Bradford: Water for Accountability, How the Post-NCLB Coalition Must Be Both Fluid and Strong

In education reform’s post-election landscape, long-dormant fault lines have slipped, opening huge chasms of belief as former allies run to their respective partisan or issue-based corners.

Accountability, one of the deepest of those fault lines, seems to have become a totemic stop sign among reformers who find their political anchor in the Democratic Party. Many such folks now brandish accountability as their sine qua non, despite possessing neither the political or policy wherewithal to stop, or slow, potential change at the federal level or in two thirds of America’s statehouses.

There is, however, a problem with re-enacting Gandalf’s fight with the Balrog, shouting, “You shall not pass!” Here and on this issue, the ensuing fall may be similar. The fight over accountability isn’t actually in front of us — it’s behind us, and it’s been lost already. More specifically, it was sold out in bipartisan fashion and returned to the states from D.C. in as fractured a fashion as possible.

I've been a fierce supporter of the No Child Left Behind accountability framework, but it wasn’t hard to see the cracks in the bulwark. Most noticeably, the confluence of Republicans (shunning federal overreach), self-interested teachers unions (opposing teacher evaluation) and wealthy progressive soccer moms (rejecting testing) caused even President Obama to cave on the testing and intervention regime.

Against this pressure, reform’s traditional, bipartisan coalition of civil rights groups concerned about equity and business interests worried about workforce preparedness faltered and, arguably, fell into the depths as Gandalf did.

Looking back, NCLB accountability was like a brick. A brick is good for lots of things, but it has its problems, too. It has weight and authority. It has definition and clear edges. And you can use it to smash something — like the opaque veneer used to occlude the failure of low-income students — or as a cornerstone to build something, like the flourishing charter movement in some of America’s largest cities.

But those virtues — rigidity chief among them — became liabilities, and now that brick is sailing out of a window opened by Obama courtesy of a bipartisan congressional heave-ho. The result is the Every Student Succeeds Act — a repudiation of the federal accountability framework many of us believe in strongly and have fought for and over for many years.

The fall of NCLB and rise of ESSA are a defeat in many senses of the word despite the best efforts of accountability’s allies across the country. The current conversation around the future of accountability, however, ignores this. In actuality, many reformers seem to be holding up the formerly shiny object of the accountability we had and using it as a conversation stopper on choice and many other issues. They do this while ignoring both the political realities of a Democratic president, an ostensible champion of reform who christened this new normal, and the ending of the old accountability paradigm.

While it should be easy to see the political realities we now face, it remains tougher to imagine what a new sort of accountability, which would provide guard rails for the most vulnerable while offering enough flexibility to anchor a new coalition, might be from a policy standpoint. Working to construct that in a thoughtful fashion could help close some of the wounds that have opened in the movement. Here, though, the posture for developing the policy will be just as important as, if not more than, what actually emerges.

That is to say, if NCLB-style accountability was a brick, what comes next should, perhaps, be instead like water in its composition and stature. As water does, it should both have weight and provide transparency, as taxpayers and students deserve. But it should differ, perhaps, in both its fluidity and its ability to fill many vessels without losing its heft or impact. Indeed, the vessel here is just as important as the fluid itself, because without one you not only have water all over the place, you have a mess that helps no one.

Knowing what you have versus remembering what you had is crucial to designing any system that must interact with the temperamental and whimsical normal of our current politics. Structure and flexibility are normally competing values, but moving forward it seems they must become complementary. That is at least one of the conversations we as reform advocates could have right now instead of relitigating the past.

I suspect there are many who would discuss this in good faith. Perhaps we can start anew there.

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