Let’s Move from Labels to Illumination

By Jamie Meade


With the recent passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), we have an opportunity to reflect upon our lessons learned from the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. The new law scales back the federal role in K-12 education, giving states and districts more flexibility in how they assess students, design accountability systems, and evaluate teachers, among other issues. ESSA provides us with an opportunity to reconsider how best to not only design, but also to implement a comprehensive accountability system—an accountability system that shines a light on the quality of our schools, AND informs educators and local community members about how they can work together to ensure every student succeeds.  

Ask any educator about their calling to the profession, and you’ll likely hear a response directly related to a deep desire to make a difference! Accountability systems can, and should be, designed to leverage this passion and commitment within the educator profession. Educators entered the profession to make a difference, but they cannot succeed without the support and shared responsibility from their local communities. We’ve often heard the phrase, “data is best used as a flashlight, not a hammer.” Accountability measures must be designed and thoughtfully implemented to illuminate a pathway to improvement, revealing how educators and community members can work together, sharing the responsibility to innovate and cultivate local solutions to improve educational outcomes and overall well-being for every child.    

While we can all agree that there is no single measure that captures the complex and countless contributions our educators provide for children every day, we can also agree that any accountability system designed to inform the community of the quality of the schools must be robust, comprehensive, and reliable. Designing an accountability system that informs and also provides deep insight in how to improve our schools, necessitates a certain level of complexity that must be paired with implementation support for educators, community members, and all other stakeholders.  Without such support and ongoing communications, accountability reporting is regarded as little more than superficial labels, woefully insufficient for bridging school and community collaborative efforts and equally insufficient for illuminating a pathway to local improvement. Simply put, designing an idyllic accountability system is insufficient to drive real change for every student.

The measures must be valued and deeply understood.

The associated accountability reporting must be interpreted accurately among all stakeholders to foster appropriate, thoughtful collaborative analysis. 

The data generated must reveal insight for improvement. 

As we consider our lessons learned from NCLB, my hope is that we move forward with ESSA, not only in consideration of the design of an improved accountability system, but with due regard for thoughtful implementation support paired with improved data literacy skills that foster community engagement, collaboration, and a shared commitment for improving our schools and ensuring every student succeeds.   

Jamie Meade is Managing Director of Learning and Leading at Battelle for Kids. Connect with her on Twitter at @meade_jamie