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Buffalo Tackles Minnesota's Accountability Gap

November 18, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Accountability and transparency are not only desirable, but crucial in all government interactions with the public. A dollar spent on education should result in a dollar's worth of educated citizen.

How to measure such achievement is where the hard work begins. The federal government's No Child Left Behind program doesn't evaluate schools with any accuracy. Its single evaluation, a high-stakes test given in the spring, offers a very poor picture of student achievement. Its offshoot, the state's school report cards that are listed on the Minnesota Department of Education's web page, tries to make a meal out of reheated NCLB data.

No, the accountability and transparency methods instituted by the former Bush administration and the soon-to-be-former Pawlenty administration measure only a portion of a district's achievement. Meaningful change results when districts come up with accountability measures from the ground up, designed to show their constituents whether schools are achieving their goals.

Enter the Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose School District. Officials there have begun the process of providing transparency and accountability for their work.

The process is internal and not external, like NCLB. "We want to know how we rate ourselves and what we can do to improve," said Pam Miller, the district's director of teaching and learning. "We don't want to rely on what other people think, and we also want results in other areas rather than just test scores."

The district researched similar plans across the country then began adapting the best parts for Buffalo. They call them "dashboard indicators," because they are similar to the warning lights on your car's dashboard that tells you several things that you can see immediately, Miller said.

They've broken the indicators down to four basic units - Student Performance, Student Engagement, Fiscal Responsibility/Accountability, and Healthy Culture.  Buffalo administrators, teachers, board members and parents have debated since June which subjects should be covered under these frames. They are still discussing each item, but have come up with this loose framework:

  • Student performance is currently measured by the NCLB test, results of the ACT college placement test, and MAP tests which are given twice each year and show student progress. To these tests the district is considering adding a post-graduation survey to be given both one year and five years after graduation to assess what the district can do to improve student success.
  • Student engagement will be measured not only by the graduation rate and attendance, but also involvement in student activities. Studies have shown a direct correlation between involvement in extracurricular activities and a decreased dropout rate.
  • Fiscal responsibility/accountability will be measured by the school's yearly financial audit, by keeping expenditures and revenues within 2 percent of goal, and keeping at least 70 percent of all dollars in front of the students.
  • Healthy culture will be measured by a climate/satisfaction survey of parents, students, staff, and community, as well as student discipline data.

The planners in Buffalo were careful to steer away from criteria over which they had little or no control. For example, an early draft of the standards measured student involvement outside the school day, including employment. Yet Miller said the idea of using employment as a measure was dropped because the school district has no control over whether s student has a job or not.

Costs to gather this information should be minimal. The only new components are the climate/satisfaction survey and the post-graduation survey. The post-graduation survey can be conducted by students as they gather contact information for reunions. Social networking will make this easier than it might have been even a few years ago, Miller said.

The district may have to make a one-time payment for a consultant to develop a quality climate/satisfaction survey that can be used for many years. "We don't want to start a survey, then change it three years later so we don't have apples-to-apples comparisons anymore," Miller said.

The school board will vote to put the program in place in April, with the goal of starting next school year. Adjustments will have to be made, certainly, but within only a few years, Buffalo residents will have a clear, unclouded picture of their school system and how their school dollars are being spent.

This is a goal to which all Minnesota school districts should aspire. Accurately and honestly monitoring their own successes and failures breeds trust in the community, and through trust, a quality education system can grow and thrive.


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