State officials seek input on school accountability

SPRINGDALE -- State education officials want to hear what educators, parents, students and community members think are the most important characteristics of a school and how to best measure the quality of a school.

Department officials will meet with Northwest Arkansas residents during a community forum that will begin at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Jones Center.

Meeting information

• What: Community Listening Forum on the Arkansas Accountability System and the federal Every Student Succeeds Act

• When: 5:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesday

• Where: The Jones Center, 922 E. Emma St. in Springdale

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Source: Arkansas Department of Education

Information provided through surveys and a series of meetings will contribute to the development of a new plan for measuring the performance of schools, said Mark Gotcher, deputy commissioner for Arkansas Department of Education.

The plan follows President Barack Obama signing the Every Student Succeeds Act last December, Gotcher said.

"There is a great opportunity for states to drive their accountability systems as opposed to the federal government," Gotcher said.

In January, the department will study the feedback, find points of consensus and work to narrow the focus into criteria that can be measured. A draft of the plan is due to be ready for public comment in April, with the final plan due to the U.S. Department of Education in July, according to the department's website.

The Springdale event will cap 10 community listening forums the department has organized around the state. The forums have each drawn crowds of 50 to 90 people.

Notes and feedback provided at each forum are posted on a section of the department's website focused on the Every Student Succeeds Act. The site provides access to a survey on "Excellent Teachers and Leaders" and provides information on how to stay informed on the development of the state accountability plan.

With the new federal law, the accountability system should account for the different challenges and strengths of school districts, said Debbie Jones, superintendent of Bentonville School District who was previously the assistant commissioner for learning services at the state department. Jones hopes state officials will set realistic goals and integrate the measurements of schools for state and federal accountability.

The new federal law still will require a threshold of proficiency for schools, but Jones thinks the new system also should account for student growth, she said. Districts, including Bentonville, are giving more attention to career education in response to a push by the governor and businesses leaders for workers.

The new accountability system could evaluate whether those programs are leading students to earn industry certificates or licenses, Jones said. Another issue is with chronic absences among students and teachers.

"Trying to create a system that is fair and really reports the effectiveness of schools is one of the biggest challenges in education," Jones said. "I don't have the answer to that."

The premise of the school accountability systems is that if schools are held accountable, teachers will work harder, students will earn higher scores on standardized tests and the grade of the school will improve, but the accountability system now has the opposite effect on teachers, said Jason Endacott, an associate professor of secondary social studies education at the University of Arkansas.

"It makes them feel frustrated about the hard work they're doing," said Endacott, who also is president of the Arkansas Council of the Social Studies. The council is providing input for the state plan.

Endacott would like to see the system be less punitive and focus more on recognizing excellent teachers and helping others become excellent teachers, he said. The system should account for individual characteristics of schools and how they meet the needs of the children they serve, such as ensuring poor children have food on weekends or providing excellent programs for children learning English.

"We really need to take in a far more holistic way of thinking about what is a good school and what is not," he said.

States are required to have accountability systems for schools to be receive federal funding for schools, Gotcher said.

"Accountability is good just to hold ourselves accountable to have the best student achievement possible in the state of Arkansas," he said. "It's good to have accountability to always see students and teachers improve."

The system for evaluating schools also provides information to the public on the use of taxpayer money for educating students, said Deborah Coffman, chief of staff for the department. The department also wants to develop an accountability system that uses multiple measures to determine the health of a school, accounting for issues, such as poverty, that would make some schools stand out even though they are educating students very well, she said.

"As a state, we need to all agree and have confidence in our accountability system," she said.

NW News on 10/22/2016

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