As a children’s advocate and education innovator, I’ve been a strong proponent of school decision-making at the local level. So much so in fact, I designed the Colorado Resolution to oppose No Child Left Behind and put an end to federally centralized control over neighborhood schools. The bill had bipartisan sponsorship and was passed in the senate 27-3. The resolution was adopted unanimously by the House Education Committee before Speaker McNulty blocked it from moving to the House floor for a final vote.
So last year, I decided to put my time where my mouth is and join the “School Accountability Team” at the Littleton middle school where my two daughters attended. School Accountability Teams, SATs, are comprised of parents, teachers, students, and administrators. We met once a month from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Our particular team had three parents, three teachers, the principal and two students. One representative then serves on the District Accountability Team. This was a role I shared with another parent, alternating each month for the two-hour district meeting.
The experience on the accountability teams has made me rethink my position and raised some questions around school governance. My expectation of the team was that we would make decisions and explore solutions to various challenges with the input of parents, teachers and students. Instead the SAT served as function for reporting, not problem solving.
I wondered if this closed system was specific to my school and the leadership style of this particular administrator. Littleton has prided itself on decentralized management and school-based decision-making. However, when I got to the District Accountability Meeting, it was even worse.
The first meeting was a full room of approximately 50 people representing the various schools in the district. We were given a powerpoint presentation on everything including district budgets, enrollment, ratings, policy compliance, testing data, and calendars. The first district meeting dealt with how LPS was complying with the federal requirements of No Child Left Behind. The second meeting was about how LPS was complying with CAP4K, the state requirements. It was obvious department folks had spent a lot of time and money on point systems, labels, timelines and nifty pie charts. Each meeting I came away with pretty colored hand outs attempting to explain overly complicated, conflicting, and redundant policy mandates.
Call me old-fashioned, but here’s what accountability looks like to me: explore “what’s working” and do more. Examine “what’s not working” and do something different. So at the last meeting I attended, I held up my hand and said, “You know, I joined this committee to support kids’ learning; all I’ve heard about is how the district is managing federal, state and department requirements. I feel like this is a waste of my time and more importantly my daughters’ education. When do we get to talk about children?”
A district staff member, who I happen to like, agreed but defended that all of the money spent on “reforms” have created “quality assurance.” Another teacher concurred that there was more “congruence” between schools.
When I shared the discussion of “quality assurance” and “congruence” to my 14-year-old daughter, Grace, she asked “Why does it matter that a kid at in seventh grade is learning the precise same thing as the kid across town; we’re not the same and we’re not going to have the same careers or live the same lives.”
I think we could do a lot better in education if we spent more time listening to kids and parents too. There is a major disconnect between what we value as parents and what is passed in department policies and legislation. That disconnect became more evident when I attended the school district policy meeting. These are the meetings where the decisions are made about which of the 80 education bills introduced by the Legislature will be opposed or supported, or in the majority of cases, no action taken. At the meeting I attended, there were four school board members, two district personnel, the superintendent and the district lobbyist. Public input is not allowed.
There are all these efforts to engage parents except for the most important decisions. Even more shocking was the absence of teachers – the education experts themselves. Here the education priorities and policies were being determined, and not one single educator was present. I began to see first-hand why many of the state and federal education policies work counter to the goals of schools and the needs of children.
For example, the Colorado Legislature, with unilateral support, passed CAP4K. The first two phases will cost $400 million dollars to implement revised standards, new data bases, and more tests. During this same time Colorado will have cut $500 million dollars to K-12 education. So while the Colorado Department of Education’s (CDE) management budget has doubled over the last 10 years, district budgets have been significantly cut. In the last decade CDE has grown their staff by up to 41 percent as districts have been forced to lay off teachers, in some cases by 30 percent.
What this means is that we are trading teachers, smaller class sizes, computers, counseling services, transportation, after-school programs, athletics, arts, student services and electives for department ratings that can now tell us our children are worse off than before.
Pasi Sahlberg – director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility and author of the new book “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?” – says, “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” If improved education is what we want, as parent leaders and citizens we’ll have to do more than just raise dollars, we’ll have to raise our voices too.
The school accountability team was a frustrating experience. By the last district accountability meeting there was a third of the number who had attended the first two meetings. Government, schools, systems, and communities do not get better through neglect. Although I’ve passed my accountability seat to a new parent, I’m not going away. Parents and teachers need to focus our efforts at the policy level for real investments not more expenditures, opportunities and resources instead of punishments and sanctions, innovation instead of standardization, and the education well being of every children. Engage, engage, engage – it is the only way.
Angela Engel, a Centennial resident, is the author of the book “Seeds of Tomorrow; Solutions for Improving our Children’s Education” and the director of Uniting4Kids a new national non-profit promoting quality neighborhood schools through parent, teacher and student leadership.