, challenging standards for English, math and science that will encourage students to think more deeply and critically, improve their core knowledge and foster development of the analytical, reasoning, communication, collaboration and problem-solving skills that prepare them for success in college and careers.

Last year, the state also launched the Local Control Funding Formula to increase local decision-making while focusing more resources on the neediest kids. It includes a Local Control Accountability Plan that requires every district to formally link planning, budgeting and accountability with state and local goals – and to do so openly with their communities’ involvement.

Now, policymakers are turning to probably the most important piece – reinventing the state assessment and accountability systems.

While local flexibility and control is critical, California’s constitutional guarantee of a quality education for every child necessitates that the state create and oversee an accountability system. After years of research and policy recommendations, we are putting in place the building blocks. If done well, these reforms can ensure a focus on student success.

Imagine assessments that give real-time feedback to teachers and principals so they can improve instruction during the school year and that tell us whether each child is on track to graduate from high school ready for college or career. Envision state and county systems that gauge how schools are doing, and then support their efforts to serve local students. Think of information systems that allow educators to identify successful approaches, while also telling parents and communities what they need to know about how their children and schools are doing.

This system is possible, but it is not guaranteed.

Efforts that seek to define accountability are taking place before several different legislative and regulatory bodies, and some are happening in response to external pressures or legal requirements with differing motivations. There is little evidence these efforts are effectively linked to one another, creating the possibility that one could undermine another.

As we reinvent accountability, we have the opportunity to correct the flaws of the previous system. Two decades ago, policymakers envisioned clear roles and authority, a transparent system to collect and analyze data and support for local districts to promote success.

Unfortunately, that full vision was not realized. Instead, California implemented a seemingly punitive system that focused on correcting districts after failures. The result was an education system that required the major overhaul now underway.

Now, as we have done recently to repair other areas of public education policy, we must work together to get our accountability system right. California’s kids are depending on it.

Ted Lempert is president of Children Now, a national research and advocacy group based in Oakland.