When the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) passed, the bill’s co-sponsor Lamar Alexander predicted that the legislation would “take the handcuffs off” and “unleash a whole flood of innovation and ingenuity classroom by classroom, state by state, that will benefit children.” Instead, the New York State Education Department’s implementation of ESSA accountability has produced a bureaucratic quagmire worthy of Orwell, Dickens or Kafka.
Is Orwellian the best descriptor?
“DOUBLETHINK means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
– George Orwell, 1984
“When discussing ESSA, the Commissioner has been speaking out of both sides of her mouth,” an experienced superintendent said to me recently. Indeed, NYSED has been extremely disingenuous in its implementation of this accountability system. Here are two of the most egregious examples of Orwellian doublespeak:
- data.nysed.gov includes this prominent disclaimer: “Due to the State’s new two-session test design and performance standards, the 2018 Grades 3-8 ELA and math results cannot be compared with prior-year results.” Despite this statement, the accountability system is premised upon just that: the comparison of 2017-18 results with prior year’s results.
- NYSED’s ESSA plan unequivocally affirms a parent’s or student’s right to refuse to sit for a state assessment (p.76). Nonetheless, the accountability system is clearly designed to punish districts with high test refusal numbers. As another superintendent said to me, the system is “intended to force schools, parents, and students into submission and take the tests.”
Or is it Dickensian?
I always marvel at bureaucracy’s preference for opaqueness over transparency. But this accountability system takes it to a whole new level, rivaling Charles Dicken’s Office of Circumlocution.
Think about it. A parent reads in a local newspaper that her son’s school has been designated a Comprehensive Support and Improvement School (CSI). Where does she go to understand what that means?
Astonishingly, NYSED has not released reports explaining a district’s or school’s accountability status. Instead, our interested mom would need to seek out NYSED’s stakeholder “resources” page, where she would discover a massive spreadsheet with 27 columns and 5254 lines of data and a dense 34 page “guide” to navigate it.
Does anyone at NYSED really believe a parent or community member would actually find and explore these resources? Well, apparently based on her Feb. 11 tweet, the Commissioner does:
Nor have school districts received accountability reports explaining their status. Instead, they’ve received sundry spreadsheets accompanied by a 32 page guide to deciphering them. A number of superintendents have described having their office walls and desks plastered by these spreadsheets — with their befuddled colleagues spending hours upon hours struggling to make sense of them.
Notably, the crucial algorithm for identifying CSI schools remains cloaked within black box calculations that just about no one, including the state’s superintendents, understands. If “circumlocution” doesn’t work for you, how about “obfuscation” or “bureaucratic rabbit hole?”
Oh, and by the way, how much do you want to bet there are errors in those accountability spreadsheets? The prevalence of spreadsheet errors is well established. Some studies have found that nine of ten spreadsheets have errors in up to 7% of cells. If we assume a conservative 2% error rate in the NYSED spreadsheet referenced above, the data in nearly 3000 cells is inaccurate.
As a first principle, accountability systems should be accurate, transparent and understandable by all stakeholders. By this measure, New York’s ESSA system fails spectacularly.
In Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Joseph K. is arrested and executed without having committed a crime. The existential horror of the novel is that such an injustice goes unquestioned and is accepted as the status quo. Are there injustices in this accountability system? You bet.
As the superintendent of a high performing district with one identified CSI school said to me: “My question for the commissioner: how does a school that has exemplar results in multiple accountability areas, including within our subgroups, get tagged as a CSI because of the performance of just two grade levels?” Like its predecessor, this ESSA accountability system continues to distort school performance in absurd ways and with perverse results.
In a free, democratic society, when an injustice is perpetrated there is usually recourse to appeal to a higher authority. But in the absurd, Kafkaesque world of K-12 accountability systems, there is no venue to initiate a challenge. As a result, this travesty of an accountability system will likely be accepted as status quo.
A tipping point?
Or, maybe not.
There are signs of a growing reluctance among the state’s school leaders to roll over once again and accept another flawed system that denigrates their districts unfairly. For example, Michael J. Hynes, superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford school district, has posted a fearless and forceful challenge to the Commissioner and her ESSA accountability system.
Only time will tell whether the field can muster the political pressure — through The New York State Council of School Superintendents or other advocacy groups — to successfully challenge this unconscionable waste of time and resources. And maybe — just maybe — promote ESSA’s original intent to remove the handcuffs and unleash a whole flood of innovation and ingenuity classroom by classroom.
After a nearly two-decade long fixation on school failure, punishment and compliance, wouldn’t that be a refreshing change?